SAT II Failproof Study Plan: Math Level 1

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Check your calendar! Junior year is coming to a close, and I bet there's a lot on your plate. In addition to finals, APs and the SAT or ACT, you might also be (or parent!) a student who needs to take SAT II Subject Tests. Though not every college-bound high schooler needs to take these content-focused tests, if the schools on your list require them, you will need to deliver!

Let me cut you in on a little insider strategy: one of the best tests to take is the Math Level I or Math Level 2, for no other reason than that you’ve already been studying math anyway to ace the SAT or ACT. See what I mean? You get more bang for your study buck. So if you've found that despite your best-laid plans (or perhaps because you never really made a plan!) you're in the position of needing to do a lot with not a whole lot of time, this may be a good test for you. Here's my failproof plan for maximizing your time and your score.

Choose between Math Level 1 and 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 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. However, sometimes there’s more to the story. Though it’s hard to give hard and fast answers about which one to take without looking at your diagnostics personally, here are some pointers:

  • 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.
  • If your scores are pretty equal, or your Math Level 2 is higher—take Math Level 2.

Sign up for BOTH the May and June SAT II test dates.

If you can at ALL swing it, and 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 1, Literature, and Biology, sign up to take all 3 of those tests in May and all 3 of those tests in June.

Reason? 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 1 and Biology in May, you can just send May’s Math Level 1 and Biology.

Since there’s no negative consequence, 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 repertoire 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.

Okay, so you've picked Math Level 1. Now what?

For starters, become familiar with the list of topics you’re expected to know on the Math 1 test!

As paraphrased from the College Board, the Math Level 1 consists of the following:

  • Numbers and operations: operations, ratio and proportion, complex numbers, counting, elementary number theory, matrices, sequences
  • Algebra and functions: expressions, equations, inequalities, using equations to model and solve word problems, properties of functions (linear, polynomial, rational, exponential)
  • 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
    • 3-D Geometry: solids, surface area and volume of prisms/cylinders, pyramids/cones, and spheres
  • Trigonometry: right triangles, basic trig identities
  • Data analysis, statistics, and probability: mean, median, mode, range, interquartile range, graphs and plots, linear regression lines (line of “best fit”), probability

Start studying about 6-8 weeks before test day.

Look at the problems you missed on your diagnostic test. Is there a pattern? Did you miss mostly 2-D geometry problems or statistics? Or is it evenly distributed?

Give yourself 4-6 weeks to focus on content.

With the help of a test-prep book (I prefer Barron’s SAT II Math Level 1 or Sparknotes’s tragically out of print SAT II prep book—it's worth tracking down!), review all content. Start with topics in which you missed the most questions, 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 chapters the first week, Algebra chapters the second week, Geometry chapters the third week, and Statistics chapter(s) the fourth week. There might be a few “additional topics” chapters you don’t get to, but those questions are rarer on the test, anyway.

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.

Save the last two weeks before the test for tune-ups and test-oriented review.

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 Khan Academy or YouTube, or ask your tutor if you get stuck.

Here’s the magic sauce, though: keep a running list of the equations or facts that you need to memorize—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 each practice test, and you’re sure to improve!

What's left? Tackle that test!

Remember that running list of math facts you were supposed to keep? Review that the night before and morning of the test. Get a good night's sleep, eat a good breakfast, and go kill it.

Hopefully, this compressed version gives you a basic road map for locking in the score you need on the SAT II Math 1. Good luck!