SAT Subject Test Series - Physics

SAT Subject Test Series - Physics

18 March, 2019

Welcome to the second post in our SAT Subject Test series. To read the first post about the SAT Literature exam, click here.

In this post, we will cover the SAT Physics exam.


  • 60 minutes
  • 75 questions
  • Covers virtually all topics in Physics
    • Mechanics: 36-42% of questions
    • Electricity & magnetism: 18-24%
    • Waves & optics: 15-19%
    • Heat & thermodynamics: 6-11%
    • Modern physics (relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.): 6-11%
    • Miscellaneous (history of physics, graphical analysis, etc.): 4-9%
  • Questions will require the use of formulas, which must be memorized for the exam
  • Calculators are not permitted
  • SAT Physics covers some topics — relativity, chaos theory, history of physics, to name a few — not normally taught in traditional high school physics classes (including AP Physics classes)
  • Offered on the following SAT dates:
    • May 2019 (U.S. only)
    • June 2019 (U.S. only)
    • August 2019 (U.S. only)
    • October 2019
    • November 2019
    • December 2019
    • May 2020
    • June 2020

Necessary Skills

First and foremost, students need to be comfortable with a broad spectrum of Physics topics. At least one high school Physics class should be considered a prerequisite for this exam. It is possible to achieve a high SAT Physics score after taking a regular-level Physics course, but the depth and rigor of AP Physics courses will help students feel more comfortable with the questions on this SAT Subject Test.

In addition to a thorough knowledge of physics, students will need a strong command of arithmetic. Higher-level math disciplines, such as geometry and trigonometry, are also required for understanding of the conceptual underpinnings of problems, even though they will not feature heavily in calculations; since calculators are not allowed on the exam, most calculations can be done mentally or by hand. Accordingly, those with a strong number sense — the ability to quickly and easily manipulate numbers — are positioned to score well, as they will be able to solve problems quickly.

Sample Test Content

Questions 3-4 relate to a point charge (+Q) fixed in position, as shown below. Five points near the charge and in the plane of the page are shown.

  1. At which point will the magnitude of the electric field be least?
  2. At which point will an electron experience a force directed toward the top of the page?
  3. When a vector of magnitude 6 units is added to a vector of magnitude 8 units, the magnitude of the resultant vector will be

(A) exactly 2 units

(B) exactly 10 units

(C) exactly 14 units

(D) 0 units, 10 units, or some value between them

(E) 2 units, 14 units, or some value between them


  1. A 5-kilogram block is suspended by a cord from a ceiling, as shown above. The force exerted on the block by the cord is most nearly

(A) zero

(B) 25 N

(C) 50 N

(D) 100 N

(E) 200 N

  1. An experiment is performed to measure the specific heat of copper. A lump of copper is heated in an oven, then dropped into a beaker of water. To calculate the specific heat of copper, the experimenter must know or measure the value of all of the quantities below EXCEPT the

(A) mass of the water

(B) original temperatures of the copper and the water

(C) final (equilibrium) temperature of the copper and the water

(D) time taken to achieve equilibrium after the copper is dropped into the water

(E) specific heat of the water

Author’s commentary:

These questions demonstrate the breadth of topics covered on the exam. The ability to answer questions 3 and 4, for example, has little bearing on the ability to answer the other questions, and vice versa. Note that questions 3, 4, 5, and 7 are all conceptually oriented and require no calculation. Question 6 is indicative of the sort of calculation needed on the exam: as long as students can apply the F = ma formula to multiply the mass of the kilogram by gravitational acceleration (5*10), they will be able to arrive at the answer without much issue.

Answers: D, E, E, C, D

Who Should Take It?

The best predictor of a high score on SAT Physics Subject Test is, naturally, a high grade in one or more high school physics classes; accordingly, those who perform well in physics class should strongly consider this test. The rigor of these courses matters, though, so an A+ in a basic physics course does not necessarily predict a smashing Subject Test result.

Most “Honors” or “Advanced” courses do a good job of covering roughly 80% of the domain of SAT Physics. AP Physics 1 covers mostly the same material as “Honors” or “Advanced,” just in more depth. AP Physics 2, which goes beyond the material of the aforementioned physics courses, will get students closer to total coverage of the Subject Test’s topics, with the added caveat that AP Physics 2 often requires AP Physics 1 as a prerequisite.

The number of physics courses now offered by some high schools can be confusing, but the relevant point is this: any of the above courses by itself constitutes a physics background solid enough to take SAT Physics. Multiple physics courses would help, but they are not at all necessary.

It’s also worth noting that students who consider themselves self-starters will be better prepared to learn the topics not covered in school. This practice is not absolutely essential for high scores — only a few SAT Physics Subject Test questions will target new concepts — but the fewer blind spots a student has, the better.


As with the SAT Literature Subject Test, 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 Physics Subject Test practice exam.

Because the pickings from the College Board are fairly slim, it is sensible to seek out third-party resources, the best of which is Barron’s SAT Subject Test Physics. This book contains a thorough review of all topics covered on the test, as well as a handy collection of all relevant physics formulas. Furthermore, there are four paper-based practice exams and an access code for one online exam, which closely mirrors the paper-based tests in terms of questions and explanations.

Cracking the SAT Subject Test in Physics (published by The Princeton Review) is well-regarded for its high-quality practice exams. The conceptual review in this book does not quite match that offered by Barron’s, which makes it a worthwhile companion to — but not a replacement for — the Barron’s book.

Study Approach

The most foolproof approach to a top-tier SAT Physics score is a cover-to-cover reading of a third-party preparatory book. That means a thorough review of all the relevant physics topics mentioned in that book. At the same time, students will want to keep a running list of necessary formulas so that they can memorize these as they study. Once the conceptual review is finished, students should attempt every practice exam they have available. As with any practice standardized test, students should review the mistakes they make on these exams multiple times. SAT Physics covers a broad range of topics, but those topics are predictable, so students are very likely to see questions on test day that strongly resemble the ones they did in practice. The more time they spend reviewing their mistakes, the less likely they are to commit the same errors on the real thing.

To avoid any last-minute scrambling, students should try to give themselves a full month to complete their preparatory book. If time is short, however, these books can be completed in as little as a week, provided there are 3-4 hours available to study per day.

Many students — especially high achievers and those taking an AP Physics exam around the same time as SAT Physics Subject Test (two groups with heavy overlap) — may feel inclined to skip the front matter and dive straight into practice tests. Doing so risks missing the handful of topics not covered by AP courses; put enough of these topics together and even the most well-prepared AP students can end up falling short of their SAT Subject Test score targets. The conceptual review in these preparatory books — even of topics that already feel like second-nature —  should be considered a non-negotiable requirement.

Author’s Take

At the risk of sounding reductive, the world is divided into those who enjoy physics and those who, well, don’t. The latter group will likely not take this exam, so speaking to the former, you could probably take this test cold and, in all likelihood, do fairly well.

But to my mind, there is no better return on your SAT Subject Test investment than the time it takes to complete a Physics prep book. The actual time required is relatively small and the dividends can be massive: those who take their time working through the books give themselves a fairly significant chance at an 800. Again, the test is predictable — even students who consider their command of physics to be merely decent can end up in the highest echelons of the score distribution. That’s because the curve of the exam is rather forgiving: students can skip between 10 and 15 questions outright and still end up with a perfect score. Some of these questions will likely fall into the “totally new and foreign” camp, and that’s absolutely okay — a perfect score does not actually demand perfection.

The downside of this fairly reliable path to a high score is that that a high score is something of an expectation of the students who take SAT Physics. Remember, those with disdain for physics are coming nowhere near this test, so the students who do take it are likely to be heavy hitters in this subject. Accordingly, an 800 on this test puts students in the 87th percentile, which means a full 12% of students are notching perfect scores. To put this bluntly: if you want to take this test, make sure you can nail it!

In this sense, SAT Physics is the perfect foil to the subject of our previous post, the SAT Literature Subject Test. The former can be studied to near-perfection, although that effort may not reap quite as much in the eyes of admissions officers; the latter, on the other hand, can be enigmatic, but a high score can go a long way to distinguishing a high achiever from the pack.

Everyone has their relative strengths and weaknesses, of course, and SAT Subject Test decisions should be made according to those constraints: poets should not force themselves to master special relativity, and future aeronautical engineers should not lament their indifference toward Bill Shakespeare. That said, those who genuinely love physics and plan to pursue it at higher levels should absolutely take this exam. Show admissions officers the proficiency behind your passion!

For everyone else, take some time to consider those strengths. If you count physics among them, great — get yourself a prep book and revere everything it has to say. Success is there if you want it!

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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