Master the Test: The SAT Subject Test in US History

~5 Minutes / ~1048 Words
Last Updated Dec 12, 2020

What is the SAT Subject Test in US History?

Like all SAT Subject Tests, the SAT Subject Test in US History is a 60 minute exam — but it asks a whopping 90 multiple choice questions. The typical high school US history class covers the vast majority of topics that appear on this test; thus, most students take this test in the May or June slots once they’ve completed a year of US history.

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What types of skills do I need for the US History test?

Whereas the science and math subject tests involve analysis and application of principles, the US History test is much more about simply remembering facts. In this sense, questions on this exam are a bit like trivia. Typical questions could include, "What area of land was known in the 19th century as ‘Seward’s Folly’?", or, "The forced expulsion of Native Americans known as the ‘Trail of Tears’ took place under the orders of which president?" Questions of this type —  "recall questions" — make up the majority of the exam.

Beyond simple recall questions, however, you'll also see questions that require inference or analysis. This might include attributing a quote to an historical figure, or attributing a statement to the historical concept it represents. Students may see a map and be asked to determine the era of American history which the map depicts. A student might also be presented with a political cartoon and need to identify the political movement or person it is meant to parody.

Questions like these require a bit more analysis and reasoning than the simple trivia questions that appear on the exam, but they are still fundamentally about recall. For this reason, excellent recall of the majority of the high school US History syllabus is key.

What subtopics show up on the US History Test?

The College Board divides the content of the test into five categories:

  1. Political history includes early colonial political dynamics, the framing of the Constitution, and elections. You might also see questions about what took place under various presidential administrations, and policies enacted by both congress and the president.
  2. Social history makes up about a quarter of the questions on the exam. This can include questions about immigration, slavery, treatment of Native Americans, population shifts within the country, and the social support behind various political events.
  3. Economic history then makes up 15% of the questions. These are typically questions about trade and the rise of industry.
  4. Cultural history includes questions regarding the development of American artistic movements. You might also see questions about the political cartoons of various eras.
  5. Foreign policy rounds out the remaining questions; this topic typically covers international wars and post-war treaties.

Notably, The College Board states that 80% of the exam concerns questions after 1790 — which is to say, after the United States won the Revolutionary War and became a proper nation. Only 20% of questions concern colonial era history.

How should I prepare for the US History Subject Test?

The best preparation for the US History test is to complete a year-long US History course, of course! Most American high schools offer this course in a student’s sophomore or junior year. So a good place to start in studying for this test is to review all of your US History exams from throughout the year.

The test focuses so heavily on topics from after the American Revolution. So, you’ll want to review materials that appear later in your school’s syllabus, and focus only lightly on the Columbian through Colonial Eras.

Fact recall is vital for high performance on the US History test. However, when you study, don’t waste too much time committing specific dates to memory. It’s unlikely that you’ll need to know that John Tyler admitted Texas to the Union in 1845. (Although you know it now!). Instead, you’ll want to have a relational knowledge of events in US history — i.e., that Texas was admitted to the Union before the Compromise of 1850, which was ratified before Abraham Lincoln took office. It's not important for you to know that the Korean War broke out in 1950, but you do want to know that it happened after World War II and before the Cold War. Since your study time is limited, a good working knowledge of eras in American history and what took place in those eras is more important than memorizing every date and name you can.

What else should I do to prepare for test day?

It is also important to have certain concepts committed to memory. What is Manifest Destiny?  What is disenfranchisement? Or suffrage? On the SAT Subject Test in US History, you may need to define these terms. They might also come up in passages of text. They also commonly come up across various eras of US History in different ways. The tactics of disenfranchising African Americans after the Civil War, for instance, were different than those during the Civil Rights Era. For the US History test — and t0 be a well-informed citizen — you'll want to know the differences.

Because memorization of these terms is key, studying with flashcards is a good strategy for the American History test. You may be able to find a set of flashcards online, but we encourage you to make your own flashcards. The process of writing out flashcards is itself a useful tool in committing things to memory!

By the way, if you like American History, you might also want to check out our post on how to best prepare for the SAT Subject Test in World History! Or, read more about the Subject Tests in general by checking out our Ultimate Guide!

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