Everything You Need to Know about the New SAT

For years, the SAT test was known for being tricky. Andre Xie, 17, felt it was exactly that earlier this year when he learned that the SAT test he was scheduled to take in March was not the one he’d be practicing for months, but instead would be an overhauled version with many new types of problems.
Andre, who attends a test preparation program in Mountain View, admits to being “a bit worried at first. I thought all my previous studying would be for nothing.”
Andre was in the first group to take the revamped SAT test when its producer – the nonprofit, university-supported CollegeBoard – released it this spring. This fall, hundreds of thousands more college-bound students will pick up their number two pencils and take the latest iteration of the test that for 90 years has been used as a measure of a student’s qualification for scholarships and admission to specific colleges.
In response to user complaints and competition from the newer ACT test, which recently caught up with the SAT in popularity, the CollegeBoard earlier this year changed the SAT to require less tricky, test-taking strategy and reasoning skills and instead focus more on what students learn in high school – and need at the university level.
While the changes are intended to make the test friendlier and more relevant, students and instructors in the education-minded Bay Area are experiencing an adjustment period as they grapple with the new test.
Some of the key changes to the SAT include that it
-Reduces the focus on obscure vocabulary
-Makes the essay optional and doubles the time allotment for it
-Enhances the emphasis on finding evidence in textual sources
-Increases the use of real-world math problems
-Drops the penalty for wrong answers and thus makes it worth taking a guess
But while it may now sound as easy as A, B, C or D, students should be aware that the test still comes with three hours of brain strain, and is in some ways tougher than the previous SAT, local experts say.
“It still is H-A-R-D, hard,” says Dr. Barbara Austin, a college application coach based in Oakland. “Keep in mind the material is college-level.”
Bay Area Parent spoke to Austin and two other local test-preparation experts for their take on the new SAT and their tips on acing the test and getting into the student’s college of choice.
They also weighed in on whether the new test – along with a movement toward colleges allowing applicants to skip the SAT or ACT entirely – is meeting the broad goal of making college more accessible to students who are underrepresented in upper education.
One of the first things that will pop out at students as they crack open their new SAT practice books is that it’s heavy on reading. When CollegeBoard dropped the short, sentence-completion questions that tested command of vocabulary, it replaced them with more reading-comprehension passages that measure skill at identifying and interpreting evidence within text.
“My experience after 22 years is that kids of this generation are not readers,” says Austin, who runs College Quest of Oakland. “You can’t do the test just based on (what you learned in) your high school coursework unless you are a great reader.”
Getting Started
To prepare, Austin urges her students to read as many challenging works as possible and learn the meaning of any unknown words and phrases. And that’s in addition to spending many hours on SAT practice tests and preparing for the test in general.
Students aren’t likely to find the math section as easy as π, either.
It’s true that the new SAT uses math problems that students should have learned at school and will likely encounter in college and at work.
“(In the new test,) the math questions are worded more straightforward and less confusing,” says Grayson Giovine, founder of Zenith Tutoring in Mountain View and San Francisco. “The old SAT math required a little more creativity, a little more critical thinking than the new one.”
But the new test is more challenging in other ways, says Giovine and Chee Liang Hoe, founder of Cita Education in San Ramon. There are more word problems and more “grid-ins,” in which students must do the math and write an answer – not fill in a multiple choice bubble. Also, the new test adds more complex equations requiring several steps – because in college and the real world, the CollegeBoard website explains, “a single calculation is rarely enough to get the job done.”
The optional essay also has been changed to more closely match writing assignments in college. Previously, the essay was in response to an open-ended question such as, “Is it important to question people in authority?” Students had 25 minutes to support their point-of-view with examples from history and personal experience. Now, the essay prompts the student to analyze and comment on an argument by an author or speaker. Test-takers now can spend 50 minutes instead of 25 minutes on their essay, which may sound exhausting, but is actually useful in helping them craft a good response, Giovine says.
While the essay is optional, the local educators agree that the students should take it in case one of their targeted colleges requires essay scores. Many of them do.
The essay is graded on a scale of one to 24, and now is reported separately instead of as part of the reading and writing scores. The math section and reading/writing/language section are awarded up to 800 points each, for a total possible 1,600 points, instead of the previous 2,400.
Due to the shift in point allotment, the math and reading/writing/language sections are now each worth half of the total points, whereas in the old test, math accounted for only a third of the possible points. As a result, Giovine now recommends that students who are stronger in math than verbal skills take the SAT, while he recommends that verbally gifted students take the ACT, for which math accounts for only one-fourth of the 36 possible points. (The ACT’s writing, reading and science sections, the latter which Giovine says is based more on reading comprehension than math, account for the other three-fourths.) Colleges will accept either test from their applicants.
Skip the Tests?
In a movement toward offering even more freedom in the college application process, some 800 colleges are now allowing students to skip submitting test scores entirely, according to the organization Fair Test, a proponent of the test-optional approach. These include many highly-ranked schools such as Bowdoin College, New York University and George Washington University, as well as hundreds of public colleges, including several in the California State University system, Sacramento and Chico among them.
One reason colleges are making test scores optional is that that scores don’t predict a student’s success in college as well as their grade-point average, which reflects three years of work rather than single day, Austin explains. High school classes have become more rigorous in recent years, with many more challenging and standardized Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, allowing a college to better judge a student’s likely success.
Another motive for the change is that it hopefully will mean that more underrepresented minority and low-income students will be admitted into top colleges, FairTest reports. These students don’t score as well on the SAT or ACT because their schools are often not as well funded and their parents can’t afford test prep instruction, which starts at several hundred dollars.
While Austin commends the test-optional movement, she discourages her students from skipping the standardized test because more than 1,200 four-year colleges, including most of the Ivy League or top-tier national universities, require one.
Rather than skip the test, Austin recommends that her students who aren’t great testers stand out to admissions officers by taking an SAT subject test in their chosen major and by putting together a stellar application showing good grades, a passion such as charity or leadership, and an engaging essay, perhaps on overcoming adversity. Students who aren’t good testers should explain their efforts in the extenuating circumstances section of their college applications. Or, “If your essay theme is on academic adversity, then discuss the challenge for you of taking standardized tests,” she says.
The goal of bringing more underrepresented students into universities is behind another new addition to the SAT: making online test prep universally available through CollegeBoard’s partnership with the nonprofit Khan Academy.
Khanacademy.org offers instructional videos on 4,000 sample SAT questions and provides personalized study advice based on students’ results on four practice tests.
“With Khan Academy, the College Board tried to make the SAT more accessible, and it definitely helps,” Giovine says.
However, students who can afford it will do better on the new SAT with professional instruction, Austin says. Austin’s company for years offered test preparation, though today she focuses on college application guidance and only offers instruction on the essay.
In an example of how professional instruction can augment scores, students at Zenith Tutoring gain at least 200 points on the SAT and four points on the ACT in 10 sessions, or Zenith refunds their tuition.
Giovine attributes Zenith’s success to its focus on core skills, rather than test-taking strategy, and on its semi-private instruction setup: Each student spends time one-on-one with the instructor, while others work individually with noise-canceling ear phones and laptops or watch any of the thousand videos Giovine has made demonstrating test problems. Every other year, on average, one of Zenith’s 200 to 300 students earns a perfect score.
Start Early
Another secret to improving SAT scores, whether working with an instructor or alone, is to start early – by the sophomore year, Giovine says. He and Austin both recommend focusing on the test a couple times for several months at a time before taking the final test. Families who can’t afford professional help should urge their school district to provide SAT test prep; ask tutors for financial aid; and check local Boys & Girls Clubs and other organizations for subsidized instruction.
One student for whom the changes to the SAT, combined with professional guidance, have been a boon was Andre Xie.
To get ready for the new SAT, he practiced with Zenith Tutoring on the ACT, and found that the concepts transferred to the new test. He also discovered that the new SAT format, with just four sections compared to the former 10, helped him pace himself better. And he was happy the SAT dropped the unusual vocabulary, saying, “the vocab was hit or miss for me.”
Andre’s results on the March SAT showed huge improvement – rising from 1,300 points out of 2,400 possible on his first practice test on the old SAT to 1,350 out of 1,600 on the new one.
“It was a surprise,” Andre says. “The new SAT was much better for me.”
Angela Geiser is a freelance writer with one child successfully admitted into college and another who should be studying for his SATs.


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