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Articles / Preparing for College / What to Expect on the Biology-E and Biology-M SAT Subject Tests

What to Expect on the Biology-E and Biology-M SAT Subject Tests

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Nov. 27, 2019
What to Expect on the Biology-E and Biology-M SAT Subject Tests


One of the best ways to prep for an exam is to familiarize yourself with the timing of that test and the types of questions you'll face. Here's a unique breakdown of what's on the Biology Subject Test, and how it differs between the E and M versions.

How Long is the Test?

There are 100 questions on the Biology Subject Test, and you are given 60 minutes to get through them. There's a catch, though. You'll only actually have to answer 80 questions; if you're taking the Biology-E Subject Test, you'll leave the 20 Molecular Biology questions unanswered, and if you're taking the Biology-M Subject Test, you'll leave the 20 Ecological questions alone.

Essentially, there are 60 questions that every Biology Subject Test taker will have to answer, and then a choice between two 20-question specialized sections at the end, each with its own detailed instructions. You can decide which one you prefer to take on test day, although we recommend choosing in advance, so you can focus your preparations either on E's questions about "biological communities, populations, and energy flow" or M's "biochemistry, cellular structures, and processes, such as respiration and photosynthesis." Regardless of the content, you'll see three main question types.

Classification Questions

This type of question is like a matching test. You'll be given either a list of five words/phrases or a diagram with five labels, each word or label corresponding to a unique answer choice from (A) to (E). Following that list or diagram will be three or four questions. Select the best letter choice from the list or diagram for each of the questions. Some letter choices will fit more than one question while others may not fit any — don't be thrown off if you use one letter more than once!

Five-Choice Questions

There are four different types of five-choice questions. The first type will ask you to complete a statement with the answer that fits best. The second will do the opposite, asking you to choose the answer that does not fit. The third will present a numbered diagram with two or three questions following it. Finally, the fourth type of five-choice question is a I, II, III question that will look something like this:

Which of the following nitrogenous bases are found in DNA?

    • I. Thymine
    • II. Cytosine
    • III. Uracil
  • (A) I only
  • (B) II only
  • (C) I and II only
  • (D) I and III only
  • (E) I, II, and III

In this instance, you'll have to pick the answer choice that completely describes the scenario. If I and II are correct, but you choose (A), which only accounts for I, or (B), which only accounts for II, then you are incorrect. (The correct answer is [C], but don't worry about that until you get to your subject review!)

Laboratory Questions

This last question type is technically a five-choice question as well, but it works a little differently and can be presented in any of the forms I mentioned earlier. These are designed to see whether you can think logically about biological experiments. First, you will be told about an experiment (typically with an accompanying figure, graph or data table). Then, you'll be asked a few questions about the experiment.

Laboratory Questions will make up a fairly big chunk of the 60 questions in the core exam: About 25 to 30 of the questions will fall into this category, which means you could see about five or six different experiments on the test. The Ecological and Molecular Biology sections will then each have about 14 to 16 of these, with about three or four different experiments total.

Acing a multiple-choice exam is all about determining your strengths and weaknesses, so make sure you know what question types are easier for you before sitting down to take the test. Use practice tests like those in our SAT Subject Test Biology E/M Prep to figure out which questions you should target, and which might be best saved for later when the test rolls around. There you'll also find all the content review and strategies needed to score the way you want to.

Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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