The SAT U.S. and World History Subject Tests

Let's take a look at the SAT U.S. and World History Subject Tests.

What Do the History Subject Tests Look Like?

There are two options for History Subject Tests. You can either take the U.S. History Subject Test or the World History Subject Test. Both tests are multiple-choice exams with 90–95 questions to be completed in 60 minutes. The U.S. History Test covers all of American history from 1400 through the present, with a particular emphasis on political, economic, and social history. The World History Test covers all of human history from prehistoric civilizations through the present, with a strong emphasis on events and trends before 1900. While World History covers all geographical areas of the world, there is a strong emphasis on Europe (25% of the exam) and on questions that ask students to compare trends across different areas (25% of the exam).

On both tests, questions come in two forms: fact-based questions that simply ask you to recall an event, person, term, trend, etc. and source-based questions that ask you to read a quotation, image, graph, or map and apply your knowledge of history to the source.

Examples:

Fact-Based Question (U.S. History Test)

15. Which of the following Supreme Court rulings was overturned by the passage of the 14th Amendment?

(A) Plessy v. Ferguson
(B) Brown v. Board of Education
(C) Dred Scott v. Sanford
(D) McCullough v. Maryland
(E) Marbury v. Madison

Source-Based Question (U.S. History Test)

30. “I learn with pleasure that Republican principles are predominant in your state, because I conscientiously believe that governments founded in them are most friendly to the happiness of the people at large; and especially of a people so capable of self government as ours. I have been ever opposed to the party, so falsely called Federalists, because I believe them desirous of introducing, into our government, authorities hereditary or otherwise independant [sic] of the national will.”

The writer from 1810 quoted above would most likely have opposed all of the following EXCEPT

(A) a loose interpretation of the Constitution
(B) Alexander Hamilton’s Report on the Public Credit
(C) the establishment of a national bank
(D) high protective tariffs
(E) policies that supported an agrarian economy

How is the Exam Scored?

Correct answers are worth +1 points, incorrect answers are worth –0.25 points, and omitted answers are worth no points. Points are added to form a raw score. Then, the raw score is converted to a scaled score from 200–800. The average score on the U.S. History test is 645. The average score on the World History test is 618.

What Skills from School Will Help Me on the Test?

The most important skill you can apply will be your knowledge of history. Students and teachers agree that more than 90% of a student’s success on these tests relates to how well a student knows the events, people, and trends asked about. So knowing everything you learned in class is paramount!

A secondary—but still important—part of the test is the ability to read and incorporate historical sources. Almost all high school history teachers use primary documents in class like artwork from African civilizations or political cartoons from American newspapers during the Cold War to help students learn about various periods. In your class, you likely learned what to look for in these sources and how they applied to a historical trend or idea. These skills will help you answer the source-based questions on the U.S. History and World History Subject Tests.

Are There Any Specific Classes I Can Take that Will Help Me Prepare?

It is extremely helpful to take a class that corresponds to the exam and to take the exam at the end of the semester or school year when you took the course. It’s very hard to take a full year of World History in your freshman year and then relearn all the material to take the World History Subject Test in your junior year.

Are There Any Tricks I Can Use to Immediately Improve My Score?

The fastest way to improve your score is to simply slow down and read carefully. Because the test is at least 90 questions long, students feel the need to rush. Don’t! Careless mistakes are rampant on these tests and most students finish them in the time given.

More importantly, these two tests have a lot of text, and all of it matters. A question might include a word like “EXCEPT” (see the first example above) that could change the meaning of the question. Or you might be faced with a really long and boring historical quote (see the second example above). Your mind might wander, or you might be tempted to skim it. Again, don’t! It’s a trap. The quote might hide a particularly important point right at the end.

Lastly, learn how to eliminate answers to work around tricky questions. You are guaranteed to see material on these tests you’ve never heard of. No one can learn everything in history. That’s why the curve on these exams is a bit lenient. When you see a topic you don’t recognize, first take a breath and don’t panic. This is supposed to happen! Next, try to use what you do know to eliminate answers. Maybe you don’t remember what the Democratic-Republicans stood for in 1810 in the question above, but you do know that Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, hated Alexander Hamilton’s guts. You could get rid of answer B. And maybe you can even eliminate C if you remember that the bank was Hamilton’s idea. Now you can make an educated guess.

I'm an International Student. Any Tips for Me?

Likely, if you are an international student, you haven’t taken a U.S. History course. The U.S. History Test is very American-centric and you should probably stay away from it. If you took a World History course, you might be prepared for the World History Subject Test. It’s always a good idea to ask your teacher at school for advice on whether the course material aligns with the Subject Test.

Some international students do take AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate courses). If you took AP U.S. History, the U.S. History Subject Test is a great option. If you took AP World History or European History, take the World History Subject Test. But be aware there will be gaps to cover when transitioning from AP to Subject Tests, especially for AP European students.

If, instead, you took an IB (International Baccalaureate) course in history, your options are much more limited. The IB Route 2: 20th-Century World History course will partially prepare you for the World History Subject Test, but you will still need to learn about 2/3 of the material on the Subject Test. IB students should generally stay away from the U.S. History Subject Test.

Find out exactly how much strategy and content from your current AP or IB courses can be applied to the SAT History Subject Tests! Download our handy guides below:

U.S. History
World History

Main Takeaways:

  • The History Subject Tests are multiple-choice exams that cover specific topics, geographical areas, and periods. Pick the test that aligns most closely with the coursework you have done in school and take the test immediately at the end of that course.
  • The average score on U.S. History is 645 and on World History 618 (out of 800).
  • This is a test of historical content, not necessarily a test of strategy. Knowing the minutia of history (people, events, trends, and terms) is vital to success.
  • Read the questions carefully and don’t get intimidated by questions that test unfamiliar topics.
  • For international students, choose these tests carefully. Your coursework may or may not correspond well with the History Subject Tests. If you choose a test that does not correspond well, you will need to work extensively to prepare.
Megan Stubbendeck

About Megan Stubbendeck

Dr. Megan Stubbendeck is an eight-year veteran of the test prep industry with ten years of teaching experience. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Virginia where she taught for three years in the History Department. She brings many years of experience as both an Elite Instructor and the Coordinator of Instructor Development at Revolution Prep. As the Senior Director of Instruction at ArborBridge, Megan oversees the curriculum team and their developments.

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