SAT Subject Test in Chemistry – a few tips

June 01, 2014

With the SAT subject test in chemistry coming up again this week, I thought it would be a good idea to post a few specific tips for dealing with the exam. Every standard test/exam has its own idiosyncrasies, and this one is no exception. There’s still time for you to grab this book which would be a great help, and of course, there’s no substitute for knowing a ton of chemistry, but here are a few pointers that are specific for the SAT and that might help you to get a few, extra points this Saturday.

What do you know, what do you not know? – This is a REALLY important question for one reason. The overwhelming majority of high school chemistry courses, whether they be AP, Honors, Regular, College Prep or whatever their title, are not designed to specifically prepare students for the SAT test. As a result your first job is to identify the gaps in your own chemistry knowledge as they relate to the SAT test. One small example would be that in the new AP exam a study of quantum numbers has been removed, so it is entirely possible that your AP chemistry teacher (quite properly) may not have discussed these with you. However, for the SAT you need to know about them. There are many other examples of such things, and many lower courses than AP may not have studied areas such as kinetics and electrochemistry (for example) so a grounding in what is in compared to what you have studies in your particular chemistry course is crucial.

Speed – 85 questions in 60 minutes is a significant test in itself, and if one were to consider the time per question equation, one would find that the answer is around 42 seconds, per! That looks alarming, especially when you consider that some of the questions need a decent amount of estimation number crunching or the writing and balancing of a chemical equation, but don’t be fooled.

Some questions might literally take 5 seconds and these sit alongside the more time consuming ones. As a result, it’s much more important to assess your position in the test relative to overall progress, by glancing at your watch every 10 minutes or so and making sure that you are on a track that looks something like this;

Minutes Approx. # of Q’s Completed
10 14
20 28
30 42
40 56
50 70
60 85*


*That better NOT be ‘approx.’, and for a good reason. It is really important to get to the end of the test, since the last few questions just might be ones that you find a lot easier than the others. You cannot afford to leave these on the table, so make sure that you get to questions 80-85!

Relationship analysis Questions – These questions are often the ones that cause students the most grief on the SAT. It’s not necessarily the fact that they are any harder, it’s usually much more about a lack of familiarity with them. Very few courses introduce this type of problem on their exams and tests, unless the teacher has one eye on the SAT test from the beginning of the year. Try to practice a whole bunch of them. I have a few tips about these that you’ll need to investigate for yourself. I say that because there are few different ways to handle them and what works best for one person may not be the same for another.

One method is to consider all of the Statement I’s BEFORE even looking at the Statement II’s, i.e., to do half of each question before completing any of them. In the examples below (taken from this document on the College Board web site), one would consider if sugar dissolves more quickly with stirring and if diamond has a high melting point etc., before even reading statement II’s.

SAT Subject Test in Chemistry - a few tips

College Board SAT RA Q’s

This method allows for clarity of thought about each statement as independent entity (which is important), but it does has the disadvantage of not allowing the natural flow of one statement into the other. For example, #104 is (arguably) a question that would be hampered by the ‘statement I’s first’ method, since when considering if zinc will reduce Cu ions in solution, one might say to oneself, “this will be true if zinc is a more reactive metal than copper’. If one fails to go on and read statement II immediately afterwards, then one may have forgotten that crucial link when one comes back to read statement II in the same question. In short, you have to try a number of different strategies and see what works best for YOU, however, regardless of the way that you choose to tackle the RA question, one thing is always true – you should not consider if statement II is a correct explanation (CE) of statement I until you have established that both statements are true. This has the potential to save time.

Questions that show plots (graphs) of some description) – I generally encourage students to look at the shapes of the plots to identify something that may be familiar, before even reading the question(s) that follow. In the example below (also taken from the College Board sample question set), I would expect that students might say;

‘I’ve never seen a plot like (A) in a chemistry context before’, and

‘(B) looks like a cooling curve to me’.

Sometimes more obvious examples like phase diagrams and Maxwell-Boltmann distributions makes this even easier, but either way these quick observations, make the question easier to answer.

SAT Subject Test in Chemistry - a few tips

College Board SAT #14

Questions where the same set of answers apply to a set of questions – For example, as shown below;

SAT Subject Test in Chemistry - a few tips

College Board SAT #1-3

Again, more than one strategy can work well here. Firstly, one might not even consider the questions at all, and one could go through and simply identify what the answers are referring to. In this case, I might simply label (A) as ‘strong acid’, (B) as ‘neutral salt’, (C) as ‘weak acid’, (D) as ‘alcohol’ and (E) as ‘strong base’. Of course, this relies upon quite a bit of chemistry knowledge that one may or may not have, but if one can, this is a great help.

Alternatively it is often beneficial to ‘do the ones you can’ in a set. By that I mean that if you happen to know the answers to 1 and 3 answer those first. That strategy can help to clear your thinking for what the answer to #2 might be, possibly eliminate answers, and thus make an intelligent guess much easier to find.

Answers to the questions posed by the College Board, can be found here.

All of the specific tips tips above, go hand in hand with the general strategies of eliminating wrong answers to make guessing more productive, as well as realizing that if you cannot eliminate any answer choices then that is a question that should be left blank, thus avoiding a 0.25 point penalty for a wrong answer. In addition, estimating math skills remain important, and the ability to remain calm under pressure as does using the periodic table as a resource.

Good luck!


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