How to get an 800 on the SAT Physics Subject Test

A lot of people ask me: “how can I get an 800 on the physics SAT subject test”. Over the years I have compiled some advice and tips that I usually share with people and I decided to post it here so that it can help more people.

A Few Preliminary Comments

The bad news: there is not a simple effortless path to an 800.

What do you mean I can't get through life without hard work?

Oh no, I have to work?!?

The good news: If you are dedicated and have time to study and prepare, there is a relatively systematic way of maximizing your chance of getting an 800 on the Physics SAT subject test.

More good news: You don’t have to get a perfect score to get an 800.  Because the test covers a broader range of material than what is taught in an average class, they don’t expect the student to have mastered every topic. By some estimates, the top 8-10% of all scores get an 800.


Okay okay... I will work if you give me treats!

Okay okay… I will work if you give me treats!


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Test Format

Before going into the details about how to prepare, let’s first take a broad view of the test

  1. The test consists of 75 multiple choice questions and lasts 60 minutes.
  2. NO calculator is allowed — according to College Board, numerical computation is not emphasized on the test and only simple arithmetic will be needed.
  3. NO formula sheet — unlike on the AP test, they do not give you a formula sheet which means you should have the most important formulas memorized.
  4. There IS a penalty for guessing. Each correct answer is worth 1 point, a question you did not answer is worth 0 points, and a wrong answer has a penalty which depends on how many answer choice there are:  minus 1/4 point for 5 answer question, minus 1/3 point for 4 answer question and minus 1/2 point for 3 answer question.


Early Preparation


Even if you have not started serious test preparation, there are still some things you can do to improve your chances of getting a good score on the Physics SAT.

  1. Take a one year long AP physics course. While it is possible to do well with only a standard highschool physics course, taking an AP course will give you the best shot of getting an 800. You don’t need calculus for the SAT subject test so taking either the 1 & 2 AP sequence or the C sequence is fine.
  2. Choose a test date when the material is fresh. The SAT physics subject test is offered a few times a year so you should  choose a test date that coincides with finishing a course covering all the material.


Skills Covered

Below is a list of the skills that the test is designed to assess — keeping these in mind while you are taking your class will help you to focus your learning . The information in green comes straight from the college board website and the words in black are my added comments.

  1. Fundamental Knowledge — Remembering and understanding concepts or information (about 12-20% of the test). This means you need to have as many formulas memorized as possible. Because they do not give you an equation sheet, it would be a good idea to get in the habit of memorizing formulas as you learn them in class.
  2. Single-Concept Problems: applying a single physical relation or concept (about 48%–64% of test). This means using the formulas to solve problems. This is an extremely important skill for succeeding in physics and the best way to master it is to solve lots of problems. In addition to your HW questions, you should take every chance you can get to solve additional problems.
  3. Multiple-Concept Problems: integrating of two or more physical relationships or concepts (about 20%–35% of test).  This means solving problems that require one to apply a few formulas to get to the answer. An example of such a question is covered in this video.


Topics Covered
In order to make your studying process most efficient, it is important to keep in mind what topics are covered and how important each topic is. Below is the College Board’s list of which topics are covered and the portion of the test devoted to them. Because Mechanics and E&M together make up 54%-66% of the test, you should spend much more time studying those topics than, say, special relativity (although special relativity is really cool!).




Test Preparation


Now that you are taking a course, and signed up for an exam, you will want to do these things in order maximize your chance of getting an 800

  1. Consistent Practice — During the month or so leading up to the exam 20 minute a day 5 days a week would be good. During the last few weeks before the exam I would suggest ramping this up to 45 minutes per day. On the test you have to solve 75 multiple choice questions in 60 minutes, which is A LOT, and the only way to get fast enough is to get a lot of practice. This will also help you to memorize formulas. A great way to practice regularly is to use a mobile study app like Physics X which is available on iOS and Android.
  2. Full Length Exams — In addition to regular consistent practice, it is important to do some full length practice exams. The subject test is 60 minutes long and requires some stamina. One resource for this is the official study guide for SAT subject tests published by College Board.

Day of Exam

Don't forget those No 2's!

Don’t forget those No 2’s!

Now that you have done all you can do to prepare, there are a few important things to remember on exam day.

  1. Make sure to sleep well the night before. Because the tests are usually given Saturday mornings, this means having a chill Friday night and getting to bed early (you can always party Saturday night after the exam is over). It is better to get a good night of sleep than stay up late cramming.
  2. Have a light and nutritious breakfast.
  3. Stay calm — easier said than done, but staying calm during exams is crucial for maintaining focus and a top performance. Techniques I use are deep breathing, stretching and going to my happy place :).


Taking the Test
The SAT subject tests are different than the tests you usually take in highschool and in order to do your best you have to have a different strategy. Below are some important tips and strategies you should use when taking the test and whenever you are doing full length practice tests

  1. Answer Easiest Questions First — all correct answer are worth one point, but some questions are harder and take more time to solve. A good strategy would be to go through the test once and answer the easiest ones first and then go back to tackle harder problems.
  2. Work Fast — You have to answer 75 questions in 60 minutes so working fast is crucial. In order to get to this level of speed you have to solve hundreds and hundreds of practice questions so that when faced with a question you don’t have to think about how to solve it, you just solve it. A good way of increasing your speed would be to practice daily on your mobile device using Physics X.
  3. If you don’t know the answer, but can eliminate a few wrong answers then you should guess. There is a penalty for getting the wrong answer (-1/4 point for 5 answer question), but it is small enough that if you can eliminate one wrong answer then on average guessing won’t affect your score, and if you can eliminate two wrong answers, then guessing will improve your score. That being said, if you have no idea how to answer the question and all answers seem equally likely it is best not to guess.


After The Test

Standardized tests are exhausting and I’ve never met anyone who really enjoys them. After you finish the test, make sure to give yourself some treat (like ice cream) and some well deserved rest (like a long nap on the sofa). You have worked hard and you deserve some R&R. Good job!

Don't forget to give yourself a treat and relax after the exam is over!

Don’t forget to give yourself a treat and relax after the exam is over!

That’s it for this post — if you have any questions or additional tips please feel free to leave something in the comment section. Thanks for reading!


Download Physics X on iOS and Android

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