What to Know About the SAT Literature Subject Test

Studying for SAT Subject Tests can occasionally seem quite daunting. However, if you’ve been a diligent high school student, you’ve already started your test prep—especially for the SAT Subject Test in Literature. The SAT Literature Subject Test reflects what you learn in your high school English classes. Need more information? Keep reading to find out what to know about the SAT Literature Subject Test.

SAT Literature Subject Test basics

You will have 60 minutes to complete around 60 multiple-choice questions. American and English literature comprise 90-100% of the selections on the exam, while the remaining 0-10% includes works from other parts of the world. In terms of chronology, the following is the test breakdown:

  • The Renaissance and 17th century make up 30% of the exam.

  • The 18th and 19th centuries make up 30% of the test.

  • The 20th century makes up 40% of the exam.

Poetry and prose passages both comprise 40-50% of the passages found on the test, while other formats are 0-10% of the exam.

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Tip #1: Review literary terminology before the SAT Literature Subject Test

You’ve probably encountered these terms every year since middle school, but it’s worth it to take the time to really understand each concept, and to have an example of each one. These terms can include tone, stanza, irony, image, and more. You’ll be asked to recognize these in the text selections, so practice being on the lookout for them as you read. Come up with a code for yourself to quickly identify them upon looking back (perhaps a star indicates a metaphor or simile). Since this is a reading-heavy test, any time-saving technique can be useful.

Tip #2: Use practice tests to prepare for the SAT Literature Subject Test

SAT Literature practice tests are your new best friend. Before setting out to practice, determine what you want to focus on. Are you struggling with time? Set a goal time, and work on finishing before the end. Are you always getting stuck on theme? Focus on identifying the thematic concepts as you read to make answering the questions at the end a little bit easier. Strategic studying will help you learn more efficiently and effectively.

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Tip #3: Know what to look for in the SAT Literature Subject Test readings

On the exam, you will be given six to eight sets of questions, which are each based on a different text. A hint: keep an eye out for the date given at the end of each piece. While you won’t be asked about the historical background surrounding that literary text, it might help you understand the world and the time it came from. Notice what the form of the piece is—what is its structure, genre, and organization? While you’re reading, take note of word choice. Are there any words that pop out to you? Perhaps underlining them could be helpful later.

Additionally, observe the meanings and connotations of words in the text. You will also want to discern what the narrative voice is. Pinpoint who is talking, and how they feel about what they’re talking about. Be as specific as you can! Lastly, pay attention to characterization. How are the characters described in the text? Keeping all of these ideas in mind while reading will make the multiple-choice questions go much faster and smoother.

In the end, constantly reading is the best way to do well on this test. By engaging that muscle, you learn how to read faster and grasp the material better. Try to read a variety of texts—novels, poetry, and plays are all great ways to enrich your mind and do well on the exam. While reading, get in the mode of asking yourself questions so that you’re actively engaging with the text. Do you know who’s talking? What is the theme and how is the author trying to comment upon that? These questions will help you get closer to that 800 score on the SAT Literature Subject Test.


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