Tackling the SAT Math Subject Tests


Since teachers and schools grade differently, the SAT Subject Tests provide colleges with a standardized assessment of a student’s knowledge in a particular subject area. Many colleges require two or three SAT Subject Tests for admission—visiting prospective college websites to research admissions requirements will help you plan your tests accordingly—and some colleges even require specific Subject Tests. For example, Math Level 2 is often required for pre-medicine programs since their freshmen coursework presumes mastery of this information.

Students interested in pursuing a math-based field of study such as engineering, mathematics, physics, or chemistry should consider taking a Math SAT Subject Test to demonstrate your ability and interest.

Even if a student is not planning on going into a math- or science-based field may want to consider taking a Math SAT Subject Test. If the student has done consistently well in their high school math courses, for example, high Math SAT Subject Test scores demonstrate to colleges that she or he is academically well-rounded.

Although each student’s academic strengths and interests should help determine their selection, a rule of thumb for taking three Subject Tests might look like this:

  • one math test (preferably Math Level 2);
  • one humanities test (History or Literature);
  • one science test.

Students should decide which (if any) of the SAT Subject Tests they plan to take by the end of their junior year. With enough forethought, students have the time to plan when to take each test and, of course, how to study for them. Students should plan to take Subject Tests when they have the highest chance of success.

If a student is taking Precalculus during their sophomore year, he or she should highly consider taking taking the Math Level 2 SAT Subject Test (which covers concepts through Precalculus) in May or June after they have completed this course and the information is freshest in their minds.

If a student is going take the SAT and SAT Subject Tests around the same time, such as the end of junior year, he or she should consider taking the SAT first, since studying for the math section of the general SAT will overlap with Math SAT Subject Test preparation.


And remember, while you can take up to three (3) SAT Subject Tests in a single day, you cannot take the SAT and a SAT Subject Test on the same test date.

Just as with the SAT, the Subject Tests have registration deadlines (at least a month in advance), and the tests are offered in October, November, December, January, May, and June.

If you or your student is unsure about how to navigate the SAT Subject Tests, we recommend to err on the side of caution. Take the tests. Since most students don’t finalize their college lists until the summer before senior year, they may not realize they need SAT Subject Tests until they are busy with their senior year and have little time to prepare. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

The question then becomes—which Level of Math Subject Test should I take?


Before diving into differences in content, here are some overarching similarities.

Both Math Level 1 and Level 2 SAT Subject Tests are one hour long, contain 50 questions, and are scored on a scale from 200 to 800.

Also, the tests are graded the same: one point for a correct answer, a quarter point subtracted for an incorrect answer, and no points for a blank question.

Both tests allow the use of either a multi-function or graphing calculator (we highly recommend a graphing calculator like the TI-84), and for each, some questions are solved faster without a calculator than with one. (Strategies, such as deciding when to utilize a calculator and in what way, will be discussed in a forthcoming blog post on test-taking techniques.)

Now, let’s delve into the particulars.

The content of the Math Level 1 and Level 2 SAT Subject Tests can be broken up into four major categories:

  • Numbers + Operations
  • Algebra + Functions
  • Geometry + Measurement
  • Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability

Tables 1+2 below illustrate how these four categories are represented in each test.

SAT Math Level 1

Table 1: SAT Math Level 1

SAT Math Level 2

Table 2: SAT Math Level 2


Here’s the long and short for content:

  • Math Level 1 covers mathematical concepts taught in two years of Algebra, one year of Geometry, and very basic Trigonometry.
  • Math Level 2 covers the same material plus more advanced Trigonometry and Precalculus. And, while the Math Level 2 Subject Test will not directly test Plane (Euclidean) Geometry, mastery of this topic will be a required foundation for understanding test questions on Solid Geometry, Coordinate Geometry, and Trigonometry.


While Math Level 2 covers more material, it is not necessarily harder. Math Level 2 has historically offered a much more forgiving scoring curve than Math Level 1, awarding tests with up to seven (7) skipped answers a perfect 800.

In contrast, a Math Level 1 test with only one or two incorrect answers will get immediately bumped down to 790. In addition, Math Level 1 tests on fewer concepts so there are more abstract and multi-step problems.

By the same token, Math Level 2 test questions tend to take fewer steps to solve and be more straightforward; they just pull from a more expansive range of topics. If you’ve taken Precalculus, those concepts should be fresh in your mind. And, if you have Precalculus on your high school transcript, colleges will expect you to take Math Level 2.


If you know you want to apply to colleges that require Math Level 2, make sure that you are on track to complete math courses through Precalculus either your junior year or the summer before your senior year at the latest. The best preparation for a Math SAT Subject Test is a solid foundation in three or four years of high school level math courses. Of course, life is not always so neat—so give yourself a good two months to review concepts and fill gaps in your mathematical knowledge!

At the beginning of this earnest studying time, we recommend you take a diagnostic exam from a test prep book to approximate how you would do on the test at that moment: that’s your baseline score. With that initial score, you can set a goal for your score on the actual test.

To be competitive for Ivy League colleges and other selective schools, a score of 750 or higher is expected.

For less selective and other small liberal arts schools, a 700 score or higher would be a strong asset for your application.
Depending on the intensity of your study plans, you might consider working with a tutor.

After you have your baseline and goal score and are ready to prep for a few months, we suggest taking a practice test about once a week, and then in between those tests working for at least 3-4 hours on content gaps that arise.

A good way to keep track of which topics need work is to keep a spreadsheet, cataloging incorrectly answered practice test questions by topic (and sub-topic). This method keeps your review work targeted and ensures your precious study hours are spent as efficiently as possible.


About four weeks before the test, it’s time to reevaluate: now that you are nearing the finish line, how close to your goal have you come?

If your practice test results are lining up with your score goal, keep with it! Maintain your studying schedule to keep the material fresh in your mind, and see if you can exceed your own expectations. If you’re not making the progress you’d like to see, consider increasing your studying hours, reaching out to your math teacher, or joining forces with a tutor to come up with a new plan. To get in touch with us about setting or reaching your score goal, email Student Services at info@northaveeducation.com, or give us a call at 503/468-6905!

Helpful SAT Math Subject Test Resources

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