Don’t Be Afraid of the New SAT: An Experienced Test Tutor’s Take on the New Test

As a test tutor, it’s my job to know what’s on the college admissions tests and the best way to prepare my students for them. Recently, I felt like a high school student all over again as I got to know the new, redesigned SAT using the resources and practice tests on the Khan Academy website. The new test is significantly different than the previous version. IMHO, though, it’s an improvement from the old one for several reasons, and it’s nothing to be afraid of—whether you’re a student or a test tutor.

So how is it different from the previous SAT?

The Basic Format

The test is now divided into two sections with two respective scores: “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,” which includes a “Reading” section and a “Writing and Language” section with multiple choice questions; and “Math,” which includes a section without a calculator and a section with a calculator, with multiple choice and grid-in questions in each. Scores are now out of 1600 again, instead of 2400, and are also broken down into several sub scores. And unlike the previous version, there are now only four choices per question, no guessing penalty, and only the math sections are in order of difficulty.

Like the ACT, the Essay section is now optional but required for many schools. Though that has also changed significantly, I’m not going to save discussion of the Essay for a future post and focus on the other three sections instead.

The Reading Section

The biggest change in the reading section is that students no longer need to learn lots of obscure, convoluted vocabulary words for sentence completions. (Yes, laconic and taciturn, I’m talking about you!) The vocabulary questions on this version of the test are asked within the context of the reading passages, which is more realistic to how you might encounter such words in college-level texts. So, while a large vocabulary is certainly helpful, test-takers can set aside those vocabulary flashcards and spend more time engaging with high quality reading material.

As for the reading itself, the passages seem similar to the previous test, though the questions are a little different. There are more questions that focus on finding evidence in the passage to support an idea, including paired questions that require a different strategy than the stand-alone multiple choice questions. By my assessment, students will need some practice adjusting to the question types on the “new” reading section, but the difficult level is about the same. And, like the previous SAT, test-taking strategies will only take one so far—reading skills must be built over time.

The Writing and Language Section

The grammar, punctuation, and composition skills on this test seem similar to the previous test. The “new” structure is very ACT-like, with underlined sections spread throughout a reading passage in which test-takers must choose the best option, one of which is to keep the sentence the way it’s written.


The math test now consists of two sections: No Calculator and Calculator. Unless you’ve been conditioned to plug everything into your machine, the No Calculator questions should not be feared, as they’re designed to be solved without complex calculations. Personally, I found it easier than the Calculator section.

My verdict on the questions in both math sections, but especially the Calculator section, is that the question wording is less tricky than the previous SAT test but the concepts tested are more difficult. I think this might make the Math section harder for me as a tutor but easier for most high school students. This is because I’ve gotten used to deceptively-worded questions and answer choices, but I’ve forgotten much of my Algebra II over the years since the previous test only went up to Algebra I and Geometry. The good news—for both me and my students—is that the concepts on the “new” test can be reviewed and learned. There is also more emphasis on math questions that utilize “real life” scenarios: these questions often feature a table, chart, and/or graph along with a brief explanation, followed by a question about the data. As a college graduate I found these questions easier than the Algebra II questions, but students who prefer math to reading will probably find them more difficult.

Overall, I think the sections to the math section are positive, as they rely more on math skills and knowledge and less on test-taking strategies.

How is it different from the ACT?

The new SAT is more similar to the ACT than the previous version, but there are still some important differences. The new SAT does not have the “Science” section, which is basically a high-speed science-based reading section. The multiple-choice Writing section and the level of the reading passages are similar, but the type of questions asked on the SAT Reading section are a little different. The ACT does not have a No Calculator section or grid-ins for the math. And the ACT is still more fast-paced than the SAT, though both tests require swift problem solving to get the highest possible scores.

So which test should I take?

With all the uncertainty over the new SAT, some tutors are advising students to switch to the ACT for the coming year. Personally, I wouldn’t give that advice to all students.

The New SAT might be a better fit for you if:

  • Pacing is a challenge and you don’t qualify for extended time, since the ACT is a little faster-paced
  • You are stronger at Math than Reading, since the “Science” section of the ACT is basically a reading test
  • Doing math problems without a calculator doesn’t scare you

The ACT might be a better fit if:

  • Predictability and a plethora of resources are important to you, since the tried-and-true ACT isn’t in the midst of a significant change
  • You qualify for extended time, since the ACT allows you to allocate it between sections as needed while the SAT limits your extended time to each section
  • You’re good at speed reading science-based reading passages

The best advice is still to try a practice test of both the ACT and the new SAT using an official book or some of the excellent, free Internet resources available, then decide for yourself which test you’d rather take. The SAT has partnered with Khan Academy to offer some good, free practice tests and tutorials. A tutor (like me!) can also help you develop and stick to an individualized study plan and make the most of the resources available to you.

My parting advice is this: Don’t fear the New SAT. Prepare for it the same way you would prepare for the previous version—work hard in school to develop your academic skills, make sure you understand the concepts and question types on the test, take several timed practice tests, take a test prep class or work with a tutor if you need it, and be confident in your abilities!

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