SAT Subject Test Series - Literature

SAT Subject Test Series - Literature

13 February, 2019

Series Overview

Welcome to the first post in our SAT Subject Test series. In this series, you will learn everything you need to know about these cousins of the regular SAT.

The Subject Tests — sometimes referred to as “SAT 2s” — are often required for admission to top-tier universities, but they are much less discussed in education circles and online.  They are hour-long multiple choice standardized tests, administered by the College Board, that test your knowledge of various common academic subjects, such as US History, Physics, or Italian. They are given on the same dates as the regular SAT, and a student can take up to three of the one-hour tests on any given test date. They are scored from 200 to 800, though the distribution of scores on any particular SAT Subject Test is frequently very different from that found on the SAT itself.

To begin the series, we will cover the SAT Literature exam.


  • 60 minutes
  • 60-63 questions
  • 6-8 passages (with 7-8 questions per passage)
  • Covers literature published between the late 1500’s and today
    • Fiction: 40-50% of all texts
    • Poetry: 40-50% of all texts
    • Dramatic excerpts: 0-10% of all texts
  • Mainly concerned with American and British literature, although literature from other English-language traditions is not uncommon
  • Questions do not explicitly require knowledge of the passage’s era, but students will likely find that knowledge helpful if they have it

Necessary Skills

The primary skill tested by the SAT Literature exam is the ability to read literature with an analytical, critical focus. “Close reading” — the act of reading as if every word is intentional and deliberate — is essential. Typically, the students who perform best on this exam are those who have read from a wide variety of genres and eras. Experience with the linguistic features of Victorian literature, for example, goes a long way in interpreting the intent of sentences that stretch on for 100 words. In this regard, an expansive vocabulary also helps: many of the passages (both from earlier eras and today) will present students with words not often used in everyday life today. In addition, several of the exam’s questions will feature answer choices that, to the untrained eye, mean the same thing; upon closer inspection of the choices’ vocabulary, however, subtly meaningful distinctions will become apparent.

Knowledge of literary terms and devices, though secondary to close reading, is required for high scores. Students who can differentiate between “alliteration” and “assonance,” for example, will be ready for such questions.

Sample Test Content

Questions 10-13. Read the following poem carefully before you choose your answers.

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,

Fenc’d by these rebel pow’rs that thee array,

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,

Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,

Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?

Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,

And let that pine to aggravate thy store;

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;

Within be fed, without be rich no more:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,

And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then. (1609)


  1. The dramatic situation in the poem is that of

(A) a youth speaking to a lover

(B) a priest speaking to a sinner

(C) a reformer addressing an impoverished person

(D) God addressing any human soul

(E) an individual addressing his or her own soul


  1. In the context of the poem, “Painting thy outward walls so costly gay” (line 4) refers to

(A) camouflage

(B) writing poetry

(C) attending to physical appearances

(D) pretending to be happy

(E) preparations for a celebration


  1. The poet signals a major shift at line 9 by changing from

(A) entirely negative to entirely positive imagery

(B) imagery of permanence to imagery of change

(C) direct address to impersonal statement

(D) material to spiritual imagery

(E) questions to commands


  1. Which of the following best describes the theme of the concluding couplet (lines 13-14)?

(A) A confession of sin before an almighty judge

(B) An affirmation of the immortality of the soul

(C) A declaration of rebellion against the powers of fate

(D) An accusation that death is a faithless servant

(E) A surrender to the inexplicable nature of life

Author’s commentary:

The speaker in this poem indicates a painful contradiction between his preoccupation with his vanity and the poverty of his soul. In asking a series of rhetorical questions, he essentially asks his soul to defend its heavy focus on the upkeep of the body when its “lease” is “so short” — in other words, when mortal human life is so limited. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker implores his soul to heed his warnings and focus on spiritual growth and fulfillment, which he believes will — unlike the body — last beyond death.

Answers: E, C, E, B


Who Should Take It?

Needless to say, those who genuinely like reading will probably perform well on the exam (with the added bonus that they won’t mind the rigors of the preparation, either!). That said, appreciation for literature is not absolutely essential. Students who have performed well both in their English classes and on the Reading Comprehension portion of the SAT are likely to do well.


Since familiarity with classic literature is a prerequisite for the Literature exam, students will want resources that feature a wide range of such texts. The Norton Anthology of English Literature is the best available survey of all literary eras tested on the exam; though on the expensive side, the Anthology is also useful in high school (and likely college) English classes, which makes it a worthy investment.

The College Board’s SAT Subject Test Student Guide contains sample questions for this exam (the above selection can be found there). The College Board also publishes The Official Guide to ALL Subject Tests, which offers one official SAT Literature practice exam.

Beyond The College Board materials, there’s unfortunately not much high-quality material on the market. The worthiest book is The Princeton Review’s Cracking the SAT Subject Test: Literature, which contains questions that are most similar to questions on the real exam. The Barron’s prep book contains some great conceptual review, but its practice exams are far too difficult (and include questions about material that is not tested on the exam). The prep book published by Kaplan is unreflective of the exam because its questions are too easy.

An ideal study strategy will pair frequent reading of the Norton Anthology with practice questions from both The College Board and The Princeton Review.

Study Approach

Reading is one of the most fundamental skills in today’s world, but improving those reading skills is both difficult and time-consuming. For this reason, students planning on taking the SAT Literature exam should begin a rigorous study schedule at least 3 months prior to their exam date. Students should target anywhere between 2 and 4 practice exams before their official test.

Students should annotate their independent readings. If, for example, an author chose to use the word “assault” instead of a more familiar alternative (like “attack”), students should attempt to interrogate that decision: why is “assault” more appropriate in context? What does this choice say about the passage more broadly? This practice will help students train their focus on the nuances of the author’s language.

Students should also review the mistakes they make on their practice multiple times. If a student underperforms on a given passage, for example, he or she should review all mistakes immediately, then again in three days, and then again another three days after that. This sustained review approach affords students the best chance to avoid similar mistakes on the real exam. Repetition helps to develop both a sensitivity to common errors and an ear for the test.

Author’s Take

The SAT Literature exam is — in a word — tough. Its passages will challenge even the most seasoned and confident readers. Having prepared dozens of students, I know firsthand how frustrating the experience can be: the test demands a lot of reading and analysis, but because reading is such a soft skill, scores may not budge for the first several weeks.

That said, the curve of the exam compensates somewhat for its difficulty. On many Literature exams, students can skip or miss several questions (usually between 4 and 6) and still score a perfect 800. The writers of the exam know full well how difficult the test is, so they evaluate students accordingly.

By the same token, a high score on Literature may “count” for more than a high score on other SAT Subject tests. A score of 750 or higher on Literature puts a student into the 90th percentile. On the Math II exam, by contrast, the same score puts a student in the 60th percentile. In other words, a high score on Literature offers more distinction than a similarly high score on other exams. Top performance on Literature is thus a fairly reliable way to differentiate a student from much of the rest of a college’s application pool.

All told, the road to a top Literature score is not easy. It is simply not possible to “cram” for this exam — students will do well only if they are willing to commit time and effort to their studies. The potential rewards of a high score, however, are very attractive, so if your child is intrinsically motivated and adept at critical thinking, the Literature exam is worth some consideration!

About the Author
Nick Bacarella
Nick is a full-time freelance tutor, meeting with students from all over the world via the Internet. He regularly works with students for the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, ISEE, and SSAT.

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