SAT II Failproof Study Plan: Literature

Okay. So, you're following my plan for stressed-out, time-crunched test-takers who need to submit SAT II scores in record time. You've chosen either Math Level 1 or Math Level 2, and you're doing the content review that I laid out in those posts. But that's still only one SAT II! Which second Subject Test should you be adding to present a well-rounded application—without taking on more work than you have to and tanking your test-prep schedule?

If you need to take SAT II Subject Tests and don’t really have a strong knowledge of or passion for the sciences, history, or languages, the SAT II Literature Subject Test is one of my go-to fixes. While this Subject Test is meant to be taken the same year as either AP Comparative Literature or AP Language & Composition, you’ve already been studying reading comprehension anyway to ace the SAT or ACT. By changing your focus just a bit to include more literary devices and figurative language skills—which I’m sure you’ve learned in ANY level of English class thus far—and following my fail-proof study plan, rest easy that you’ll be on track for test day.

Step 1) Take a diagnostic SAT II Literature Subject Test

For the diagnostic, you want to take a full, timed, previously-administered test by the College Board to see how you really would have scored. You can find one in this book.

When you take a diagnostic test, make sure to emulate testing conditions: quiet environment, no distractions/screens, no breaks, food or drink. Also, take the diagnostic in the morning, ideally around 9am, when you would take the real test. Though you could pay to take this diagnostic test at a testing center, I find that since there’s only one section, that tends to be a waste of money. You’ll have 60 minutes to complete the 60 questions—90 minutes if you have extended time. Set your iPhone timer, and get to it!

Step 2) Sign up for BOTH the May and June SAT II test dates

Again, 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 1, Literature, and Biology, sign up to take all 3 of those tests in May and all 3 of those tests in June.

The 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 Biology, but aced Literature and Math 1 in May, you can just send May’s Literature and Math 1 scores to your colleges.

Since there’s no negative consequence, take them twice. You’ll already be studying for your AP exams, Regents, and finals during that time, so your knowledge of “metaphor” and “anthropomorphism” will do double (or triple) duty. And knowing you’ll take your Subject Tests in June regardless of how you do in May takes the pressure off—which is key to getting the scores you want.

Step 3) Fill in Any Gaps in your Literature Knowledge

Though this particular test is hard to study for in the traditional sense of “memorize/regurgitate”—because you’ll be evaluated on your deep understanding of 6-8 passages that you’ve likely never seen before—there ARE a slew of concepts and words you’ll need to know to merely understand what each question is asking you. And you’ll need to become familiar with the layout of these texts and the type of questions they will ask.

Here's what the SAT II Literature Subject Test looks like:

  • It consists of 6-8 texts, with 6-10 questions apiece (60 questions total).
  • Texts are roughly split between prose fiction and poetry, with a possible drama piece thrown in.
  • Texts are split across between different centuries, with roughly a third from the 17th Century and Renaissance, a third from the 18th and 19th Centuries, and a third from the 20th Century.
  • Texts are roughly split between American and English authors, though there could be one piece written in English but from another country

The College Board also lists these concepts you'll be tested on during the SAT II Literature Subject Test:

  • Knowledge of basic literary terminology, such as irony, stanza, image, tone, alliteration, and speaker (highly specialized terms are not covered).
  • Understanding of the following literary concepts:
    • Overall meaning, including effect and theme
    • Form, including structure, genre, and organization
    • Use of language, including word choice, imagery and metaphor
    • Meanings and connotations of specific words in context
    • Narrative voice, including tone and attitude
    • Characterization in narrative and dramatic selection

Step 4) Map out a testing timeline to maximize the time you've got to prepare.

a) Begin 6-8 Weeks Out

Look at the problems you missed on your diagnostic test. Is there a pattern? Did you miss mostly figurative language questions or poetry questions? Or is it evenly distributed among all the topics?

b) 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 Literature book), review all content. Start with topics in which you missed the most questions, but ideally, get through all of them!

If you have a solid 6+ weeks to review all the content, work through your entire chosen book, doing 1-2 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 chapters on “form”/”genre”/”organization” the first week, “use of language”/”imagery” chapters the second week, “tone”/”attitude” chapters the third week, and “meaning”/”connotation” the fourth week. As you go through each chapter, working through the example passages, keep a running list of lit-specific terms and vocabulary. Make flashcards if you have to!

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) 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 look it up on YouTube (or ask your tutor!) if you get stuck.

Every time you get a question wrong, make sure to harvest that question and accompanying answer choices for any figurative language or other literary device term that you may not have completely understood. Add these to your running list or set of flashcards of terms/vocab, and review it often!

d) Test Day!

I keep talking about a “running list” of literary terms you were supposed to create and keep adding to. Do you have it next to you? Great! Review that the night before and morning of the test.

You're done with the SAT II Subject Tests! Whew!

I hope this series has helped you make some important decisions about how to approach those fast-approaching SAT II Subject Tests! Especially now that time is tight, don't let panic drain your time and energy—make a plan and carry it out. It's the single best thing you can do for your score. Good luck!