sat prep

When changes to the SAT were announced last month, we had some initial reactions that focused on the big picture: how the test-prep industry would be affected, and what initial changes would mean for test-takers looking to choose between the SAT and its rival, the ACT. A couple of weeks ago, the College Board released more specific information about the new test, which has given students and educators a better idea of what to expect when the changes drop in a couple of years.

Vocabulary: elimination of so-called “SAT words”

Instead of those challenging fill-in-the-blank questions of the past, students will now be asked to identify the meaning of “relevant words in context.” To see the difference for yourself, I recommend taking a quick exam of your own knowledge. I found that responses to the new questions came much more easily for me, and that I really had to pause and think about what fit in the blanks on the old questions. It seems, at least with this handful of examples, the College Board has taken a step towards real-world relevance with their vocabulary section.

The essay: now optional and less hurried

We had previously reported that the essay section changed from mandatory to optional, but the specifics of the essay were still unknown. Now we know that the essay will be written in 50 minutes (rather than 25), and that students will be asked to evaluate a selection of text with American historical significance. Factual accuracy will be important (as it ought to be!), so students won’t be able to get away with inaccurate assertions even if they are well-written. International students might be alarmed at the inclusion of a piece of American significance, but if they stick to the evidence provided in the text, they should have no problem providing a quality essay. Students won’t be expected to draw on outside knowledge in the completion of their essay.

Multiple choice questions: A, B, C or D

In the past, students were often stymied by multiple choice questions with five possible answers. With the new test, students will choose from just four possible answers, increasing the odds in their favor. No idea what the right answer might be? You have a 25% chance of getting it right on the new test. And if you can eliminate one option you know to be wrong, you have a one in three chance of selecting the right answer from the remaining options. This change, coupled with the elimination of the guessing penalty, should remove some of the stress associated with multiple choice sections.

Scores: back to the 1600-point scale, plus subscore reporting

Moving the SAT back to the familiar 1600-point scale seems like it ought to simplify the interpretation of results. After all, students will receive two 800-point “area scores,” one in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (formerly known as “Critical Reading”), and the other in Math. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be that simple. According to the College Board’s test specificationsfor the redesigned SAT, official score reports may also include multiple “insight scores,” including:

  •  Three “test scores” (ranging from 10-40 points each), for Reading; Writing & Language; and Math
  • One essay score (for those students who choose to take the optional essay, which we strongly recommend!)
  • Two “cross-test” scores (ranging from 10-40 points each) for History/Social Studies and Science
  • Seven “subscores” (ranging from 1-15 points each) that analyze a variety of factors within the  Reading; Writing & Language; and Math sections

While college admissions officers will most likely focus on the two area scores (out of 800) and the optional writing test (if applicable), students may be worried about the appearance of 12 additional “insight scores” on their official score reports. It remains to be seen how the College Board will report these insight scores to students and universities, and whether insight scores will be affected by the optional Score Choice program.

There is still a lot we don’t know, but these new announcements help give us a better idea of what students can expect when they sit down for the new SAT in March 2016. Of course, the SAT continues to stoke the fires of controversy even as they attempt to make the test more relevant and accessible for high school students. But you can be certain of one thing: the SAT is not going anywhere anytime soon, so students ought to be prepared as they gear up for the busy college application cycle.

For more information on these and other changes, click here to download a PDF describing the 10 biggest changes to the SAT, compiled by our trusted partner, Revolution Prep.



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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.