SAT Subject Test Biology format

What is the SAT Subject Test in Biology?

The hour-long SAT Subject Test in Biology contains a total of 80 questions. This subject test is unique, in that College Board offers both molecular (M) or ecological biology (E). The Biology M exam focuses on biochemistry: the structure of cells, and biological processes such as photosynthesis, for instance. The Biology E exam is more focused on issues of evolution, environmentalism, and ecology. Students cannot take both. 60 “base” questions are common to both exams. 20 “specialized” questions concern the focus that the student chooses (M or E).

What is the format of the SAT Subject Test in Biology?

A key skill for both exams is the ability to recall facts. Understanding common biological systems and the main terms from a typical year-long high school course is important. These “trivia”-style questions compose 30% of the exam and require little in the way of data interpretation (I.e. “In what process is ATP created?”).

In addition, students will need to interpret tables, graphs, and drawings. These “analysis” questions compose 35% of the test.

Finally, some questions require students to apply what they know about biology to unfamiliar scenarios. An example of such a question would be: “Based on the shown genetic cross, determine the genotypes of the organisms in the P (parental) generation.” These questions make up 35% of the exam.

Is that everything?

No! There is much more! For both exams, a quarter of all questions pertain to organismal biology. This includes plant and animal structure, animal behavior, interactions between organisms, and the development of individual organisms. This is the only topic that occurs equally frequently on both the E and M exams (25%).

Students will also want to be familiar with cell and molecular biology: mitosis, photosynthesis, cellular respiration, biochemical reactions, and the structure of a living cell are all topics that would fall under this category. For students taking the M exam, these questions compose 25% of all questions. On the E exam, contrarily, this topic appears in only 12% of the questions.

Similarly, Biology M students will want to be well versed in genetics — inheritance patterns, Mendelian genetics, Punnett squares, and meiosis — as these questions compose another 25% of all questions on this test. (For Biology E students, these, again, are 12% of all test questions.)

Contrarily, students who opt for the E exam will want to have a solid foundation in ecology. This includes nutrient cycles, ecosystem ecology, biomes, biodiversity, and the ecological effects of human activity. Likewise, evolution appears often on the E exam: the evolution of life forms, the origins of life, evidence for evolution, and the classical system of organism classification. These two categories make up 50% of all questions on the Biology E exam, and 24% on the M exam.

So how should I prepare for this Biology test?

So you are planning on taking the SAT Subject Test in Biology: now what? The SAT Biology test, much like Chemistry and Physics, tests you on material generally covered in a standard high school science course. So, taking the Biology test immediately after you’ve completed a year-long Biology class is the best plan!

One of the first things you’ll need to do is decide which SAT Biology test to take-Molecular (M)  or Ecological (E). It may be helpful to try a practice exam in each focus area and see which you do better on. You’ll see authentic questions, and you can use your results to determine what topics you need more review on.

Once you’ve decided on either the Biology M or Biology E exam, reviewing the notes/textbook/tests from your Biology class will be one of the best ways to prepare for the exam. A good portion of the SAT Subject Test in Biology requires the memorization of facts; thus, creating flashcards for important terms, processes, and structures will be very helpful. Study these flashcards on a regular basis until the terms are ingrained in your brain.

Since another large part of the exam is the analysis of data, graphs, and experiments, reviewing the scientific method, lab procedures, and how to interpret graphs and data tables should also be a focus of your preparation. Experimental design questions are common on the test so you should be well versed in what “good science” looks like: is there a control group and an experimental group? Is a single variable being tested? Are there multiple trials or specimens used?

How should I approach practice tests?

Time is a factor on the Biology test since you have just 45 seconds to complete each question. When you are working through your Biology practice tests, time yourself to see how efficiently you are answering practice questions. If you find you can’t finish the test in an hour, you’ll need to work on your timing strategy. Take a single page from a practice test (usually several questions) and try to answer them as quickly as possible; your reading and comprehension speed should improve over time. If timing issues persist, create a rule for yourself. “If I have to reread a question more than once, I’ll move on and come back to it later if I have time.”

In conclusion…

The Biology Test covers a lot of material and contains 80 multiple choice questions. You not only have to memorize facts, you also have to apply your knowledge in many ways. By reviewing your Biology class materials, making flashcards, and taking practice tests, you’ll be well on your way to acing this exam!

Interested in other science subjects? Read our articles on the SAT Subject Tests in Chemistry and Physics! Or check out our Ultimate Guide to the SAT Subject Tests!