How to Study for the SAT Biology Subject Test— From an 800 Scorer

How to Study for the SAT Biology Subject Test— From an 800 Scorer

Perhaps you’re taking a biology class and are wondering how else you can showcase all that you’ve learned to be considered in the college admission process, or are trying to figure out how you might express your undying love for Earth’s numerous biomes on your college application. Or maybe you’re just trying to fulfill a testing requirement for a college that you’re planning on applying to. Whatever the reason, here is a brief overview of all that you need to know about the SAT biology subject test, and some advice as to what strategies and study materials you can use— in addition to cautionary tales of death-by-flashcard-overdose.

Why take the biology subject test?

The biology subject test is a science subject test, which means that it fulfills the requirement of some colleges and majors of taking a science subject test in order to qualify for admission. If you’re considering majoring in a concentration related to biology, then you might also want to take the biology subject test to demonstrate your aptitude in this field, demonstrating how you would succeed at biology in college as well. Read more about SAT subject tests here!

Biology E vs Biology M

If you take a look at the list of subject test offerings in this article, you’ll notice that there are actually two different biology tests offered— biology ecological (Bio E) and biology molecular (Bio M). What’s the difference between them? Biology subject tests have eighty questions, and whether you choose to take Bio E or M, the first 60 questions of the test will be exactly the same. The remaining 20 questions will differ depending on which version of the test that you choose to take. 

Biology E is more focused on biological populations and communities, and will likely have more questions regarding interspecies relationships and food webs. On the other hand, Biology M has a stronger focus on biochemistry, cell structures, and the intricacies of cell functions. Below is a more in-depth breakdown of the differences that I found on the Collegeboard website. Generally, you should choose to take the test that places stronger emphasis on the subjects that you are more comfortable with.

Collegeboard Biology E vs M

The good news is that you technically don’t have to decide which version of the test you want to take until test day. Just as with other subject tests, you can register online to take Bio M but bubble in your choice to take Bio E instead during the actual test. An approach that some students take is to quickly scan the Bio E and M questions once the test has begun to decide which questions will be easier to answer and therefore which version of the test they will be taking on the spot. However, if you have a limited time to prepare, it might be better to concentrate your energy on either Bio E or M and stick to that decision on test day. If you’re unsure of which version of the test you want to start studying for, you can try answering all 100 questions on a practice test (60 general questions + 20 ecological questions + 20 molecular questions) and see which you score better on. Personally, I chose to take Bio E because I had just taken environmental science during the past year, which bolstered my knowledge on the ecological front— and also because I knew close to nothing about biochemistry (oops). 

Preparing for the test

In my junior year, I took honors biology and environmental science, and mistakenly thought that taking those classes alone would be enough to prepare me for the biology subject test. It was only when I looked at a practice test online that I snapped out my wishful delusion and realized that I had a lot of studying to do in order to achieve my target score. So I would advise you not to rely on having covered subject test material in class, perhaps with the exception of those of you who have taken AP biology(?). (My school doesn’t offer any AP courses so I can’t personally offer any anecdotal evidence, but I’ve heard from friends that much of the material overlaps between the AP biology and SAT biology subject test.) Always take a practice diagnostic test before beginning your prep to determine how much you’ll need to study (if at all!) to improve your score to where you want it to be.

I used two textbooks while studying for the biology subject test: Barron’s Subject Test Biology E/M and the Princeton Review’s Cracking the Biology E/M Subject Test. The Barron’s book is more comprehensive, while the Princeton Review is much easier to understand for beginners. If you haven’t studied biology in a few years or simply want to ease in to studying, I would recommend starting off with The Princeton Review to gain a basic foundation, because the way that its chapters are written and are accompanied by plenty of simple diagrams and memorization tricks makes the concepts introduced much easier to digest. Conversely, the Barron’s prep book hones in on minute details that are mostly glossed over in The Princeton Review. If you’ve already taken biology at school (and actually retained information from the class, unlike me…) then the Barron’s textbook might be a better place to start. Its tone is factual and straight to the point, which is effective in nailing down pages and pages of facts— but without a basic foundation, can completely lose you after the first sentence. 

Tl;dr, Generally, if you’re beginning without knowledge (or memory) of biology, then I would advise that you study The Princeton Review before studying Barron’s, whereas those of you who already understand the basics can jump right into Barron’s to nail down the finer details. But as always, remember that this suggestion is just based on my personal experience, and that what worked for me isn’t necessarily the best approach for everyone. If you’re still unsure about which textbooks to use, try visiting your local library to see if they might have copies of different textbooks for you to reference.

Both books feature mini quizzes at the end of each chapter to check your knowledge retention and ensure that you have a good grasp on the chapter’s information. These quizzes are also great to come back to to fill in gaps in your knowledge. In addition, both textbooks also contain numerous practice tests, which you should take between prep and review sessions to measure your progress. Overall, I found The Princeton Review’s practice questions to be easier than those of the Barron’s textbook, with the actual difficulty of the Collegeboard’s test questions landing somewhere in the middle.

The Princeton Review has three practice tests in total, one of them being a diagnostic test. The Barron’s book also comes with a diagnostic test, in addition to four practice tests at the back of the book and two more online. As I mentioned previously, some of Barron’s questions are slightly more difficult than those that will appear on the real test, but if you’re aiming for a near-perfect score, then it can’t hurt to absorb as much information as possible— you never know what type of questions might show up! 

If you’re planning on taking multiple subject tests, I would suggest purchasing Collegeboard’s Official Guide to All SAT Subject Tests, which contains one real practice test for each subject offered. In addition, you can purchase Collegeboard’s Official Biology Subject Test Study Guide which contains two previously administered full-length tests to get a better grasp of what exactly to expect and to prepare for. Combined, this means that there are three official biology subject tests for you to study from, which will prove themselves to be indispensable! Make sure not to take them all near the beginning of your studying or you won’t be able to use them to properly gauge the extent of your preparation later.

While studying each of the textbooks, I filled a whole notebook full of notes on important concepts that I could use to track my progress and refer to later. As the test date neared, I started to worry about remembering every little detail that I might be tested on, and created study flashcards to help memorize information. (Ironically, none of the information written on any of my three decks of notecards showed up on the test— turns out that I didn’t need to spend so much time learning the life cycle of a fern after all. Here’s a few photos of my study tools!)

Some of my notes in my notebook (with tea stains), review after a rather disastrous practice test, and decks of study flashcards! The colored tabs marked concepts that I needed to review again.

After my initial read through of both textbooks, I pinpointed my weaknesses through practice tests and reviewed those chapters to try not to make the same mistakes again. Over the span of two months, my study plan looked something like this:

  • Diagnostic test
  • The Princeton Review
  • Barron’s
  • Official Practice Test #1
  • Review Chapters
  • Flashcards
  • Official Practice Test #2
  • Review Chapters
  • More Flashcards
  • Healthy dose of panic
  • Official Practice Test #3
  • Test day!

Though I spent quite a long time studying for the test, science is definitely not my strong suit, which meant that I likely had a lot more ground to cover than the average student. Before creating your prep plan, take a diagnostic test to determine how much time you’ll need to dedicate to studying in order to reach your target score.

Even after two months of focused studying, I still didn’t feel prepared when test day arrived. There’s no way to know everything regarding the multitude of topics that could possibly show up on the biology subject test, but I found some comfort in the fact that the test’s curve meant that I could probably incorrectly answer 1-2 questions without losing any points. However, the biology subject test’s curve is unforgiving when compared to some other subject tests, such as Math 2 (in which you can get four-or-so questions wrong and still earn a perfect score of 800). The curve is the wild variable in every SAT test, subject tests included, and largely depends on how difficult the questions on the test are perceived to be by both the test creators and test takers. All you can do is study as hard as you can and try not to panic if you come across a difficult question— and worst comes to worst, you can always try again by retaking the test next month. I started off barely understanding how base pairs in DNA strands worked, but ended up achieving my target score— and with a little (or a lot) of studying and determination, you can do it too 🙂

Leave a comment below if you have any other questions, and I’ll respond to you as soon as I can.

Until next time!

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