SAT II Chemistry Test-Taking Strategies
SAT II Chemistry Test-Taking Strategies
All the strategies discussed above can be applied equally to the SAT II Chemistry test and the SAT II Modern Hebrew test. That’s why they’re called “general hints.” However, as you may have noticed in the past, there are a number of dissimilarities between the study of chemistry and the study of modern Hebrew. And because chemistry is unlike modern Hebrew, and even unlike English and biology, a number of strategies apply uniquely to the SAT II Chemistry exam. Some of these strategies will help you out in chemistry generally, while some are suited to the unique idiosyncrasies of the SAT II format.
Chemistry Hint 1: Know Those Formulas!
As you know, you aren’t allowed to bring a calculator into the SAT II test, nor are you allowed to bring in a sheet of paper with useful information on it. That means that if you haven’t memorized formulas like Boyle’s law and the ideal gas equation, you’re going to lose points.
This doesn’t mean you have to do a lot of rote memorization. In fact, it’s more important to truly understand the principles of chemistry than it is for you to memorize equations. You’ll find that as the principles of chemistry become second nature to you, the equations that express these principles will become increasingly intuitive. Knowing your chemistry will help guide you to the right conclusions.
A lot of people feel burdened coming into an exam with lots of formulas and equations in their head. It’s like your mind is “full,” and there’s no room for the problem solving at hand. If you have trouble remembering formulas, you might want to look them over carefully in the minutes before the test and then, before you even look at the first question, write down the formulas you have a hard time remembering on the back of the question booklet. That way you can refer back to them without any painful effort of recollection.
Chemistry Hint 2: Estimate
This hint goes hand in hand with one of the general hints above: Know What You’re Being Asked. Don’t dive blindly into five possible answer choices until you’ve already taken your best stab at coming up with the answer yourself. Obviously, estimation is only useful in questions involving calculation: you can’t “estimate” which law of thermodynamics states that the world tends toward increasing disorder. In questions involving a calculation, though, it may save you from foolish errors if you, for example, have a sense of the order of magnitude you’re looking at. If you’re being asked to calculate the pH of a slightly acidic solution, you can be pretty confident that the answer won’t be pH = 0.50, which would be too small, or pH = 14.00, which would be too big. You know that the correct answer must lie somewhere between 2 and 6. Estimation is a good way to eliminate some wrong answers when you’re making an educated guess.
Chemistry Hint 3: Put It on Paper
Don’t be afraid to write and draw compulsively. The first thing you should do once you’ve made sure you understand the question is to make your own notes about what you’re dealing with. Sketch molecules when dealing with a bonding question, or electron configurations for periodic trend questions, or whatever else may be appropriate. Not only will a visual representation relieve some of the pressure on your beleaguered mind, it may also help the solution jump right off the page at you.
Don’t forget to write down important information! Writing down all of the information may lead you to a correct answer even if you don’t really understand the question. Suppose the question asks for the volume of a gas produced in a certain reaction. Write a balanced equation, plug in values, fiddle around a little, and see if you can come up with an answer that looks right. Chances are, it will be.
Chemistry Hint 4: Answers Are Not Convoluted
Remember, on the SAT II Chemistry test you’re not allowed to use a calculator, and you’re only given, on average, 42 seconds to answer each question. If you’re working on a problem and you find yourself writing out lines and lines of conversions as you try to figure out the answer, you’re probably not on the right track. These questions are designed in such a way that if you understand what you’re being asked, you will need at most a couple of simple calculations to get the right answer.
Chemistry Hint 5: Eliminate Wrong Answers
In the general hints above, Know How to Guess, we explained the virtues of eliminating answers you know to be wrong and taking a guess. For most questions, there will be at least one or two answer choices you can eliminate. There are also certain styles of question that lend themselves to particular process-of-elimination methods.
Classification Questions
The weakness of classification questions is that the same five answer choices apply to several questions. Invariably, some of these answer choices will be tempting for some questions but not for others.

Questions 1–3 relate to the following molecules:

(A) Sugar
(B) Ammonia
(C) Hydrochloric acid
(D) Carbon dioxide
(E) Acetic acid
1. An organic solid with a low melting point
2. Acts as a weak base when bubbled into pure water
3. Would be the best choice of the above to neutralize excess NaOH
For instance, if you’re pretty sure that ammonia, hydrochloric acid, and acetic acid are not organic solids, just from your general knowledge of chemistry, then you can eliminate B, C, and E. This helps you narrow the answer choices down to two, and if you have to guess, you have a 50-50 chance of choosing the correct answer.
Another point that may help you guess in a pinch is that you’ll rarely find the same answer choice being correct for two different questions. True, the directions for classification questions explicitly state that an answer choice “may be used once, more than once, or not at all,” but on the whole, the ETS people shy away from the “more than once” possibility. This is by no means a sure bet, but if you’re trying to eliminate answers, you might want to eliminate those choices that you’ve already used on other questions in the same set.
If you’re wondering, the answers to the above questions are 1 A, 2 B, and 3 C.
“EXCEPT”-Type Questions
“EXCEPT” questions are five-choice multiple-choice questions that contain a bunch of right answers and one wrong answer. The questions always contain an all-caps EXCEPT, LEAST, or some other similar word. Even if you aren’t sure of the answer, you should be able to identify one or two of the answer choices as being true statements and eliminate them.
32. Most compounds containing primarily ionic bonds are characterized by all of the following EXCEPT:
(A) High melting points
(B) Exist mainly in the gaseous state of matter
(C) An attraction between positive and negative ions
(D) Usually composed of a metal and nonmetal or polyatomic ion
(E) Most dissolve readily in water
Perhaps you’re not sure which of the five answer choices is wrong. But you should be able to identify that choice C or D might be correct because of the word ion in the statement. See, you’ve already eliminated two possible answers and can make a pretty good guess from there.
If you’re interested, the answer is B: ionic compounds usually exist as crystalline solids, not gases, at room temperature.
“I, II, and III” Questions
As we discussed earlier, I, II, and III questions are multiple-choice questions that provide you with three possible answers, and the five answer choices list different combinations of those three.
11. A student performed an experiment to determine the heat of neutralization of a strong acid with a strong base. Which of the following statements are true of this type of experiment?
  I. The reaction is exothermic.
 II. Energy for this reaction cannot be directly measured.
III. The specific heat must be calculated for the acid.
(A) I only
(B) II only
(C) I and II only
(D) II and III only
(E) I, II, and III
There’s an upside and a downside to questions of this type. Suppose, for example, that you know that in experiments involving heat of neutralization for acids and bases, you need to know the specific heat—and you suspect that you need the specific heat for the acid. This means that you can eliminate A, B, and C and significantly increase your chance of guessing the right answer. As long as you’re not afraid to guess—and remember that you should never be afraid to guess if you’ve eliminated an answer—these questions shouldn’t be too daunting. By the way, the answer is E.
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