SAT Physics Subject Test

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

pencil and test paper on the table

SAT Physics Subject Test: Your Questions Answered

While the ACT and SAT are well-known exams that students take in order to improve their chances of getting into esteemed colleges, you might not be as familiar with a group of tests known as the SAT Subject Tests. While there are a total of 20 different tests within this group with topics ranging from science and math to the humanities, students only tend to take one that fits their academic focus.

students listening intently to a class discussion

The SAT Physics Subject Test plays a critical role in helping students illustrate their interest in the field to admission officers, especially when applying to highly selective schools and prominent programs. Still, taking the SAT Physics Subject Test can make you stand out when applying to any college.

The college admission specialists at AdmissionSight are here to aid you in the preparation process for taking these tests. Whether you have a dream to become a physicist or simply want to receive a major in the field, we’ve developed this guide for anyone who is thinking about taking the SAT Physics Subject Test in order to achieve their academic goals.

What is the SAT Physics Subject Test?

The SAT Physics Subject Test is an optional exam that students can take to demonstrate their prowess and interest in the field. Students who opt to take the exam will be tested on their ability to understand certain concepts and ideas covered in college-prep physics courses in addition to problem-solving and reasoning skills based on lab experience.

a math problem with a pencil

At AdmissionSight, we recommend that any students pursuing a science-based or math-based program take the SAT Physics Subject Test to increase their chances of getting accepted. In fact, some colleges do require incoming students to take this exam. Like all SAT Subject Tests, students have an hour to complete the Physics exam. There are 75 multiple-choice questions, and the score is ranged between 200 and 800. Similar to other science-related Subject Tests, students aren’t permitted to use calculators. The tests must also be taken on certain days within June, May, August, October, November, and December.

What are the benefits of taking the SAT Physics Subject Test?

We get it. The sheer thought of having to take another test in preparation for college is enough to make you gag. With the ACT, SAT, and applications already filling up a lot of your free time, why would you voluntarily take on the SAT Physics Subject Test? That’s a good question, but we’ve got some solid answers too.

At AdmissionSight, we believe in doing everything you can to make your application as successful and impressive as possible. Let’s take a look at some reasons why the SAT Physics Subject Test is worthwhile:

  • Your applicant will stand out – With thousands of competing applications, it’s tough to get admission officers to take notice of you. Putting in the extra effort to take this Subject Test that other students avoid is a surefire way to stand out amongst the crowd as a dedicated student.
  • You’ll meet some requirements – While some schools see the Physics Subject Test as an extra, others actually require it from their applicants. This is a strategy used by highly selective schools and programs to find what they deem to be the ideal candidate.
  • Gain credit for college courses – If you’ve been enrolled in an AP-level course in high school, you know the great feeling of earning college credit before setting foot on campus. Taking Physics Subject Test can give you that same advantage since some schools grant takers credit on entry-level courses.
  • Demonstrate your interest in the field – If you’re applying to a prestigious school or popular program, it’s not enough to show a general interest in the field. Instead, you have to illustrate your interest in pursuing the subject based on academic and extracurricular performance. Taking the Physics Subject Test is one of the best ways to demonstrate this to admission officers.

When should I think about taking the SAT Physics Subject Test?

Just because there are advantages to taking the SAT Physics Subject Test doesn’t mean that every student should rush to take it. After all, it does eat up a lot of your time and there are 19 others from which to choose. To help you better understand when it’s best to take the exam, AdmissionSight offers some potential scenarios when we believe it’s smart of students to take the SAT Physics Subject Test:

1. You have just finished a physics class.

Although there are 20 different SAT Subject Tests, not all are considered equally difficult. Among the science-related exams, Physics is often regarded as one of the more demanding tests – especially for those students who didn’t take a physics course recently. An ideal time to take the SAT Physics Subject Test is right after you complete an advanced course in physics in high school. The time you’ve already invested in doing homework, projects, and taking exams can easily be put towards the test without having to spend extra time preparing for the test. All of the fundamentals of the subject will still be fresh in your mind. Students who passed an AP-level physics course will be in an especially good position since the Subject Tests are usually regarded as being easier.

2. You plan on pursuing a major in physics.

There’s no question that the Physics Subject Test is hyper-specialized. While it won’t hurt for any student to take it, the time and effort required might be better put into other areas for those not interested in majoring in a related field. On the other hand, if you’re set on graduating with a physics major, then this exam is a great way to illustrate your aptitude in the field. You don’t even need to be sure that this is the career you want to pursue. A mere interest in obtaining a physics degree is enough to make it worthwhile to take the Physics Subject Test. A good grade in your physics course and a few related extracurriculars won’t be enough to set yourself apart from other students interested in pursuing the same major. Admission officers will take note if you went out of your way to take and pass the SAT Physics Subject Test.

What kind of skills are tested on the SAT Physics Subject Test?

Calling this exam a “physics test” doesn’t express a lot about what students can expect to face. AdmissionSight wants you to be as prepared as possible for the SAT Physics Subject Test, so we’ll break down what kind of skills will be tested. Roughly 48%-64% of the exam will be problems revolving around single-concepts. These are fairly straight-forward but do require some reasoning and application. 20%-35% will be multiple-concept problems which are just more involved versions of the previous group. The remaining 12%-20% of the Subject Test will be quizzing students’ knowledge of basic physics concepts.

A professor doing a experiment on their physics class

More specifically, students should be able to understand and recall major physics concepts and apply them to physical principles in order to solve problems. You’ll also need a basic understanding of algebra, graphical relationships, trigonometric relationships, and proportion and ratio concepts, and how to apply them to different physics problems. Students will need to take their knowledge of laboratory skills within the field of physics to answer some content as well. Don’t forget to familiarize yourself with the metric system if you haven’t already.

What’s recommended to have before taking this test?

AdmissionSight recommends that students taking the SAT Physics Subject Test have at least taken on-year of an introductory physics course at the college-prep level. It’s also advisable that you’ve had courses in trigonometry and algebra since these subjects are covered on the test. As mentioned before, there are some questions that reference laboratory skills, so having extensive experience in a physics lab setting is critical. Let us know if you need help preparing a senior-year schedule to accommodate these classes before taking the SAT Physics Subject Test.

What does the SAT Physics Subject Test Contain?


Percentage of test


  • Kinematics (i.e. motion of projectiles, motion in 1-D, acceleration, and velocity)
  • Dynamics (i.e. force, friction, statistics, and Newton’s laws)
  • Energy and momentum (i.e. kinetic and potential energy, power, work, conservation laws, and impulse)
  • Circular motion (i.e. centripetal force and uniform circular motion)
  • Simple harmonic motion
  • Gravity (i.e. Kepler’s laws, Orbis, and the law of gravitation)
Electricity and magnetism

  • Potentials, electric fields, and forces (i.e. Coulomb’s law, charged particles in electric fields, potential and field of groups of point charges, and induced charge)
  • Capacitance (i.e. time-varying behavior and parallel-plate capacitors in discharging/charging)
  • DC circuits and circuit elements (i.e. Joule’s law, Ohm’s law, parallel and series networks, light bulbs, and resistors)
  • Magnetism (i.e. Lenz’s law, Faraday’s law, particles in magnetic fields, fields caused by currents, and permanent magnets)
Waves and optics

  • General wave properties (i.e. wave speed, Doppler effect, standing wave diffraction, superposition, wavelengths, and frequency)
  • Reflection and refraction (i.e. changes in speed and wavelength and  Snell’s law)
  • Ray optics (i.e. image formation using lenses, mirrors, and pinholes)
  • Physical optic (i.e.single-slit diffraction, color, polarization, and double-slit interference)
Heat and thermodynamics

  • Thermal properties (i.e. thermal expansions, latent and specific heats, heat transfer, and temperature)
  • Laws of thermodynamics (i.e. heat efficiency, internal energy, entropy, and the first and second laws)
Modern physics

  • Quantum phenomena (i.e. photoelectric effect and photons)
  • Atomic (i.e. atomic spectra, atomic energy levels, and the Bohr and Rutherford models)
  • Nuclear and particle physics (i.e. fundamental particles, nuclear reactions, and radioactivity)
  • Relativity (i.e. mass-energy equivalence, length contraction, and time dilation)

  • General (i.e. history of physics and other general questions ranging several topics)
  • Analytical skills (i.e. math skills, measurements, and graphical analysis)
  • Contemporary physics (i.e. chaos theory, superconductivity, and astrophysics)

What resources can I use to prepare for the SAT Physics Subject Test?

Free online resources 

The SAT Subject Tests force a lot of students online to seek out helpful resources for studying and preparing. Fortunately, there are some incredibly instructive sites that won’t cost you a dime. We’ve compiled some of the best resources here.

Sample physics questions online 

While these aren’t official questions, meaning they haven’t been used on past tests, they can still give students a rough idea about what kind of concepts they’ll need to be able to recall when taking the real test. It’s a helpful practice resource that’s quick and even a little fun to do.

In-depth video lessons through the Khan Academy

Perhaps the most active provider of instructive videos related to the SAT Subject Tests is the Khan Academy. If you find yourself browsing YouTube, you can easily head over to their page to watch any video related to the SAT Physics Subject Test. Whether you’re looking for sample questions, test-taking instructions, detailed answers, or other helpful advice, you’ll find it here. It’s a great way to get some studying done in a more entertaining and captivating way.

Student Guide for the SAT Subject Tests 

Sometimes, you’ll have to browse through a study guide for all of the SAT Subject Tests in order to get the help you need for the Physics Subject Tests specifically. For example, this comprehensive study guide features test-taking tips, realistic questions, and answer explanations for each of the 20 tests, including for the Physics one. This is a great resource for students planning on taking more than one Subject Test or for those still deciding between a few.

Official study guides

Official study guides are like the Holy Grail for students preparing for any of the SAT Subject Tests. While other sources might give you a glimpse or rough idea of what you can expect from the Physics Subject Test, these guides will provide you with official questions, some of which were used on previous tests. You might have to pay a little bit for these official sources, but they’re definitely worth it. Here are a few options that AdmissionSight can recommend.

Official SAT Subject Test Study Guide in Physics

This official study guide comes with two complete sample tests with actual Subject Test questions and detailed answers. This resource is an excellent way to time yourself before taking the real exam. Try your best to replicate the real test conditions to get an accurate idea of how you’ll perform.

Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests: Second Edition

This is the sole official study guide with coverage on all 20 SAT Subject Tests. If you’re confident that the Physics Subject Test is the only one you’ll take, this resource might be overkill. However, it’s perfect if you plan on taking more than one.

What else should I know about the SAT Physics Subject Test?

It’s important to keep in mind that the makers of these tests have to accommodate curriculums from countless high schools throughout the country when choosing which topics to include. As a result, it’s incredibly common to come across a few topics or concepts which you didn’t cover in your high school physics class. This is just another great reason to get your hands on a few practice tests to fill in any potential gaps you might have before test day. Even if you still come in contact with a few challenging questions, you’ll be fine. In fact, you don’t even have to get every answer correct to get a perfect score of 800.

Three students talking to each other while taking down notes.

AdmissionSight is here to help

Whether you need help perfecting an application or planning your extracurriculars, the AdmissionSight team is here to help you achieve your academic goals. We have a proven track record of helping students get into their ideal colleges by improving their applications. If you want to learn more about what we do, feel free to contact us to set up a free consultation.


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