Whether you're occupied with prerequisites for undergraduates or an after-school job, you can prioritize your studies first by reading this guide on what a biology class entails. With a diverse span of concepts, from developmental biology to the structure of microorganisms, biology is important both in the classroom and to our modern-day concerns. Whether you're curious about the field of biology or need to find out more about the SAT biology subject test, here's everything you'll need to know about a typical, high school biology course.

biogeography in the ocean
Learning about plant diversity can help us appreciate our environment! (Photo credit: David Clode via Unplash)

High School Biology Structure

Biology class can be stressful – we’ve all been there. Biological science, along with the sciences in general, doesn’t just require a complex understanding of concepts like genomics and cell structure and function, but also hardcore memorization skills. Remembering all the terms and ideas of the semester is a trying task, especially when many general biology courses cover a diverse range of subjects, from biotechnology to molecular biology. The field is so vast, in fact, it can impact everything from conversations on pollution to policies about harvests. One helpful trick is to understand how exactly a typical biology department will organize a high school biology course. While biology is highly interdisciplinary, resulting in specializations such as biochemistry and biophysics, it can be simplified into three different branches. These include:

  • Microbiology
  • Botany
  • Zoology

While botany and zoology focus on the way living organisms and living systems function and interact with their environment, microbiology puts the focus on organismal functions at the micro-scale. Whether you’re interested in pursuing a biology major and becoming a biologist or not, a course in the biological sciences is a common required class in high school. This means that, regardless of your level of interest, it can also be helpful to understand the structure of a biology class by taking a look at what kind of activities you will most likely be graded on. Having a couple of class sessions in biology lab means that part of your grade will be decided upon by how you perform experiments. These experiments will be rather simplified and require only your participation, although oftentimes teachers can also ask that you do a write-up. Your biology course will probably require that you either write a research-based or experiment-based paper. The topics you can write about are infinite, ranging from topics like cell biology to immunology. However, keep in mind that simplicity is often the best option when performing high school biology experiments. While your biology course will probably test you on your level of knowledge, either through final exams or quizzes, there are also tests you can take at the high school biology level, including:

  • AP Biology
  • IB SL or HL Biology
  • SAT Biology E/M
high school and undergrad research
Learning about bacteria and viruses has many real-world applications (Photo credit: Sharon Pittaway via Unplash)

What Does a Biology Paper Look Like?

Now that you’ve gotten an idea of how your high school biology course will be structured, it can be a good idea to understand the kind of papers you’ll be writing. Looking at the definition of biology, which is the study of all living things, it might seem impossible that you will be able to write about one specific subject in such a vast field. However, if you go back to understanding the three branches that biology is composed of, you might get more insight into the kinds of topics you can write about. If you’re interested in microbiology, for example, you can write about concepts such as population genetics and cell division. Microbiology is the youngest branch in Biology and for that reason, there are massive amounts of innovative research in neurobiology, cellular biology and more. Writing about animals, on the other hand, can be equally as stimulating. Research paper topics in zoology can involve things like the differences between classifications in animals (vertebrate, invertebrate, etc.) or animal anatomy and physiology. This can be an especially rewarding branch to write about if you’re interested in ecology and evolution, conservation biology or organismal biology. Botany, in contrast, can be a great writing choice for those that are obsessed with all things plants. It can also be relatively simple to perform experiments upon since plants are widely available to everyone. The ideas you can write about span from photosynthesis and cellular respiration to plant cell structure and function. If you’re interested in fields like environmental biology or bioinformatics, this can be a more motivating segment of biology to research. While there are plenty of guides out there that can give you an idea of the resources you can tap into for topic inspiration, another concern you may have when it comes to your biology class can be understanding what kinds of tests have a written section for biology. Whereas some teachers may place short or long answer questions on their test, they will most often give you multiple choice questions for non-honors courses. Here are some of the tests that have free-response questions on their exams:

  • AP Biology
  • IB SL and HL Biology

If you’re curious about what kind of topics will be asked about on the exams, the best advice you can follow is to research examples of the kind of questions that will be asked or look through some practice materials for each exam.

summer research lab
You can study biological concepts through experimentation (Photo credit: Elevate Claudia Mi via Unplash)

SAT Biology Subject Test

While many high schoolers take an introduction to biology course simply as one of the prerequisites for graduating, there are also many who show an interest in getting minors or majors in the biology field. If you’ve taken departmental honors courses in biology, or are simply curious to know how getting into a school for biology can be, you may want to start by understanding what the SAT Biology subject test is. The College Board organization offers 20 different subject-specific tests in five major areas: mathematics, science, English, history, and languages. Depending on what college you’re interested in attending, taking one or two SAT subject tests may be a prerequisite for the admissions process. The subject test for biology is called the SAT Biology E/M Subject Test because it offers to test you in two different areas: ecological or molecular biology. Based on which exam you decide to take, you will be tested on different types of biological systems and organism. While the Biology-E exam focuses on concepts like genetics, animal behavior, evolutionary biology, diversity of life and speciation – the Biology-M exam includes subjects like heredity, cell structure, eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, and general human biology and human physiology. The structure of the exam is relatively simple. Regardless of which exam you decide to take, you will have the same 80 questions based in general concepts like DNA, microbes, organelles and other principles of biology. The last 20 questions will be specific to the exam you have chosen, where you will be scored out of 800 points for the whole exam. If you’re wondering when the best time is to take this exam, the College Board offers this exam in the following months only:

  • May
  • June
  • August
  • October
  • November
  • December

In other words, the subject tests are offered on the same day as the SAT exams. However, you’re not allowed to take both on the same day so if you’re planning on completing the SAT and the SAT subject test in Biology, make sure to plan ahead of time.

How are High School Biology Courses Graded?

Now that you understand how your biology class will be structured, what kind of papers you can write and the types of exams you can take related to the course, you may be wondering about grading. While those who want to pursue a biology degree in the future might find it a lot easier to study topics in taxonomy or learn about organ systems and homeostasis – those who simply want to graduate may need a bit of extra motivation. Regardless of the level, you want to reach in biology, studying for such a vast subject can be tricky. Luckily, your grade in a high school level biology course will probably be determined by multiple channels. This means, if you’re not great at a particular skill, such as research paper writing or test-taking, you’ll be able to make up points in other areas such as homework and labs. The typical breakdown of a biology course can look like this:

  • Quizzes – 15%
  • Homework – 10%
  • Labs – 15%
  • Final exams and/or final projects – 60%

Whatever level of biology you’re taking, the most common grading practice will always be to give final term papers or exams the biggest weight on your grade. Luckily, these are often announced ahead of time so you have time to plan accordingly. If you think you’ll need some help in biology, whether that be for homework or for the SAT test, finding a tutor can often be a great solution. If you’re interested in learning for free or getting free test prep, make sure to tap into your local community in order to find more affordable resources. Another great option is to look on Superprof’s platform, where over 36,650 biology tutors offer courses starting at 12 dollars an hour.

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