02/26/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

How to Study for the SAT Biology E/M Subject Test

In late winter, admission-driven high school students begin to consider which SAT Subject Tests are right for them. While Subject Tests are offered six times a year (October, November, December, January, May, and June), the June date is almost always the best choice because the tests are designed to cover the content of year-long courses at school; and, equally important, there is often significant crossover between Subject Test preparation and preparation for end-of-year final exams.

The SAT Biology E/M is among the most popular Subject Tests. It's appealing for several reasons: for those students who are weaker quantitatively, biology is the least math related of the "hard sciences" and the material is also inherently engaging and accessible. Furthermore, many students will have taken some form of biology three times by the end of their junior year of high school so that foundational concepts are well ingrained even before beginning a studying regiment. As a bonus, at the most rigorous schools, 9th grade biology courses provide enough foundation for students to take the exam with an opportunity to achieve high scores. Getting one standardized test out of the way at the start of the landmine route through high school can be invaluable before the mounting perils of junior-spring and senior-fall.

So, let's determine if the Biology E/M is the right SAT Subject Test for you. The critical first step is to choose the best study materials. Practice tests from the test maker are the logical first choice. Unfortunately, the Collegeboard releases only one exam. After that, students will have to use practice tests fabricated by one of the "big box" education companies. Of the available options, Kaplan does the best job replicating the real thing and intelligently maps out all of the information students must know in order to be fully prepared. Still, the book favors concision over clarity so students should use their school-issued textbooks as a supplement for particularly challenging topics.

With the correct materials now in hand, the next step is to find a quiet place to take a full-length practice test under timed conditions. We suggest students use the Collegeboard-issued exam as a diagnostic so that they have the most accurate measure of their strengths and weaknesses to guide and focus preparation. Typically, scoring the exam is a blow to the ego. Most students desire a score of 700 or above and find their diagnostic hundreds of points below that goal.

But don't panic. Many topics that are entirely unfamiliar now will be taught during the spring. By late February, students enrolled in intensive biology courses have covered molecular biology (e.g., nucleotides, lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, etc.), cellular biology (e.g., organelles, protein synthesis, photosynthesis, cellular respiration, etc.), and genetics (e.g., punnett squares, Mendel, meiosis, etc.), but have yet to dive into organismal biology (e.g., nervous system, excretion, circulatory system, reproductions, etc.) and evolution (Darwin, speciation, Hardy-Weinberg Equalibrium, etc.).

Students should email or meet with their teachers and ask what's on the spring menu. Some courses may cover the immune, nervous, and motor systems, but not the endocrine, and thermoregulation, for example. The Test stresses classification and taxonomy in a way that school courses rarely do. The material is not intellectually challenging, but it is memorization intensive and, therefore, time consuming, so start memorizing kingdoms and phyla now.

Before their studying regiment begins, students also need to understand the structure of the Test. Composed of 80 multiple-choice questions, all students must answer questions 1-60 and then decide whether to answer questions from the Ecological Section (61-80) or the Molecular Section (81-100). Typically, students enrolled in AP Biology or AP-style courses should choose the molecular option while those taking environmental science should consider the ecological section. Browse questions 61-100 in each of Kaplan's practice tests and make a decision. Don't waffle; choose one and commit to it. Happily, for students without time accommodations, SAT Subject Tests are only an hour long, which makes taking practice tests relatively painless. And now it is time to begin studying.

In short, students need to find out what they know, what they need to review, and what will be taught between now and June to form a maximally efficient and effective study plan.

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