studying for college admissions exam

2016 Changes to the SAT

Some people approach an important exam with high anxiety, so the outcome is less than their abilities should reflect. Others are relaxed and can focus on producing results that fully represent their potential. The best way to be sure that you’ll be in the latter group is to be prepared… but prepared for what?

The competitiveness of admissions to top-tier colleges is intense, making careful planning and preparation necessary for success. A key part of your planning should involve SAT and ACT college entrance exams — which ones you should take, when you should take them, and how to prepare for them. Your IvySelect consultant guides your planning for the SAT and ACT exams based on years of experience with the admissions process of each elite college.

If you plan to apply to a top-tier school in 2016 or later, you should be aware of the changes to the SAT that will take effect next March. According to the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, the purpose of the changes is to end the historic correlation between family income and SAT results. They also bring the SAT into closer alignment with the Common Core educational standards.

To even the playing field, the Board seeks to remedy the imbalance between those students who can to afford to take test prep courses and those who cannot. Beginning this year, the Board, through its association with the nonprofit Khan Academy, will provide high quality tutorials, practice exams, and other test prep materials for free. The Board asserts that these measures will make external prep courses unnecessary and will end any advantage to be gained by those who can afford them. Not surprisingly, the test prep industry is already disputing this claim based on the initial release of sample questions.

The pending SAT overhaul coincides with the growth of the test-optional movement in college admissions. Hundreds of colleges no longer require SAT or ACT scores. Most of these are small, obscure schools, but a few notable colleges have joined the test-optional bandwagon. If you aspire to an Ivy League college, the test-optional trend is irrelevant. The Ivies and most other top-tier schools continue to require test results because, among the many factors considered in admissions, standard tests are one of the few that enables a reasonably valid peer-to-peer comparison of applicants. In fact, many elite colleges require SAT Subject Tests results in addition to SAT or ACT scores.

Below are some of the changes to the SAT that will affect you as a test-taker in March 2016 and beyond:

  • Essay – The SAT essay, which is now mandatory and worth up to 800 of the maximum 2400-point maximum score, will become optional. Some Ivies, such as Penn, Columbia, and Cornell, have announced that they will not require the SAT essay once it becomes optional. They prefer to rely on the supplemental essays that are included in their application requirements.
  • Scoring – The new SAT will return to the 1600-point scale, with the Math and Reading/Writing sections each scored between 200 and 800 points. The optional essay, worth 800 points, will be scored separately.
  • Penalty – The ¼ point penalty for a wrong answer to a multiple-choice question will be eliminated. Currently, the penalty discourages guessing unless the test-taker has narrowed the choices to two. The 2016 test will encourage guessing whenever the correct answer is uncertain.
  • Choices – Multiple-choice questions will have 4 possible answers in 2016 compared to 5 in the current test. This will enable students to progress faster through the test. It will also improve the odds for guesses.
  • Time – The time allowed for the Math and Reading/Writing sections will remain the same on the 2016 test but there will be 16 fewer questions. Students will have twice the amount of time for the optional essay, from 25 minutes up to 50.
  • Reading/Writing Content – The section currently called “critical reading” will be merged with multiple-choice writing questions to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Sentence-completion questions will be eliminated from the new test. More questions requiring an analysis of text passages on science, history, and social studies topics will be added. On vocabulary, the SAT will test students on words that they encounter in ordinary usage rather than obscure words.
  • Math Content – The Math section will concentrate more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra, and advanced mathematics. Geometry will be de-emphasized
  • Overall – The new SAT is a more rigorous test that is more aligned with Common Core standards. The emphasis will shift to higher-level writing, reading and analysis. Processing speed is not as important as on the old SAT. Further, the test will advantage the advanced reader, so the choice of whether to take the new SAT or the ACT will be a matter of individual choice. Ultimately, the best way to know which test is the better choice is to take full-length practice tests of each exam to see where you fare better.