What are the SAT Subject Tests in Math?
As you learned from our Ultimate Guide to the SAT Subject Tests, the College Board offers two subject tests in math: Mathematics Levels 1 and 2 (referred to commonly as Math 1 and Math 2, or Math I and Math II). Like all subject tests, the SAT Subject Test in Math lasts 60 minutes. There are only 50 questions on each test – far fewer than the 80 Biology questions or the 90 U.S. History questions. However, these questions – which are ordered from easiest to most difficult – tend to be more time consuming. A graphing calculator is allowed, and, unlike on some other standardized math tests, a calculator is required to correctly answer certain questions on these exams.
What kind of content shows up on these tests?
Students need to know basic algebra extremely well; this includes order of operations, combining exponents, fractional exponents, and negative exponents, among other topics. A solid foundation in logarithms is key. Factoring quadratic equations comes up with great frequency, and you will likely need to know some strategies for factoring cubic equations, as well. For that matter, a student will want to know how to graph higher-order functions, find the zeros and vertices of functions, combine or dissect composite functions, and identify the graphs of common shapes like circles and parabolas. Students taking the Level 2 exam should be familiar with ellipses and hyperbolas as well.
Each SAT Subject Test in Math cover geometry, although this topic appears disproportionately on the Level 1 test: 40% of all questions on Math 1, versus 30% of question on the Math 2 exam. In addition to plane geometry, both exams also contain a good deal of three-dimensional geometry. Occasionally this will come up in complicated 3-axis coordinate plane questions — i.e, “How long is a line segment with endpoints at (3, 2, 9) and (2, -3, 4)?” More commonly, however, a student needs to know how to find the volume or surface area of three dimensional shapes. For this reason, the test will provide you with the formulas for the volume of a cone, sphere, and pyramid, and the formula for a sphere’s surface area. However, the formulas of some commonly tested three-dimensional shapes — notably the cylinder — are not given. We encourage our students to have all necessary formulas memorized before they sit down for either of the Math exams.
You will also want to have a strong foundational knowledge of trig functions. A firm understanding of the unit circle is key; highly conceptual questions involving the signs of sine, cosine, and tangent under sets of certain conditions are not uncommon. Key trigonometry words like “period,” “frequency,” and “amplitude” come up often; these especially appear in circumstances when your graphing calculator is unlikely to help you. Although trigonometric functions appear on both tests, it comes up about twice as frequently on the Level 2 test than on Level 1.
Many, smaller topics compose the remaining questions. Students on both tests might see questions about matrices. Math 2 students could also see questions about vectors and series. Combination and permutation questions are common on these tests, especially in the later, more difficult questions. Sequence also appear frequently, and a student needs to know the difference between an arithmetic and a geometric sequence.
Although both exams cover similar material, Level 2 is significantly more rigorous than Level 1. Since Math 2 is the highest-level non-AP math test that the College Board offers, it has a reputation for being wickedly difficult, even for strong math students. However, for that reason, the raw-to-scaled conversion on the Math 2 test is very forgiving; on some tests, a student can score as low as a 44 and still receive a perfect 800.
How should I prepare for each SAT Subject Test in Math?
The SAT Subject Test in Math is actually divided into two exams: Math 1 and Math 2. Students taking the Math 1 exam will want to have several years of high school geometry, algebra and functions under their belts. Math 2 students, in addition to these requirements, should have completed a year of trigonometry or precalculus. (If you haven’t yet read our post about the format and content of the Math tests, we suggest you click here.)
If you’re thinking about taking either of these tests, start by taking several full-length timed practice tests in Math Level 2. Taking a Math 2 practice test can be quite a humbling experience for many students. It’s not anything like the ACT Math section! Because this test covers so much content, even students from mathematically rigorous schools may not have seen every topic tested. Sit down for this test so you can get a feel for how long an hour really is to complete 50 multiple choice questions. You may feel a little rushed the first time you take this exam!
Once you have a few practice tests under your belt, go through each exam and mark the questions you missed. Make a running list of the topics that seem to be coming up with some frequency. (Of course, an Occam Education tutor would be happy to do this step for you.) Then, practice these topics one by one. Soon enough you’ll be ready for test day.
What else is important for the Math tests?
Key, too, to mastering the SAT Subject Test in Math is mastering the use of your calculator. Ironically, it is the smartest, highest performing students that often underuse their calculator on these tests. There are many hidden functions in that TI-84 of yours— such as the “factorial” function, or the “find zeros” function. These can decrease the time you spend on a question and eliminate the need for arduous algebra. As you execute practice questions, always ask yourself first, “Is there a simple way to approach this question graphically, or with my calculator?” Soon enough you’ll save yourself a lot of time!
Lastly, you may be wondering which of the math tests is a better fit for you. However, we encourage nearly all of our students to opt for the Math Level 2 exam. Although more difficult, a high score on this test means much more in a college application than a high score on Math Level 1. Taking Math 2 signals to a college that you seek out challenges and would rather get a good score on a hard test than a perfect score on an easier test.
Want to learn more about the SAT Subject Tests? Check out our Ultimate Guide!