Some important changes have made the test dramatically different: are you ready?

What You Need to Know About the New SAT

The Saint Constantine School will host a two-part SAT workshop in Houston April 9/April 16, 2016. Click here to register.

March 2016 is right around the corner, and that means the new SAT is here. This is the first time the test has been altered since 2005, and the changes speak to the larger issues with higher education in America today: but before going into that, it’s important that high school students and their parents understand these changes, particularly since they dramatically change the emphasis and scope of one of the most crucial benchmarks for college admission.

Here’s what you need to know about the changes to the SAT.

1. It only affects you if you are in the Class of 2017 or younger. 
Before we get started, there’s no need to panic if you’re a senior in high school right now. Current seniors will not have to take the new SAT—the first redesigned tests will be administered in March 2016, and students in the Class of 2017 will still be able to send scores from the old SAT to colleges. However, many universities are only accepting the new SAT starting with the Class of 2018. Current juniors might choose to take the new SAT this summer or in early fall, but current sophomores should absolutely start preparing to take the new test.

2. It is scored out of 1600 rather than 2400. 
This is a return to the previous scoring method which was changed with the 2005 redesign. This doesn’t have too much of a practical impact on students, but from now on, a 1550 score is once again nearly perfect, not merely average.

3. Only math sections require prior knowledge. 
Previous iterations of the SAT included grammar and vocabulary questions that required endless memorization prior to taking the test. But now, the test will largely rely on critical thinking skills required to use context and answer questions using only the information presented in the test. You’ll still need prior knowledge for most of the math sections (you’ll need to have mastered linear equations, inequalities, and expressions), but the Reading and Language sections will be filled with reading passages and graphs paired with context-based questions. What can you make of facts as they are presented to you? Can you read something for the first time and understand it quickly? These skills have been given even higher priority on the new SAT.

4. Each section is a marathon, not a sprint.
Though the test still clocks in at around 3 hours and 45 minutes, the structure has changed significantly. The old SAT consisted of ten sections (including the essay), and students were only given 10-25 minutes for each. Now there are only five sections (including essay), and they are 20-65 minutes each. This means the test will feel more like a marathon than a sprint, because you aren’t working against the clock in short bursts anymore. This makes the test much more like an AP exam, and means you need to be even more careful managing your time during the test because the test is no longer managing it for you.

5. There is no penalty for wrong answers.
This is a major change that makes the SAT more like the ACT. The old SAT subtracted ¼ point for each wrong answer, making random guessing and hasty answering dangerous ways to actually further lower your score. Not anymore: guess away!

6. There are only four options on multiple choice problems. 
This is another move toward the ACT model, as until now the SAT has always given five answer options for each multiple choice question. By going down to only four, there’s a higher probability that you can guess the right answer when you’re running low on time or have no idea what the correct answer may be.

7. There are more fill-in-the-blank math questions.
While things are getting easier in the multiple choice sections, the new test includes far more math questions that require you to provide your own answer. This makes it harder for random guessing to inflate scores, and it means that mastering the math skills required by the test is all the more important.

8. The essay is based on analyzing a provided text, not a free response reflecting your opinions. 
The old SAT essay was a short, opinion-based sample of writing that responded to a general prompt (“Should people be required to recycle?”). Students were expected to write without errors, take a position, and defend it using examples and logic. The new SAT has a modified essay that is much more like what you would find on an AP English Language or AP US History exam: you are provided with a short text and then asked to defend a position based on textual support. Grammar and spelling are sill crucial, but your critical thinking skills are again being put to the test—and the resulting essay needs to be much longer.

9. The essay is at the end of the test, not the beginning. 
Moving the essay to the end presents students with an interesting challenge: are you able to change gears and perform at a high level at the very end of a long exam? Students will need stamina to complete the essay to the best of their ability.

10. The essay score will be reported separately and is an optional score reported to only colleges who choose to require it. 
No longer included in the composite score, the essay may or may not be a requirement for you depending on where you are applying. You can choose to take the test with or without the essay depending on where you are planning to apply. Some schools will require it, some will recommend it, and some will clearly state they don’t want it. But beware: if you don’t complete the essay when you take the test but then later find you need it, you have to retake the entire test to get an essay score included.

11. There is a computer-based option.
For students who struggle with test-taking because it’s done with pencil and paper, this may be a great option to give your score a boost even before studying. Not all testing sites will offer this option, so you’ll need to shop around if this is something you want to do.

12. There are lots of free study/prep resources.
College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to offer free study guides and hundreds of sample questions online. This is part of an effort to equal the playing field for lower-income students who can’t afford to enroll in SAT tutoring or prep courses; now students of all backgrounds can access prep materials and put in the effort to improve their scores.

13. There are schools that realize the SAT is an imperfect benchmark.
This isn’t so much a result of the changed test: rather, the new SAT is a clear indication that measuring “college readiness” isn’t as easy as College Board purports. In 2013, 57% of the students who took the SAT and tested as “college ready” had to enroll in remediation courses when they arrived at the college of their choice. That means that more than half the students that the SAT labeled as prepared were actually unable to perform at the most basic level in university courses.

While most colleges still treat the SAT like the final word on a student’s ability, there are schools that are rethinking this dependence on standardized testing for admission. Some schools now question whether SAT scores truly predict a student’s level of preparedness for university-level performance, which is a good thing for everyone (except maybe College Board). In some cases, students may not even need to take the SAT depending on whether the colleges where they plan to apply require it. In my next post, I’ll talk more about this trend, and about the benefit of schools that don’t rely too heavily on standardized testing.

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