What's New about the 2016 SAT and How You Can Get Ready for It

The College Board is rolling out the revamped SAT in March, 2016, and it's understandable that this is a bit nerve-wracking. 

But the best way to take the fear out of something new is to shine a bright light on it.

So here are clear answers to common questions, with information straight from the source. We'll take a look at why and how the test is changing and dig in to some examples so you can take a look at it for yourself. We'll cut through the fear and myths, straight to the facts. 

So take a deep breath, relax, and let’s see what this new test is all about. 

Why are they changing the SAT?

The SAT was first widely used in the 1940s. As you might imagine, since then, the skills students need for college have changed significantly. That means the test has had to change in order to remain a relevant and useful predictor of student performance in college. (The questions from the original, experimental test would seem totally foreign and wacky to high school students today. Check it out for yourself: here are some questions from the very first SAT given in 1926).

In addition, the number and diversity of students applying to college has greatly increased over the decades. The College Board now spends a significant amount of time reviewing the scores of different demographics, attempting to ensure that students from all backgrounds have a fair shot at performing well on the test. 

The current changes are, again, about trying to make the test more relevant. The College Board is working to make it a better measure of students’ skills and talents so that colleges can better rely on the results. They want the material to reflect the skills students are actually learning in high school and will need in college. The benefit of this is that more students will have a chance to perform well. The other benefit is that the resulting scores will actually be more meaningful to colleges and universities!

The other impetus for the change this time around is an attempt to make the test more egalitarian. The College Board wants all students to have a chance to perform well, whether or not they can afford test prep classes. (That's why there will actually be free practice for the new SAT from Khan Academy!)

When was the most recent major change to the test before now?

In 2005, the SAT got a major face lift. That was the year the current essay was born. This was an entirely new skill set since the SAT essay barely resembles the kind of writing your English teacher would want from you. But the test prep industry responded, introducing new strategy and practice material. 

2005 also saw the disappearance of analogies because colleges and universities gave their feedback: they didn't feel this section contributed any relevant predictions of how successful students would be in post-secondary classrooms. This was also the year of the expansion of Algebra II concepts in the math section. Since more and more students were taking advanced math classes in high school, the test gave them a better opportunity to prove their skills.

These changes were nothing minor, and students preparing for the test that year had to cope with being the first batch of test-takers to contend with the new material and skills. Since then, those changes have become so familiar that now the loss of the essay (or its becoming optional) is part of what seems so foreign and scary about the “new” test!

What will the new SAT sections be?

Change is scary because it brings us something unknown. So let's take a look at the new SAT and see what it's all about. The revised test will have the following sections:

  • Reading section (65 minutes for 52 questions)
  • Writing and Language section (35 minutes for 44 questions)
  • Essay section (50 minutes for 1 question)
  • Math section (80 minutes for 58 questions)

What will the new SAT sections be like?

Reading

Have you heard the rumor that the new test's reading section will give you less time per question? That is true. But the skills you'll be using will be a lot more familiar from your English class. You'll be analyzing text--often from classic novels--and the questions will be more related to one another. For example, question 4 might ask you to draw a conclusion about a character's actions. Then question 5 might ask you to choose a piece of textual evidence that supports your conclusion. Sound familiar? It's what you do every time you write an essay on a work of literature! (Try a practice Reading question.)

Writing and Language

How about the writing and language section? If you've taken the current SAT or practiced for it, you've encountered the Improving Sentences questions. These things are tricky as all get-out! They are sentences out of context, and you're supposed to improve them by correcting subtle problems with style or mechanics. Most students have a really hard time with these questions, and I sympathize!

The revised Writing and Language section features passages rather than sentences out of context. You'll have to improve sentences based on the flow of the overall passage! That means you'll have models and examples of how the prose should sound. These style questions will be intermixed with error questions that ask you to fix mechanical mistakes. This whole section is a much more natural reflection of the way you normally revise and proofread your own writing. (Try a practice Writing and Language question.)

Math

The revised SAT will have two math sections, and you'll only be allowed to use a calculator on one of them. This might sound really scary, but it's not! The College Board is not trying to make you multiply huge numbers mentally or anything mean like that. Instead, they want you to use some math reasoning skills. Here's an example of a non-calculator problem:

Can you see that a calculator wouldn't do you any good on this problem? You're being asked what the equation means, so you have to use what you know about slope and the equation of a line. (Click on the problem if you want to try your hand at it or see the answer.)

Essay

Of course, the big change that everyone is talking about is the essay. It is being called "optional", which is a little misleading. It's not a matter of whether or not you want to write one; it's whether the colleges you're applying to want you to write one. It turns out that universities are divided about whether the SAT essay is a good predictor of student success at their institutions. You can check whether your chosen schools require the essay here.

The good news for you is that you won't waste time and energy working on an essay if the school(s) you want to attend don't care about your score on that part of the test. (One of the behind-the-scenes changes to the test is that the colleges you apply to will be able to see your essay score separately rather than lumped in with the rest of the Writing section, the way it is currently).

If you do end up having to write an essay, you'll have double the current time: 50 minutes! That means you'll get to plan, prepare, and polish a much better essay. The focus will be more on writing skills than on lightning-quick planning. 

More importantly, the new essay will not ask you to draw evidence from your own brain--the most challenging aspect of the current essay. Instead, you'll analyze a passage provided to you. You'll be able to use textual evidence to support your claims, rather than wishing you could remember the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird in order to make a point about justice.

If it's more about school skills, do you still have to "study" for the new SAT?

A standardized test like the SAT involves a lot of strategy--how many questions to attempt in each section in order to hit a target score, for example. And just as you shouldn't run a marathon if you had never jogged for longer than a block, you don't want to sit down to a 180-minute (or 230-minute if you write the essay) test without practice and preparation. 

But one of the major reasons for the upcoming changes is to demystify this test and make it more approachable for more students. It will incorporate a lot more of the skills students use at school. Instead of grappling with obscure vocab words that you'd never heard of until you started preparing for the SAT, you're going to proofread, annotate texts, and use math reasoning skills. 

Ultimately, the SAT is an aptitude test, which really means in some ways it is an IQ test. That means that the questions follow certain patterns. Obviously, the more you become familiar with those patterns, the less time you will have to take per problem. You'll quickly recognize different language cues and what they are signalling you to do. And the faster and more accurately you can do that, the better you will be able to perform.

So, yes: you will have to study and prepare for the test. But the good news is that you'll already know a lot that will be helpful. Yes, you'll need to make a plan for your target scores in each section so you know how to use your time on the test. And you'll need to log practice hours so that you feel comfortable with the material. But rest assured: the test might be new, but the skills it requires are ones you are already learning.

How should you get started?

Still have questions? Check out a complete list of all the changes and see a comparison of the current test and new test.

And join me on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 at 6:15 pm Pacific for a live, informative talk and Q&A about the new SAT, the ACT, and college planning. I'll be interviewing Kym Bartley, a college positioning coach and the founder of Elite College Planning. You can watch live or subscribe here.