June 2, 2017

SAT Biology Subject Test: The Best Prep Books

SAT Biology E/M is the most difficult Subject Test in the math and science category. This article reviews specialized resources that will help you get a perfect score.

Biology is a complicated and rapidly changing field, and your school textbook is probably out of date compared to both the AP test and the state of science today. As just one example, this article on earwax suggests that the Mendelian genetics taught in high school is oversimplified and out of sync with scientists' actual observations.

While the AP test has recently been updated to emphasize critical thinking and modern research topics, the Subject Test has been stable over the past twenty years. It asks you to have a basic understanding of a very broad set of information. If you need to prep for both, it's best to pick up a high school or college textbook and read it from cover to cover.

The complexity of biology makes it hard to write good prep guides. Unfortunately, most focus on memorization rather than understanding. In the list below, I include non-traditional study aids that can give you the same depth of knowledge as a biology class would.

If you can only afford one book, get this one. It has two official practice tests and answer explanations.

Neither of these tests is a copy of the one in The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests, so you should get both books if you can.

Official material is a true confidence builder. Every question you get wrong contains skills you need to practice.

Most prep books have poorly written questions, answer key errors, and questions that are unrealistically easy, difficult, or off-topic. If you get questions wrong or run out of time on unofficial tests, you'll have trouble figuring out whether the fault lies with you or with the book you're using.

Based on the raw-to-scaled score conversion tables in the book, an a average raw score of 77/80 will get you perfect 800.

There's no Kindle edition, so you'll have to plan ahead and order a physical copy from Amazon.

This book has an official biology practice test that isn't the same as the two in the dedicated biology guide (above).

If you're going to take several Subject Tests, you need this book anyway.

Based on the raw-to-scaled score conversion chart, the practice test in this book is about as hard as the ones in the dedicated biology guide: to get a perfect 800, you need a raw score of 77/80.

This is a good all-around study guide. It contains content review, useful strategies, and decent practice tests.

Because it focuses on memorization, this book is useful if you have less than two weeks to study. If you have more time, supplement this book with more in-depth resources that will help you understand and retain what you learn.

The practice tests are harder than real College Board tests, but the questions aren't badly written. The publisher may have made the tests harder to encourage students to memorize everything they need to know.

The book's helpful content review chapters can keep you from feeling lost. The Biology Subject Test covers a broader range of topics than you're likely to learn in your high school class, so content review is a must.

The Princeton Review is all about giving you what you need and not one iota more. Their book asks you to memorize information because that's faster than truly understanding it. It also means that you won't retain everything you learn.

Since this book is meant for the Subject Test, you'll need to get an additional study guide if you're planning on taking the AP test, which goes into greater depth.

This book is the gold standard for AP and college-level introductory biology. U.C. Berkeley assigned it in first- and second-semester biology when I was in college.

College textbooks are normally more than a hundred dollars, but you can get older editions used for a couple of dollars. The link above will take you to the 7th (2005) edition.

As you work through each chapter, do the Concept Check questions and the ten-question self-quiz.

This book will get you an 800 on the Subject Test and a 5 on the AP test if you understand even a quarter of what's in it. It's that comprehensive.

Its explanations are detailed and accompanied by helpful diagrams that are mostly consistent with current research. If you understand what's going on, you don't have to memorize it!

The authors are up-front about the limitations of current science. For example, we observe centrioles during mitosis, but scientists still don't know what they do. A high school biology textbook probably won't mention these limitations, as they would put your teacher in the awkward position of having to say, "I don't know how to answer your questions."

You need a lot of time to get through this book. It's 1231 pages of college-level writing.

To avoid simple memorization, you may need to experience your Biology class a second time. Fortunately, Khan Academy has made its lectures available online as a podcast. You can also watch the lectures on Khan Academy's Biology site.

You can download podcasts and listen to them in your car using the Podcast Republic app and a bluetooth FM transmitter.

Sal Khan breaks down complicated topics into small, digestible chunks. He has a soothing voice that won't distract you too much when you're driving.

You may find it hard to get the podcast episodes to play in order on your phone. You can avoid that problem by watching them directly on Khan Academy's Web site.

Khan does not rely on cutting-edge research. He tends to oversimplify topics like a non-AP biology textbook would.

The modern focus on molecular and cell biology is great for the AP test, which was revised a few years ago, but skips over some topics on organism classification that you need to know for the Biology Subject Test.

This is MIT's introductory Biology course recorded in real time. It's a college-level version of the Khan Academy podcast described earlier.

If you need eye candy, you won't get it here. Most of the slides the professors used in class have been "removed due to copyright concerns." Use another book or podcast as your primary study source and listen to the MIT lectures in the car to deepen your understanding.

These scientists are relatively aware of the complexities of their field. For example, one of the professors mentions that Gregor Mendel's original research on genetic crosses worked on pea plants and only on pea plants. His attempts to duplicate his results on hawkweeds and bees failed. As a result, Mendel toiled in obscurity, and his work was only recognized as significant after his death.

As with Khan Academy, the modern focus on molecular and cell biology is great for the AP test, which was revised a few years ago, but skips over some topics on organism classification that you need to know for the Biology Subject Test.

Going for a Perfect Score

A raw score of 77/80 will usually get you a perfect scaled 800 on SAT Biology. After the test deducts a quarter of a point for every question you get wrong, you can afford to miss only two of eighty problems. That's like getting a 98% on a comprehensive high school biology final.

The books above contain everything you need to get an awesome score, but if you'd like personalized help, you can sign up for in-home or online tutoring.


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