SAT II Failproof Study Plan: Math Level 2

The first step to acing the SAT II Math Level 2 Subject Test is making sure this test is for you in the first place! Plenty of students initially believe that just because they’re in pre-calc or trig right now, earning straight As, that means they must take the SAT II Math Level 2 Subject Test over the Math Level 1 Subject Test. After all, it's more advanced, right? And they're more advanced. It just makes sense.

However, as standardized tests, the two are entirely different beasts.

While the SAT II Math Level 1 test forces students to be perfect and trick-proof on more basic math concepts (pre-algebra, algebra, plane geometry, and beginner statistics), the SAT II Math Level 2 test rewards straightforward application of much harder math topics (3-D geometry, coordinate geometry, pre-calc, advanced trig, conic sections, etc).

Timing-wise, all 50 problems of Math Level 1 are absolutely doable in the 60 minutes, and your score will suffer if you don’t work through everything. Think of it as: finishing is the norm, so not finishing is therefore not competitive. Math Level 2, on the other hand, requires a student to work quickly—finishing all 50 problems in an hour is highly unlikely—but not all 50 questions are required for a top score. On some Math Level 2 curves, a student can answer the first 43 questions and not make it to the last 7…and still end up with a perfect 800!

That said, if you’re a slow worker—but work without careless errors and mistakes—you might benefit from taking Math Level 1, even if you earn straight A’s in pre-calc.

On the other hand, if you work quickly and know upper level math topics well—yet can be fooled by a twist in a tricky question—your score will likely benefit from the Math Level 2 curve.

However, the only true way to know which one to take is to try them both and compare! So…

Step 1) Pick Your SAT II: Math Level 1 or Math Level 2?

The best way to do this is to first take a diagnostic test of each. Please take a whole test of each—not just the 15 or so practice questions on the College Board site—each timed for an hour. (For extended time, you’d get 90 minutes per test.) I’d use the previously-administered College Board practice tests in this book and recommend taking them on separate days, just so tiredness doesn’t affect the scores.

In general, you want to go with the test on which you get the higher score (duh!). However, sometimes there’s more to the story. Though I can't give you definitive advice about which one to take without looking at your diagnostics personally, I can give you some pointers based on a decade of experience:

  • If you are applying to engineering departments or certain business undergraduate programs, Math Level 2 is required. Make sure to research your college list: you may not have a choice!
  • If you DO have a choice, and your Math Level 1 score is significantly higher than your Math Level 2 score—like 100+ points higher—take Math Level 1, no questions asked.
  • If your Math Level 1 score is up to 50-ish points higher than Math Level 2—and you ran out of time and didn’t finish several questions on Math Level 2, nor have you learned many of the pre-calc or trig topics—take Math Level 1.
  • If your Math Level 1 score is up to 50 points higher than your Math Level 2 score—but you basically finished most of the questions and remember learning most of the concepts in school at some point—take Math Level 2 and study.
  • If your scores are pretty equal, or your Math Level 2 is higher—take Math Level 2.

All set? Great! Now...

Step 2) Max out your chances for your best score: sign up for BOTH the May and June SAT II test dates.

As I’ve mentioned before, if you don’t need the May test date for your regular SAT I, take all your Subject Tests for BOTH of these sittings. If you are taking Math Level 2, Literature, and World History, sign up to take all three of those tests in May and all three of those tests in June.

The College Board—the company that owns the SAT—has changed its policies, and now, they allow you to submit only the particular SAT II Subject Tests that you wish to send to each college. So if you bombed Literature but aced Math 2 and World History in May, you can just send May’s Math Level 2 and World History scores. No one needs to see that Lit score, even though you took that test the hour after the other two.

Since there’s no negative consequence to performing poorly, take them twice. You’ll already be studying for your AP’s, Regents, and finals during that time, so you can just add this to your study plan and do double (or triple) duty. And knowing you’ll take them in June regardless of how you do in May takes the pressure off.

Step 3) Know what you need to know to ace Math Level 2.

For starters, become familiar with the list of topics you’re expected to know on this test! As paraphrased from the College Board, the Math Level 2 consists of the following (italicized topics are on Math Level 2 but not Math Level 1; plane Geometry is not tested directly on Math Level 2; everything else is on both):

  • Numbers and operations: operations, ratio and proportion, complex numbers, counting, elementary number theory, matrices, sequences, series, vectors
  • Algebra and functions: expressions, equations, inequalities, using equations to model and solve word problems, properties of functions (linear, polynomial, rational, exponential, logarithmic, trigonometric, inverse trigonometric, periodic, piecewise, recursive, parametric)
  • Geometry and measurement: plane geometry (area, perimeter, and properties of 2-D shapes, lines and angles), functions and shapes on the coordinate plane (lines, parabolas, circles, symmetry, transformations, ellipses, hyperbolas, polar coordinates), 3-D geometry (solids, surface area and volume of prisms/cylinders, pyramids/cones, and spheres, coordinates in 3 dimensions), trigonometry (right triangles, basic trig identities, radian measure, law of cosines, law of sines, equations, double angle formulas)
  • Data analysis, statistics, and probability: mean, median, mode, range, interquartile range, graphs and plots, linear regression lines (line of “best fit”), least squares regression (quadratic, exponential), standard deviation, probability

Step 4) Plot your path to maxing out your Math Level 2 score!

a) Begin 6-8 weeks out.

Look at the problems you missed on your diagnostic test. Is there a pattern? Did you miss mostly trig or statistics? Or is it evenly distributed?

b) Do 4-6 weeks of content review (until 2 weeks before the test).

With the help of a test-prep book (I prefer Barron’s SAT II Math Level 2 or Sparknotes’s out-of-print Math 2c prep book), review all content. Start with topics in which you missed the most questions on your diagnostics, but ideally, get through all the topics!

If you have a solid 6+ weeks to review all the content, work through your entire chosen book, doing 2-3 chapters each week until you’re done. (Or just divide the number of chapters there are by the number of weeks you have and commit to that.)

If you have only 4 weeks to review all the content, work through all the Pre-Algebra and Algebra chapters the first week, Algebra 2 (functions) chapters the second week, 3-D Geometry chapters the third week, and Statistics and Trig chapters the fourth week. There might be a few “additional topics” chapters you don’t get to, but those questions (polar coordinates, vectors, etc) are rarer on the test, anyway. And you don’t need to get every question right to get a top score!

If you only have 2 weeks to review content, focus only on the areas where you missed the highest number of questions on your diagnostic test. Don’t worry about the rest; you don’t have time.

c) Make the most of the final 2 weeks before the test.

Take 1-2 mock tests each week. Make sure to go over every single question you got wrong. Most books have comprehensive explanations, but they aren’t all user-friendly. Look it up on Kahn Academy, Youtube, or ask your tutor if you get stuck.

And lastly, make sure you synthesize everything you’re going over! Otherwise, what good is all that time spent? Here’s what I coach my clients to do: keep a running list of the equations or facts that you need to commit to memory—the math facts that, had you just remembered, would have allowed you to get the question right in the first place. Review this list before taking the next practice test, and when you go over that one, keep adding to your list. You’re guaranteed to improve!

d) One last review, and get ready to crush the test.

Remember that “running list” of math facts you kept adding to whenever you reviewed a practice test? Review that the night before and morning of the test.

You’re done! Way to go! Now take a breath, pat yourself on the back, and go scratch Math Level 2 off your test-prep to-do list.