SAT History Subject Test
Welcome to the third post in our SAT Subject Test series. Previous posts in the series can be found below:
In this post, we will cover the SAT History Subject Test.
- 60 minutes
- 90 questions
- Covers American history from prehistory to the present
- Pre-Columbian history to 1789: 20% of questions
- 1790 to 1898: 40%
- 1899 to present: 40%
- Focuses heavily on politics but incorporates other historical disciplines as well
- Political history: 31-35% of questions
- Social history: 20-24%
- Economic history: 13-17%
- Cultural history: 13-17%
- Foreign policy: 13-17%
- Comprised of two question types:
- Recall — students must remember concrete facts about a term or graphic
- Analysis — students must understand the relationships between such terms and graphics and place them in historical context
- Differs from most school assessments of U.S. history in that all questions are multiple choice, whereas students usually write analytical essays in history class
- 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
The SAT U.S. History Subject Test expects students to be able to do four main things: know concrete facts (dates of events, names of major political figures, etc.), trace the cause-and-effect relationships between such facts, analyze primary source documents, and place graphics (charts, graphs, maps, and cartoons) in historical context.
The first and most important prerequisite to these skills is a confident familiarity with the various eras of American history. When they are asked to think about a given decade, students should be immediately able to call to mind the salient themes from that decade. For the 1870s, for example, students should be able to supply the terms “Reconstruction,” “Compromise of 1877,” and “Indian Wars” with relative ease. This level of specificity is important: knowing that the 1870s follows the Civil War is a start, but it’s not enough on its own.
Furthermore, students need to be able to draw clear lines from one era to another. To elaborate on our example, how did the events of the 1860s precipitate those of the 1870s? To what extent did, say, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination determine the outcomes of the reconstruction of the South following the Civil War? Recognition of the terms in the previous sentence is, again, a start, but high-scoring students will be able to analyze the outcomes of one event and, in them, discern the makings of another.
The dissection of graphics and primary source documents is just another facet of the analysis described above. Questions will always asks students to put these articles in historical context very rarely will they ask about their objective features.
Put simply, the SAT U.S. History Subject Test demands an investigative mind, one that can build historical narratives rather than parrot them from somewhere else.
Sample Test Content
- Which of the following best describes the pattern of immigration into Britain’s North American colonies during the years 1620 to 1770?
(A) Largely English in the seventeenth century, non-English in the eighteenth century
(B) Chiefly of English origin during the whole period
(C) Largely non-English in the seventeenth century, English in the eighteenth century
(D) Predominantly from southern and eastern Europe, especially after 1700
(E) Predominantly from Asia, Africa, and Spanish America, especially after 1650
- The encomienda system in the Spanish North American colonies included doing all of the following EXCEPT
(A) coercing Native Americans to provide labor
(B) granting estates to Spanish settlers
(C) exacting tribute in goods
(D) converting Native Americans to Christianity
(E) delegating authority to joint-stock companies
- Which of the following statements is generally true of the framers of the Constitution?
(A) They believed in the supremacy of the executive branch of the federal government.
(B) They had great faith in the goodness and rationality of people.
(C) They were opposed to the development of political parties.
(D) They incorporated into the Constitution the most democratic ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
(E) They believed the new American republic would be stable because of the unanimity of public opinion in the country on major policy issues.
- “What is man born for but to be a reformer, a remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all, and which sleeps no moment on an old past, but every hour repairs herself, yielding every morning a new day, and with every pulsation a new life?” These sentiments are most characteristic of
(B) Social Darwinism
- The 1940s poster above referred to the
(A) contribution of women to the defense industry
(B) growing popularity of women movie stars
(C) large number of women in the armed forces
(D) large number of immigrants who supported the war effort
(E) affection of Americans for their wartime president
These questions illustrate the SAT U.S. History Subject Test’s emphasis on trends and patterns over rote memorization of facts. Question 1, for example, is indicative of the exam’s focus on changes — what matters here is not a snapshot of immigration but its evolution over time. Question 3, meanwhile, hinges on a nuanced view of the Founding Fathers. A broad-strokes understanding of Constitutional history might make all of these answer choices look tempting, but students deeply familiar with the Framers of the Constitution will be able to find at least one counterexample for all of the incorrect choices:
- Thomas Jefferson believed in the supremacy of state governments
- the system of checks and balances between branches of the federal government was a direct response to the perceived vulnerabilities of human rationality
- the Constitution famously enshrined slaves as counting as ⅗ of a person, thereby defining slaves as inherently unequal to free men
- early Americans clashed (sometimes acrimoniously) about what an “ideal” United States would look like — events such as the Whiskey Rebellion and Shay’s Rebellion demonstrated significant distaste for federal power
Answers: A, E, C, E, A
Who Should Take It?
A good grade in history class is, unfortunately, not always a great indicator of success on the SAT U.S. History Subject Test. Perhaps more than any other Subject Test, this one requires a deeply rigorous curriculum, one that encourages students to go far beyond the common narratives of U.S. history. Memorizing sections of textbooks — even good ones — will only get students so far; the highest scorers will have experience constructing their own historical narratives from the words of historical figures. Naturally, courses that emphasize learning beyond the textbook — through primary source documents and current historical commentary — are instrumental to achieving high scores.
It’s no surprise, then, that the SAT U.S. History Subject Test is often taken in conjunction with (or at the conclusion of) a year of AP U.S. History. This course incorporates all of the elements that help develop the skills necessary for the Subject Test. The AP course is by no means a prerequisite, but students who decide to take the Subject Test should feel reasonably certain that their U.S. History curriculum approximates that of the AP.
So for students currently excelling in AP U.S. History, the Subject Test should be strongly considered. For those not enrolled in the AP course, College Board’s description of the AP U.S. History course is worth a long look — prospective SAT U.S. History Subject Test students should be confident that their courses mirror the material found in this document.
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 a history-specific preparatory book titled The Official SAT Subject Tests in U.S. History & World History. This book contains two full-length practice exams, which should be considered indispensable resources.
The usual suspects for SAT prep books — Barron’s, Princeton Review, and Kaplan — all fall a little short when it comes to the SAT U.S. History Subject Test. Barron’s is too hard, Kaplan is too easy, and unfortunately, The Princeton Review does not occupy that Goldilocks-esque sweet spot: it features a host of questions that are simply not reminiscent of the actual Subject Test. That said, the two practice exams in the College Board’s offering may not be enough, so students aiming for top scores may want to seek out a copy of Barron’s or The Princeton Review’s book. The review material at the beginning of both books is extremely helpful, and though the questions may not be perfect, they’re better than nothing.
For students daunted by the sheer weight of these prep books, No Bull Review gets great reviews from students and teachers alike for its accessibility and concision: it is less than half the length of the review sections in the Barron’s and The Princeton Review books. It contains no practice exams, which is an undeniable knock against it, but for students who cannot finish the longer books or simply would not study otherwise, No Bull is a worthwhile compromise.
Course materials are just as important as third-party preparatory books to the SAT U.S. History Subject Test. Students should begin by conducting a broad review of their coursework, namely their notes, exams, and essays. The depth and density of most one-year U.S. history courses can be staggering, so students will likely need to do this just to remind themselves of what they studied earlier in the year. This review should also make students aware of their blind spots.
Students should move on to their prep books only when they feel they can construct a fairly detailed timeline of U.S. history. In such a scenario, the prep books will help students add detail to those timelines. They can also be used to systematically strengthen the blind spots discovered in the review of course material.The prep books should not be considered adequate replacements for course materials — they lean more toward the facts and figures of history than the patterns, trends, and developments that the SAT Subject Test emphasizes.
Practice tests should only be taken after course materials and the historical information in the prep books have been reviewed. Using one as a diagnostic may be tempting, but since there are so few available, each test should be treated as a simulation of the real thing, test conditions and all. As with all Subject Tests, mistakes should be reviewed rigorously and repeatedly. American history is finite, so questions on practice exams will resemble questions on the real exam. The more time spent on review, then, the more likely students are to minimize similar mistakes when it counts.
In the past two posts, I’ve used this section to discuss the “relative value” of a good score on a given SAT Subject Test. I mentioned that a top score on Literature is difficult but remarkable, whereas a top score on Physics is more straightforward but somewhat expected.
The SAT U.S. History Subject Test is something of a happy medium between the two. A perfect 800 puts a student in the 97th percentile — as with top scores on Literature, this could end up being a valuable mark of distinction on an application. And yet, the path to a top score is not nearly as unpredictable as it is on the Literature exam. In this respect, U.S. History resembles Physics: if students are committed to the study approach outlined above, they can get to top scores fairly reliably. Additionally, the top of the score curve on U.S. History looks much like that of both Literature and Physics — students do not need to be perfect (or really anything close) to reach the highest echelons. On most U.S. History exams, students can skip 10 questions and end up with a perfect score.
What does this mean for students? Well, it should mean that it’s not just history buffs who ought to consider this test. Commitment to diligent study is as much a requirement on U.S. History as it is on any of the other exams — it’s just that the maximum return on that study time is, frankly, higher than it is for most other Subject Tests.
Let’s consider the case of two students: one is a high-achieving American history student with a penchant for hard work, and the other a high-achieving Physics student with the same tendency. Both students will study for their respective Subject Test for the roughly same amount of time, and both will achieve 800s. The Physics student is rewarded with an 87th percentile ranking, the History student a 97th percentile ranking. In a vacuum, which outcome would you choose?
Of course, life is not a vacuum, and these two students are often not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re quite often the same person. If your high school student is broadly capable in all high school classes, there may be no better combination of predictability and reward than the SAT U.S. History Subject Test. And hey, what could be more American than that?
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