August 17, 2019

SAT Literature Subject Test: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added material to the Background Knowledge section of this post.

The SAT Literature Subject Test, like SAT Critical Reading, is very difficult to write practice questions for. Each question has to be properly tricky while still having one objectively correct answer and four others that are unambiguously wrong. The College Board's tests do this far better than third-party practice tests do.

You'll need a hybrid study plan: College Board tests combined with content review from a third-party company. Here's a list of the best prep books.

The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests

This book has the only officially released SAT Literature practice test available.

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

The answer explanations only cover the answer choice that's correct for each question and ignores the incorrect choices. If you want to prep effectively, you have to be able to explain to yourself why each of those choices is objectively wrong.

College Board Online Practice for SAT Literature

You need all the official practice you can get for this test.

These are official questions, and they're free!

There aren't enough online questions to form a full practice test, and they're easier than the questions you'll see on the real exam.

Ivy Global Online SAT Literature Practice Test and Answer Explanations
Ivy Global, which has published fairly accurate SAT practice tests, has a downloadable SAT Literature practice test.

The test itself is realistic, but it has answer key errors. (The online explanations contradict the key at the back of the test.)
#26 is D, not A
#27 is A, not D
#43 is B, not D

Here are my own answer explanations for two questions for which I thought Ivy Global's explanations were not very clear:

For #4, the poem describes a train rushing through the city's great gaunt gut, which literally means a large, thin intestine.
(A) doesn't match the idea of an intestine,
(B) points to criminals that aren't in the poem, and
(C) is problematic because there's no support for the word efficient or for whatever the subway is supposed to be digesting.
The word viscera in (E) works, but the words bloated and distended don't, as they suggest a swollen stomach and not a gaunt one.
(D) is the answer, as "sprawling" matches the idea of a long intestine, while "cheerless" matches the words weary, sick, heavy, swallowed, and moans.

#8 is tough because of the vocabulary words in the answer choices:
(A) doesn't work because the word bucolic refers to the pleasant aspect of countryside life, and most of the imagery in the second half of the poem is ocean-related.
(B) is wrong because there's so suggestion that the wind will end up escaping the subway in the future. Just because it "wants" to doesn't mean that anything will happen.
(C) contrasts concrete (actual) realities with surreal (bizarre, unrealistic, dreamlike) fantasies. Unfortunately, the metaphor of a subway as a human intestine (a strange description of reality) is more bizarre than the picture of wind gently blowing palm trees and ships (a fantasy grounded in reality).
(D) is wrong because the poem is talking about the wind desiring to be somewhere else, not about some imagined war between humanity and nature.
(E) is correct: everything the wind touches in the first half of the poem is either human or human-made, while everything in the second half of the poem describes the setting the wind would like to be in.

Kaplan SAT Subject Test Literature

This is the only prep book I've seen with well-written content review practice questions. The 2017 edition is identical to the 2015-16 edition I'm reviewing.

Considering how inaccurate and confusing unofficial questions tend to be, the ones in chapters 1-7 are actually pretty good. The only poorly written question is problem 2 in chapter 4.

This book will overprep you slightly: you probably don't need to know the term anastrophe, for example, although it's helpful to be familiar with the idea that poetry can change a sentence's word order to make it fit a poem's rhyme scheme and meter. You don't need to know a sonnet's exact rhyme scheme, although it can be helpful to be able to identify a sonnet and to recognize that its main point is always contained in the last two lines.

The practice questions in chapters 1-7 are well-written, but the answer explanations are unhelpfully short.

Avoid the diagnostic test and the practice tests. which have poorly written questions that will make you legitimately confused about which answer choices are correct.

Ivy Global's SAT Subject Test in Literature: Study Guide & 6 Practice Tests

Ivy Global's content review chapters aren't as good as Kaplan's, but the Ivy Global practice tests are better.

I worked through all of the content review as well as the first three practice tests and didn't run into any issues except for two questions on test #2 - pretty impressive for a subject that's hard to write practice questions for.

The tests' answer explanations are thorough and accurate.

This is a big one: the practice questions in the content review don't have answer explanations. Good luck trying to review your work on your own!

If you need explanations, go through the content review in the Kaplan book before taking Ivy Global's practice tests.

On the second practice test, watch out for #16 (nostalgia requires positive feelings about the past that aren't present in the passage) and #33 (it seems to me that both self-interest and pride are valid answers, as self-interest isn't strictly incompatible with consideration for others' feelings; you just have to consider your own feelings before those of others).

The Official SAT Study Guide, 2018 Edition

The Critical Reader: The Complete Guide to SAT Reading (Erica Meltzer)

Yes, I'm recommending regular SAT books. The new SAT's Critical Reading section is tricky enough to help you train for the SAT Literature and AP English tests. Here are the differences:

New SAT Critical Reading SAT Literature AP English Literature multiple choice
Passage Difficulty Medium Hard Hard
Question Difficulty Hard Hard Very Hard
Time per Question 75 seconds 57 seconds 65 seconds
Curve Brutal Hard Forgiving

Neither SAT Literature nor the AP test has the SAT's tricky Supporting Evidence questions ("Which choice provides the best evidence for...").

The more forgiving the curve, the easier it is to overprep and get a perfect score. On practice tests, I usually get 52/52 correct on Critical Reading (a 400/400), 59/61 correct on SAT Literature (an 800), and 51/55 correct on AP English Literature (a 5).

You can download SAT practice tests for free online or read my reviews of SAT prep books.

AP English Literature Released Exams

If you want to challenge yourself, take the multiple choice sections of official College Board AP English Literature tests. The passages are similar to those in SAT Literature, but the questions are much harder, and they don't have any answer explanations.

You'll find a few complete released exams along with a wide selection of free-response questions at the AP English Literature Web site. Here are direct links to the complete exams:

2012 AP English Literature exam

1999 AP English Literature exam (As of 3/23/19, this link is broken. I'll keep the link on this page for now in case the College Board decides the make the test available again.)

1987 AP English Literature exam

You can also find sample multiple-choice questions starting at page 12 (PDF page 16) of the AP English Literature Course Description booklet.

If you're really serious, you can purchase more released exams from the College Board's catalog or from Amazon.

Background Knowledge

Understanding how Western thought has developed from medieval times to the 20th century is critical to finishing the SAT Literature test on time with a score of 700+. Here's a reading list designed to help you get that knowledge as quickly as possible.

I've already mentioned Kaplan SAT Subject Test Literature as a useful way to review the test's content and question types.

Sophie’s World is an engaging, readable introduction to the history of western philosophy. If you can identify how a difficult passage interacts with a major viewpoint like Christianity, Romanticism, or post-modernism, you'll be able to read much faster.

Read as many of Shakespeare's sonnets as you can. (My favorite is #130.) Get familiar with the way sonnets use meter, rhyme, and couplets as organizational tools. If you struggle with sonnets, read the couplet at the end (the last two lines) in order to figure out each sonnet's main point and return to the beginning with that information in mind. Sonnets tend to be about love or death - and sometimes both.

If you prefer to listen to a podcast, subscribe to The History of Philosophy and Christian Thought (taught by the late Dr. Ronald Nash, a professor at a Christian seminary). Listen to episodes 16- 19 (on Augustine) for an overview of medieval thought and episodes 24-27 to learn about Renaissance and Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism.

Books to Avoid

Unlike the Princeton Review's normal offerings, Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test has confusing, poorly written questions throughout the entire book.

Barron's SAT Subject Test Literature will overprep you with a plethora of literary terms you don't need to know. The Level 1 vocab list at the beginning of chapter 5 is pretty good, but the Level 2 and Level 3 lists are a mixed bag. Why are sarcasm, imagery, and conflict in the Level 3 list, with ballad, sprung rhythm, and antiheroine in Level 2?

Going for a Perfect Score

To get a perfect score on the publicly released SAT Literature practice test, you need to get 59/61 questions right. That's like getting a 97% on a comprehensive 12th-grade English final.

This article contains 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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