Master the Test: The SAT Subject Test in Literature

~4 Minutes / ~854 Words
Last Updated Dec 12, 2020

What is the SAT Subject Test in Literature?

The hour long SAT Subject test in Literature contains around 60 multiple choice questions, although this number can vary. A student will see six to eight passages of English literature and must answer 4 to 12 multiple choice questions about each passage. 40%-50% of test questions cover American literature, and 40%-50% cover passages by British authors. Past tests have occasionally included a passage from an Irish, Indian, Canadian, or Caribbean author. All passages are in the English language and are similar to what you would read in a high school English class.

Similarly, 40%-50% of the passages are prose, 40%-50% of the passages are poetry, and occasionally a test will include a work of drama. Prose passages are typically excerpts from works of fiction. Poetry passages could also be excerpts from larger pieces, or be a single poem in its entirety.

30% of the exam contains works through the Renaissance. 30% are passages that date between the Renaissance and the 19th century. The remaining 40% are 20th century works.

What does the SAT Subject Test in Literature cover?

Most questions on the SAT Subject Test in Literature typically ask students to analyze sections of a passage. For instance, a literary analysis question might ask what a specific word in a passage "denotes" (that is, what its objective meaning is), or what a word "connotes" (that is, what the word implies in the passage). Familiarity with common literary terms and devices is also key: irony, allegory, apostrophe, hyperbole, interlocutor, etc. You’ll want to know the difference between metaphor and simile — although a simile is like a metaphor, hardee har har…

Students are also expected to make conclusions about a text as a whole. What is the author’s point of view on her subject? What is the purpose of the passage? Similarly, a student might be asked the same questions about a character within the text. Finally, you’ll also want to be quite familiar with different types of poetry: what makes a sonnet a sonnet, or an elegy an elegy, or a pastoral a pastoral.

How should I prepare for the SAT Subject Test in Literature?

There’s a bit of a paradox at the center of the Literature test. Reading literature is inherently an act of joy and leisure, but taking a test is inherently an act of stress and panic! Why is the College Board trying to quantify the unquantifiable? It’s a mystery. So, if you love literature and plan on taking this test, we suggest you take at least one full practice test to give yourself a sense of the kinds of multiple choice questions you should expect.

That said, the very best preparation for the SAT Subject test in Literature is to read! Read often, and read critically. As we mentioned in our post about the format of this test, over 80% of the typical test concerns American or British literature. Because most high school English courses cover a wide selection of American and British literature already, so you may be well on your way to an 800 on this test. Consider going through the pieces of literature you’ve been assigned for school. Select a short passage as a critical reading exercise and ask yourself challenging questions about it.

You might also consider creating flashcards for the exam’s basic literary terms. Even good high school programs are unlikely to cover every literary term that can appear on the Literature test; thus, familiarizing yourself with the canon of all possible terms is vital.

What else is useful for the the Literature test?

An expansive and detailed vocabulary is also very helpful for the Literature test. Unfamiliar words can show up not only in the test’s passages, but also in the questions themselves. Much like the SAT Subject tests in World History and U.S. History, you’ll probably find that flashcards are well-suited in preparing for this exam. If the test is still months away, you might also consider purchasing a deck of vocabulary flashcards, or building your own. (A solid vocabulary is an important skill even beyond the SAT Subject Test in Literature.)

However, memorizing every word in the English language is unrealistic, unless you are a robot, in which case you may not be eligible to register for the SAT at all. Thus, it's vital that you know how to use context clues to figure out an unknown word. When reading on your own, try to determine a word’s meaning before you look it up in a dictionary. This may be a bit more time consuming, but you’ll find that building this skill is worth it in the long run— it’s important to be adroit at deducing a word’s meaning based on the words around it. To practice, we suggest you start with the word "adroit".

What else can I do?

Students that like English literature might also do well on the U.S. History or World History tests – read about them here! Or, to learn more about the SAT Subject Tests in general, check out our Ultimate Guide here!