Things you should know about the new SAT from someone who took it

A chart detailing each section of the new SAT and it’s difficulty in relation to the old SAT/PSAT. Reading and writing took a backseat to high level math on March 5th, the first date of the new SAT.

On March 5, the College Board launched the first test day for the “new” SAT. Many people, like me, flew into the test fairly blind, as most SAT practice materials had become outdated. I spent most of my SAT study time studying general high school mathematics and English rather than specific SAT topics.

The new SAT consists of five sections, and students are tested on them in order. Students still are not allowed to work on other sections of the test during time for a during section.

The first section is the reading section, then the grammar section. These two sections determine your total reading score. The math section is broken down similarly into two sections: calculator active and calculator inactive, and students are tested in that order. Following the calculator inactive section, students who have chosen to take the essay have it as their final testing section.

I took all five of these sections myself, and in this article I’ll break down how I felt this iteration of the SAT compared to the PSAT, modeled off the old SAT.

One of the most important changes is the removal of the penalty for incorrect answers. You can safely guess all the remaining questions on a section you didn’t quite finish, and leave it up to fate to determine how many extra points you get on top of what you really earned.

The reading section has been spayed and neutered. There aren’t many head scratchers, provided you carefully read the passage and all information the question references. Many of the questions are trying to bait you into an answer that looks right if you only skimmed the passage, but if you read the walls of text on the SAT, you’ll do fine. The new SAT also eschews superfluous vocab words. Without being asked what “quixotic” means even once, the whole English section of the test seems like a breeze and there is honestly not much you can really study. If you have been developing good reading habits over your last few years, you’ll do fine.

The Calculator Inactive Math section, however, has become much more difficult. You’ll need to really study the hardest mathematics you’ve encountered in high school for a shot at a perfect score. The calculator inactive math section combines high level math and time pressure in an almost unfair way–you’ll have around a minute for problems that look like they could easily take five. It’s likely they designed the test that way, trying to create problems that are visually overwhelming and look like they can’t be completed in a reasonable time. Difficult algebra and exponents are the key to this section of the test, and geometry (once a very prominent aspect of the SAT) has taken a backseat.

Conventional logic dictates that the more difficult mathematics would be saved for the section you’re allowed to use a calculator on. The new SAT does not follow that, however. The drop in difficulty when the Calculator Active Math section begins made me breathe a sigh of relief. Study your trigonometry and algebra. The saving grace is that this section is much longer than the Calculator Inactive section, meaning that it counts for more than the more difficult section.

Answer choices have been reduced from 5 to 4; but this probably won’t help anyone considerably.
They’ve gotten rid of the joke answers, is all. Fewer questions have an answer choice that is immediately seen as different from the rest, which almost makes the test harder. There are probably going to be three answers which are very similar to each other, and you can guess that one of those will be the right choice.

Some old tricks that could be used to outsmart the old SAT, however, still work. Consider that these are your answer choices. Also assume you have no idea how to a certain problem, or that the clock is beating you by a few questions and you’re pressed for time to finish the section.

X2 + 20 B. X^2 + 5 C. X^2 +20 D. -(X^2) + 20

Something teachers love doing is taking a problem with an answer and modifying it a few times to come up with the alternative choices. The old SAT often did this too, and the new SAT is no exception. Realizing this, you can narrow down your selection of answers without even considering the question. With logic like that, you can realize the answer is probably C because it’s the most like every other.

The essay on the new SAT isn’t any different than the old. As before, it is exactly like writing prompts you would see in an AP English class. There is not much you can study for an English exam, but you’ll need to really know what a concise, well structured essay looks like to succeed. Know how to decide what point you will make, draw evidence from a source to make that point, and apply the evidence in a way that reads as a professional, mature essay. This is the point that so many English teachers are always driving home, and it applies here.

The new SAT is scored out of 1600, whereas the old version was scored out of 2400. The old SAT was composed of a mathematics, reading, and writing (essay) section, worth 800 points each. The new SAT has two sections, the math section and the reading/writing section. Each of those are still worth 800 points. Note this makes the math section a bit more important, worth half of the composite score instead of a third. The essay is optional now–you should do it anyway, and scoring it is a bit more complicated. You’ll have two people reading your essay, and they will each rate your essay in terms of “Reading” (understanding the prompt) “Analysis” (drawing concise ideas from the prompt) and “Writing” (articulating your ideas in proper essay format). They will both give each of these categories a score from 1-4. Then, they will add their scores together, meaning that you can get anywhere from 2-8 in each category. This score will be on your report, but it is completely independent of your composite score.

The thing about the SAT is that it’s a standardized test. That means your performance is evaluated against the performance of everyone else who took the test that day. We don’t know what a good score or a bad score is yet. A good score has been generally regarded as besting 75% of your peers at the test. When the reported scores come back with averages, we’ll know if students across America collectively bombed the math section, or if most people got less than 3 questions wrong on the english section, etc.

In conclusion, math plays a much more important role on the new SAT than on the old. That is the single defining change from the old SAT to the new one. Armed with this information, you can skew the standard in your favor by prioritizing high level math in particular, which will earn you more points than someone who studies for math and english equally. Although this part of the test is harder, you’re only being compared to the people who took the test on the day you did, which will ultimately make it fair. If you take all the usual advice you’ve gathered for standardized tests and apply it here, and you should do just fine.


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