SAT Subject Test in Physics

What is the SAT Subject Test in Physics?

The SAT Subject Test in Physics consists of 75 multiple choice questions. Students not only need to recall fundamental Physics concepts, but apply these principles to solve questions. According to The College Board, “Fundamental Knowledge” questions – that is, questions that simply require a student to recall information – make up about 15% of the test. Questions that require a student to apply a single concept to a question compose 60% of the test. The remaining 25% of questions ask that you combine multiple principles in order to solve a problem. Answering these questions typically involves some higher-level math skills, like trigonometry and ratios. Unlike on the SAT Subject Tests in Math, however, a calculator is not permitted on this physics test.

What does the SAT Subject Test in Physics cover?

By far the most common topic tested on this science exam is Mechanics. Students need to know kinematics: velocity and acceleration, vectors, motion, and projectiles. Students will also want to know Newton’s laws, force, friction, power and conservation laws, and gravity. Harmonic motion and circular motion (centripetal force) also fall into this category. Mechanics makes up about 40% of this exam.

Students will also want to be well-acquainted with Electricity and Magnetism, which makes up 20% of this test. This includes topics under electric fields and forces: Coulomb’s law and charged particles in an electric field, for instance. This also includes circuitry: resistors, series vs. parallel networks, and Joule’s and Ohm’s Laws. As for Magnetism, students will want to know Faraday’s Law and Lenz’s Law, among other topics.

Making up about 15% of the exam is Waves and Optics. Basic wave properties such as frequency, period, speed, and wavelength all show up frequently. A student should know the basics of some famous experiments as it relates to optics, like single and double-slit diffraction.

Speaking of unusual phenomena, Modern Physics also makes up about 10% of the questions on this test –that is, quantum physics. Photons, the photoelectric effect, atomic energy levels and spectra, nuclear reactions and fundamental particles, quantum states, and the theory of relativity can all appear on this exam.

What should I do to prepare for the SAT Subject Test in Physics?

If you’ve taken a year-long high school Physics course, you are likely well prepared for the topics you’ll encounter on the test. We suggest that you take the Physics test just after you’ve finished your a standard Physics course; that way, the material and concepts will be fresh in your mind.

To start, take a practice test. You’ll become more familiar with the format of the exam and once you score the test you can identify the types of practice questions you need to work on. If, for example, you had trouble with questions about convex lenses, you’ll know that you need to review this material!

Once you’ve taken a practice test, start reviewing your notes/textbook/tests from your Physics course. You’ll have to memorize important equations. We suggest writing these out on flashcards by hand. That way, you can look over them frequently, plus the act of writing them will further ingrain the information into your memory. While only a small percentage of the test will directly test your recall of facts, you’ll need these equations (as well as some important laws, names of scientists, and famous experiments) to answer the tougher single- and multiple-concept questions.

What else should I do to prepare for the Physics Test?

Practice… a lot. Take as many practice Physics Subject Tests as you can to get a feel for the question types and concepts that come up frequently on the exam. You’ll get familiar with the flow and format of the exam and gradually become more efficient at answering these questions as well. Since the exam is 75 questions and you have only 60 minutes, you’ll have to be relatively quick with answering the questions.

Another interesting fact about the Physics exam is that you cannot use a calculator. As a result, the math you’re expected to complete is relatively simple. However, we realize it’s the twenty-first century and you likely use a calculator for even straightforward calculations in class. Therefore you’ll need to get comfortable with quick, no-calculator math for the exam. Taking full length practice tests (without your calculator) will help with that. (And be sure to have a mastery of the metric system!)

In short, the Physics Test covers a great deal of Physics content. You not only have to memorize some important facts and formulas, you have to apply your knowledge, manipulate equations, and solve multi-step, multi-concept problems. By reviewing your Physics class materials, focusing on weak topics, memorizing important items, and practicing, you’ll be well on your way to an 800. Best of luck as you prepare for the exam!

What’s next?

Make sure you’ve read our Ultimate Guide to the SAT Subject Tests! Or, if you like Science more generally, you might want to read about the Chemistry test, Biology test, or perhaps even the ACT Science section!