Note: This post was originally written in 2016 when the current format of the SAT was introduced. I've now fully updated it for 2018 and beyond to reflect all the tweaks The College Board has made to the SAT since the original post. Updates are in red.
A New Adventure
As a teacher and an author of test prep books, I make it my job to see any changes to the test firsthand. That means taking the test myself, whether it was the updated ACT in 2015 or now the New SAT in 2016.
So when February of 2016 rolled around, I signed up for the March SAT exam, the very first one that would be conducted in the new format.
I wanted to get a teacher's perspective of the test. My three main goals were to
- See what concepts were tested
- See what worked and what didn't on the essay using my framework
- Test out some section-specific strategies
While a perfect score would be nice to get, it wasn't a priority given that I'm already a few years out of college.
As someone who is extremely experienced with standardized testing, I knew I didn't have to do too much prep. But to get the most out of this experience, I did all the practice exams released by The College Board and wrote several essays using a framework I had devised.
A week before the test, I got this lovely email in my inbox:
The College Board had decided to ban all tutors (age 21+) from the first administration. I suspect the reasons went beyond just the security of the test, but anyway, that's beyond the scope of this post. My encounter with the New SAT would have to wait.
After 2 months of waiting, the May 7th exam finally came around and I was allowed to sit for the exam.
Unfortunately, I was dealing with a severe case of jetlag after returning from a 2-week visit to Vietnam. I battled through it, got up early on Saturday, and took the train to a local school.
Upon arrival, my ID was checked and I was told to look for a yellow ticket with my name on it. These tickets were all laid out on a long table in the cafeteria.
When I found mine, I noticed right away that it had a gold sticker that wasn't on any of the other tickets. It was pretty clear I was being singled out. Interesting...
I was told to wait at a separate table in the cafeteria until all the other students were sent off to their testing rooms. As it turned out, I was to be given my own room with my very own proctor because I was over 21. What a luxury! Extra space and guaranteed silence. This security measure worked out in my favor.
The next 4 hours went by pretty fast, but I managed to get a good handle on the exam and the concepts that were being tested. I've listed my thoughts and impressions below.
Tips and Thoughts on the Exam
- It is so much easier than the old exam. Not only is it more straightforward, the actual questions themselves are less difficult. It's almost like The College Board took a 12th grade test and made it a 10th grade test. The College Board has since made it harder, but it's still much easier than the old SAT and more relaxed than an exam like the ACT.
- Because it's easier, expect score inflation. It used to be that a 1500 out of 1600 on the math and reading sections would be a top-notch score. Now you need a 1540 to be on par. This has proven to be true.
- It seems like The College Board went out of its way to include 1-2 tricky questions on each section. It's like they tried to compensate for the rest of the exam being easier. Expect these 1-2 questions to be the difference between a great score and an ivy-league score. Of course, this was always the case but now it's even more pronounced. This is now less true. The College Board has done a better job of distributing question difficulty more evenly.
- The timing is very lax. I can see The College Board reducing the timing for each section in the future. I had ample time to review my work and double-check tough questions on every section. Contrast this with the ACT, which requires that you rush through every section to finish on time.
- The math was harder than The College Board practice tests. Expect to find one of the math sections much harder than the other (i.e. non-calculator way harder than the calculator or vice-versa). This has been the case for a lot of my students as well.
- There was very little trigonometry if any on my exam. A lot of people have been making a big deal out of trig being on the exam, but realize that it's a very small component (1-2 questions max). On some occasions, the exam won't ask you any trigonometry questions.
- The distribution of tested topics has changed a bit on the math section. I'll be writing about this in more detail in another post, but to give you one example, there are now inequality questions on the non-calculator section, whereas there were none on practice tests 1-4.
- All the math strategies that helped on the old exam are still very much relevant to the new one (Making Up Numbers, Plugging in Answer Choices)
- Because there are only 4 answer choices for each question, the math section is much more vulnerable to pattern recognition and process of elimination. For example, you can easily narrow down the answer choices for a vertex-form question just by knowing what vertex-form looks like. For systems of equations and circle equation questions, you can often tell what the answer is after figuring out one piece of it.
- The SAT Math section has too many figures drawn accurately to scale. For example, for questions that ask you to find the measure of an angle, you can often tell what the answer is just by estimating from the diagram. Use this to your advantage.
- You should know how to do the following by hand for the non-calculator section: basic arithmetic (multiplying two-digit numbers, dividing a two-digit number by a one-digit number), arithmetic with fractions (add/subtract/multiply/divide fractions with different denominators), arithmetic with decimals, factoring, completing the square, quadratic formula.
- Some students think they've done something wrong when they see they have to multiply 20 by 3.5 by hand to get to the answer. This type of calculation is actually normal for the non-calculator section, so don't think it's a sign you did something wrong. If you see that you have to manually multiply 156 by 23, then you've done something wrong.
- The difficulty of the reading section was on par with The College Board practice tests. I think it's harder now with the increased frequency of "Old English" passages such as speeches and writings from the 1800's (e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson).
- Expect a tricky supporting evidence question (the ones that ask which lines best support your previous answer). The secret to getting these right is a two-step process: 1) Try to figure out the lines before you see the answer choices, and 2) Always ask yourself whether the lines you chose actually support your previous answer. On the trickier ones, there will be a trap answer choice that supports the passage's main idea or another related point in the passage. Because this trap answer mirrors the passage, it will probably relate to the prior answer you're trying to support, and you'll find yourself torn between the correct answer and this trap answer. When this happens, go with the the answer that most directly supports your previous one, not the one that indirectly supports it through the main idea of the passage. I promise this will make more sense once you do some practice.
- Don't buy into the College Board marketing scheme that implies SAT vocabulary is no longer important. The passages still contain many college-level words, and if you don't understand them, you won't fully understand the passage. Vocabulary also comes into play for the word choice questions on the writing and language section. My favorite way to memorize SAT vocab is still Anki.
- There seems to always be a civil rights/women's rights passage. Other than that, a lot of the passages are more current. There was one about reddit, for example.
- The writing and language section is pretty straightforward and on par with the College Board practice tests. Once you know the grammar rules, you're pretty set to go. The trickier questions will tend to be those that ask you to choose the right word or place a sentence in the correct spot. Process of elimination is an especially effective strategy on this section.
- The new essay is easier than the old one. First, you're less likely to get writer's block because you're analyzing a passage. Second, the analysis is not hard once you know the rhetorical and persuasive elements to look for. Two of these elements—statistics and word choice—can be found in pretty much every single essay passage. A minimum of 21/24 is what I would consider a great score (at least 7/8 in each of the three grading categories).
- The essay template that I had devised worked extremely well (I got a 7/7/7). There were some subtle things I missed and have since tweaked, but in general, my approach was spot on. I cover everything—the template, all the rhetorical devices you need to know, common mistakes—in my SAT Essay book.
Not too shabby.
If you found this post helpful and want to learn more, check out my books. They contain everything I know about the SAT—all the concepts, strategies, and question types you need to know to get a perfect score.
For the May 2016 test in particular, I devised an essay template for any passage that got me a high score of 21/24 (7/7/7). I share this template and everything else—all the rhetorical devices you need to know, what I did right, and the subtle things I missed—in my new SAT Essay book.
Whatever the exam, the path to a higher score is the same. It just comes down to review and practice. Find as much practice as you can and do all of it. Sit down and actually write the essays too.
Start at least several months before your test date, preferably over the summer. Do all 8 Official Practice Tests. Do the 2 practice PSATs. Download the SAT Question of the Day App and do all those questions. Get a list of vocab words and start studying them (you get one for free when you sign up to my newsletter). There are probably released tests floating around by now so hunt those down as well.
Use The College Panda books and any others to review and practice the concepts you're weak in. Then when you think you've exhausted every resource you have, redo all the practice tests. I guarantee you'll still get stuff wrong that you think you reviewed thoroughly the first time. That's a good thing. Covering those loose ends is where the real learning happens.
This process takes a lot of hard work but if you manage to get through it, you'll be on your way to a perfect score.