Preparing for an SAT Subject Test: Biology E/M

Posted by The PhD Perspective on 3/1/13 10:19 AM

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As you prepare your college admissions applications, you may notice that some schools require two to three SAT Subject tests.  Even if a subject test is not required, taking one of these exams and scoring well can really strengthen your application.  

If you're interested in biology, consider taking the Biology E/M SAT subject test! Why? Well, a good score on these exams indicates an aptitude for a specific topic, and is a great predictor for future success.  Often, those interested in pursuing degrees in the sciences (biology, biochemistry, chemistry, engineering) will take the Biology E/M SAT subject test to demonstrate expertise and long-term interest.  

As a biology tutor, I am well-versed in the biology Subject test. Let's explore the make-up of the biology subject test:

1) The Exam Structure 

The biology subject test is unique in its structure because students have the option to complete a set of questions specializing either in Ecology (E) or Molecular Biology (M). 

In an 80 question test, 60 questions will overlap between the two topics, and 20 will be specific to the specialization that you’ve chosen.  The difference is reflected in the number of questions for each topic

  • Cellular and Molecular Biology
    • 27% of the M exam/15% of the E exam
  • Ecology
    • 13% of the M exam/23% of the E exam
  • Genetics
    • 20% of the M exam/15% of the E exam
  • Organismal Biology
    • 25% on both exams
  • Evolution and Diversity
    • 15% of the M exam/22% of the E exam

2) Types of questions:

There are three types of questions on the exam. 

  • Fact based questions
    • These questions rely solely on your ability to recall pieces of information.  The only way to prepare for this is to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

ATP is produced during which of the following processes?

I. Photosynthesis

II. Aerobic respiration

III. Fermentation

(A) I only (B) II only (C) I and III only

(D) II and III only (E) I, II, and III

The answer here is E.  This question requires you to just recall which processes produce ATP.  All three o these processes are able to produce ATP.

  • Application of Knowledge
    • These questions require you to apply knowledge to a practical situation.

Which of the following most accurately reveals common

ancestry among many different species of organisms?

(A) The amino acid sequence of their cytochrome C

(B) Their ability to synthesize hemoglobin

(C) The percentage of their body weight that is fat

(D) The percentage of their body surface that is used in gas


(E) The mechanism of their mode of locomotion

The answer here is A.  This question requires you to draw on your knowledge that organisms that when looking at the relatedness of organisms, you compare things which are common across all of the individuals you are interested in.  Any changes are mutations, and show divergence between the organisms in question.  Only choice A is able to discuss common ancestry

  • Interpretation questions
    • These questions require you to interpret graphs and charts in order to reach conclusions about the data.  
    • When interpreting a graph, it is  mportant to look at your axes and determine what the dependent variable (y axis) and the independent variable (x axis).  
    • Then, determine how y changes with x (are they directly proportional or indirectly proportional?).  This will allow you to cross off answers which don’t follow the right trends.  It is also useful to ask yourself, is it a linear relationship between y and x?  
    • Going through these steps is a smart way to get to the right answer. A tutor can help you master these skills (this skill will actually prove useful for the rest of your career in biology).

The SAT subject test offers a chance to showcase your achievement and expertise in biology.  Depending on which topic you feel more comfortable with, choose the Ecology heavy exam, or the Molecular Biology heavy exam.  Although not required, it is in your best interest to take the exam, especially if you are interested in pursuing a degree in the sciences. 

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