SAT Subject Tests: What are they, and why should I take them?

It’s fairly common knowledge: You have to take the SAT (in most cases) to get into college. But then what are the SAT Subject Tests? Are they optional? And if so, why the heck should you take them?

Are the SAT Subject Tests the same as the “regular” SAT?
No. Although the purpose of every college entrance exam is the same—to help admissions officers evaluate how prepared you are for college-level work—the type of “work” being assessed differs from test to test.

The “regular” SAT Exam evaluates critical thinking skills in Reading, Writing, and Math. These are considered baseline skills that every college student will need in order to succeed at a given institution and, consequently, most colleges and universities require these scores as part of their admissions process.

The SAT Subject Tests, on the other hand, are more specialized. While there is only one SAT, there are 20 SAT Subject Tests, each of which measure your knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge in one of five subject areas: English, History, Math, Science, and Languages. Typically, these tests are elective; only extremely selective schools will require you to take them.

So do I need to take an SAT Subject Test or not?

If you have the time, resources, and knowledge, it’s a generally a good idea to take one or two of the Subject Tests. However, whether or not you must take these tests depends on where you are applying—so make sure to check the admissions policies of every school!

Extremely competitive schools will typically require two subject tests; sometimes they will even dictate which tests you must take. (CalTech, for instance, requires the Math Level 2 Test and one of the Science Subject Tests.) Slightly less selective schools may “recommend” that you take one or two Subject Tests, in which case it’s essentially expected and will likely hurt your application if you don’t. Finally, schools that neither require nor recommend Subject Tests will often still consider them if you decide to send in your scores.

If my schools don’t require or recommend any Subject Tests, why should I take them?

While dedicating yet another Saturday to standardized testing may sound like a drag, there are a few reasons why you might still want to do it, even if your schools of choice neither require nor recommend Subject Tests. First, if you are applying to a specific college or program within a school, such as Engineering, then a strong Physics Subject Test will help set you apart from other applicants. Second, if you want to demonstrate a strong interest in or aptitude for a particular subject (e.g., Literature), then scoring high on the Literature Subject Test could help you place into more advanced courses. Alternatively, if you are bilingual or fluent in another language, then demonstrating that fluency on one of the nine Language Subject Tests could fulfill a basic language competency requirement—freeing up space in your schedule for other subjects that excite you! Lastly, if you have a passion for, say, History but just cannot wrap your head around Algebra, then a strong U.S. History Subject Test may help to offset a weak Math score on the regular SAT Exam.

Okay, so I think I want to take a Subject Test. Anything else I should know?

Absolutely. First, you will want to make sure that you high school coursework actually covered what is going to be on the test. For example, if you’re looking to take one of the Biology Subject Tests, but your high school curriculum didn’t include the topic of evolution, you may want to reconsider, because evolution and diversity topics make up approximately 15-22% of the questions on the Biology Subject Tests. (You can find more information about the content of the tests on the College Board website.)

Next, you can take the Subject Tests anytime you want, so use this to your advantage. If you ace Chemistry in your sophomore year, you don’t have to wait; you can take the Chemistry test in May or June of that same year while the material is still fresh in your mind.

Finally, as mentioned before, there are 20 different Subject Tests—so exercise your right to choose! Unless you are applying to a school that requires certain Subject Tests, you can take whatever tests you want, which means that you can use them to highlight your strengths and paint the self-portrait that you want college admissions officers to see. If you’re a voracious reader who isn’t great with names and dates, take the Literature Subject Test and skip the History ones. Preparing to be the next Nobel Prize-winning Economist? Take Math Level 2. Your application tells a story, and a Subject Test will help to show what you are interested in, have spent time learning about, and will likely pursue in college.

The bottom line: Even if they are not required or recommended (which you will know once you check each and every school’s admissions requirements), you should still consider taking SAT Subject Tests in areas where you excel. High scores on these tests will strengthen your application and help the admissions officers get a slightly clearer picture of you . . . no matter where you are applying.


8 Ways to Show a College They’re Your Top Pick

So you’ve done the research, narrowed your list, and come out with one—or two, or three—top schools. These are your dream schools, or at least the ones you want to attend the most. The ones where you can envision yourself walking across campus, wind in your hair, smile on your face, synapses strengthening with every class, friends multiplying the moment you step foot onto the green manicured grass of the academic quad. This is where you want to go to college. Case closed.

Now your job is to ensure that these colleges know they’re your top choices. There are a number of ways to do this, but they all boil down to “expressing interest.” That is, you want to a) demonstrate exactly what it is about each college that appeals to you, b) indicate why you think you’ll be an asset to that college (i.e., why should they admit you?), and c) create a track record of actions that show you’ve engaged with the school.

The following list offers 8 ways that you can demonstrate interest in a school and let them know that they are your top choice. However, before you get started, take note of an item that is not on this list: bombarding admissions officers with questions. Admissions officers are busy people, and they’re dealing with a lot of interested students—not just you. So be respectful of their time, and do your best to research answers to your questions via other routes (the internet, contacting alumni, talking to a rep at a college fair, a campus visit) before emailing or calling an admissions officer.

Now, without further ado, here are 8 ways you can show a college they’re your top pick:

1. Essays. If you’re using the Common App, you will find that schools have supplemental essays where you are expected to be specific about why you’re choosing to apply to that college. No matter the prompt, you should always keep in the back of your mind: Why is the school a good fit for you and you for it? Here are a few ideas to help you come up with an answer: Does your family have a legacy with the school? Is there a specific professor who you’re keen to work with? Is there something unique about the curriculum that other colleges don’t offer?

2. Campus Visit. Not only do most colleges track campus visits as indicators of interest, but a visit will also help you learn even more about the school—information that you can put to good use in your essays and admissions interviews!

3. Admissions Interview. Even if the interview is optional, you should do it. Your willingness demonstrates that you’re serious about attending this college, and in the interview, you can be candid about what drew you to that college and how you became convinced that it would be a good fit. (And don’t forget to add in why you would be a good fit for the college. Sell yourself!)

4. College Fairs. College fairs are the easier, cheaper version of the campus visit. Research local college fairs and if your school of interest will be there, stop by their booth and talk to the representative. Be sure to leave your contact information (either by filling out a card, using a barcode, or leaving a resume), even if you’re already receiving information from that college—because this is your track record to show you’ve expressed interest!

5. Send Thank-You Notes. It might sound old-fashioned, but thank-you notes are a definite way to stand out. Send them to a rep you met at a college fair, to an admissions officer who interviewed you, to a professor or student or anyone else who helped answer a question you had. This little note will keep you front-of-mind and reflects well on you as a thoughtful, appreciative person. Plus, even for those non-college-admissions officers, you never know who might be asked to weigh in on the admissions decision!

6. Connect on Social Media. Nearly every college these days has a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram account, so connect on your platform of choice and comment or ask questions to show you’re engaged in what’s happening at the school. You might even learn something you weren’t expecting!

7. Request Information. Don’t assume that you’ll wind up on a college’s mailing list simply because you’re a living, breathing high school student. And don’t rely solely on their website, either, because no matter how many times you visit, the college will have no track record of your interest! Send a polite email or sign up online to receive printed brochures and emails from the school.

8. Apply Early Decision/Action. Applying early decision tells a school that they are your absolute number one top pick. (You can only apply to one school early decision, and if you are accepted, the decision is binding.) However, if you are having trouble choosing between several top schools, then early action shows that you are interested enough to get your application submitted early in the admissions cycle, but, if you are admitted, the decision does not bind you to one school.

Parent Tips: How to Help Your Child Prepare for a College Fair (and Then Get Out of Their Way)

shutterstock_283568930As the parent of a college-bound student, you want to do everything in your power to get your child to the school of their dreams. And while there is a fine line between “helping” them and “taking over,” there actually are some things you yourself can do to help, such as research schools, look for available scholarships, become financially literate. However, there is also a long list of things you can’t do, including keeping up their high school GPA, taking the SAT . . . or attending a college fair for them.

College fairs offer excellent opportunities to browse “what’s out there” and get answers from college representatives. However, this experience is for the student. Let’s repeat: the college fair is for the student, not the parent. Your student is the one ultimately choosing where to spend the next four years of his or her life, so they need to be the one taking charge of the college search and, in this case, the task of attending a college fair.

That said, there are several things you can do to help your child get the most out of their college fair experience.

Review the list of participating schools. There is a lot to be said for going into a college fair with a plan of attack. Sit down with your student and help them to look through which schools will be in attendance and prioritize accordingly. Circle the “don’t-miss” schools and highlight others that might also be of interest. This will ensure that, on the day of the fair, your student doesn’t become overwhelmed and waste their opportunity to research schools and make a good impression.

Brainstorm questions to ask each school. College fairs can be intimidating. Lots of students are vying for the attention of a limited number of college representatives, and when they finally get the floor, students can suddenly freeze, forget everything they were going to say, and squander the opportunity to learn what they really want to know about a school. One way to help your student avoid this “blank-out” is to brainstorm with them ahead of time and write down the questions they want to ask. These questions can be applicable to all of the schools they’ll speak with, or specific to a particular school. A few example questions include: What kind of student does your college try to attract? Is your school known for a particular program? What sorts of activities are popular in the community off-campus? What public transportation is available?

Listen and (if asked) offer advice. If this is your child’s first college fair—or even their hundredth!—they may be nervous. Listen to their concerns and, when appropriate, offer advice. The college search can feel grueling, so reassure your child that you’re in this together . . . and that it will all be worth it in the end.

Then, back off! This is an information-gathering session for the student. College reps want to talk to your child, not to you. So if you’re in attendance, stand back, observe, offer moral support, and let your child gain as much information as they can for the long, formative journey they have ahead.

The 6 Things Incoming Freshman Need to Know About FERPA

shutterstock_111199472As a brand new college student, the term “education record” probably sounds neither scary, nor sexy. After all, that’s just grades right? And your senior year English teacher used to staple A+ papers to the classroom bulletin board, so there’s no real confidentiality when it comes to who earned what . . . right?

Well, in fact your education record is more than just your grades, and there’s a whole law written to protect who can see it. So now that you’re a legal adult, and before you get too wrapped up in library study sessions or Frisbee on the lawn, it is a good idea take a few minutes and learn what this FERPA stuff is all about. You never know when it might come in handy!

  1. What is FERPA? (And why should I care?)

FERPA stands for the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. It was signed into law in 1974 to protect the privacy of students’ education records. Basically, thanks to this law, you get to control who sees your information (with some exceptions, of course), and if you find any mistakes, you can take formal steps to have them corrected.

  1. Why do we need this law in the first place?

Education records started back in the 1820s, when schools in New England started to record data on their students. By the mid 1900s, those records had grown to monstrous proportions, with little regulation. School officials could add nearly any comment or anecdote to a student’s record at will, no matter how slanderous or damaging, and often without the student’s knowledge. There was no process to have these judgments challenged or removed. Parents could be denied access to their student’s records without explanation, while other third parties were given access with almost no questions asked. Finally, in 1974, FERPA was drafted and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in order to address these issues of privacy of and access to education records.

  1. What exactly is my “education record”?

The term “education record” is defined as those records that are: (1) directly related to a student, and (2) maintained by an educational agency or institution (or by a party acting for the agency or institution). Because this definition is so broad, it’s actually easier to list what an education record is not.

An education record is not:

  • Legal records maintained by a law enforcement unit
  • Medical records
  • Employment information unless your employment is contingent upon you being a student (e.g., work-study)
  • Information obtained after you’re no longer a student (e.g., alumni records)
  1. Can anyone access my education record without my consent?

Yes. School officials (defined as “those who engage in instruction, supervisory, advisory, administrative, governance, public safety, and support functions of the institution”) may access your education record whenever doing so is necessary for them to perform their duties to the school. Also, certain U.S. officials (e.g., Attorney General, Secretary of the Department of Education) may access your education record without your consent. Then, there are two circumstances under which your records may be disclosed: in the case of a health or safety emergency, or if the school receives a judicial order or subpoena specifying that you not be notified, it may disclose your record without your consent.

  1. I want to see my education record. What do I do?

Write up your request, being as specific as possible about what you want to see, and submit it to the College Registrar. The school then has 45 days to respond. You will be given access, but don’t expect them to mail you a copy; only if circumstances prevent you from being able to review the record in person will the school send you a copy. So if you do go in person, be sure to take a valid photo ID!

  1. I want to grant someone else access my education record. How do I make that happen?

To grant a third party access to your education record (or a part of that record), you need to provide written consent to the Office of the Registrar. This consent must include the name of the person(s) you want to allow to see the education record, a description of the record or information that may be disclosed, the reason for allowing that party to see the record, your signature, and the date that the consent was signed.

One last thing to note: while institutions may not release your education record without your consent, they are permitted to release what is called “directory information.” This is information that, if released, would not be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy (e.g., name, address, class year, enrollment status, etc.). If, for whatever reason, you want to keep this information private, you may write to the Office of the Registrar with your request. Just keep in mind: graduate schools or future employers may contact the university, and without that directory information, the university cannot immediately confirm that you graduated . . . or that you were ever even enrolled

Top 5 Reasons to Make a Campus Visit

shutterstock_59439031Campus visits are often time-consuming, expensive, and, let’s face it, intimidating. However, they’re also a very important part of the college search process. After all, this is where you’re going to live for the next four years. And sure, you’ve seen lots of photos on the brochures, but you wouldn’t buy a house without visiting it in person, would you?

If you’re still not convinced, consider the following five reasons you should consider making a campus visit. And remember: if possible, visit the school while classes are still in session. That way you’ll get the most accurate picture of what your life will be like, should you decide to enroll.

Facts vs. feelings. Bottom line: You need to feel comfortable on campus, and no brochure, slideshow, or virtual tour can give you the corporeal sense of “I belong here” like a college visit. Walk around. Talk to your gut. Your subconscious will have a lot to say on the matter, so make sure you listen.

See if you fit in. Do the other students look/sound/act/feel like you? Can you imagine yourself talking to them, eating with them, attending a class, throwing a party? These are people who will surround you in the coming years, so make sure you feel at home among them.

Get answers. Not just canned FAQs from a website. Not cold, clinical facts and figures from an admissions officer. Real answers, from the food service workers, the professors, and the students—you know, the people you’ll be spending the next four years of your life with. They’re living your future reality. Ask them what it’s like.

See what’s popular. Sure, the college website boasts “12,000,000 clubs and activities,” and your favorites are on there—but is it actually a club-club, or is it four people meeting in a basement? Does Division I football mean huge tailgating parties every weekend, or is this the sort of school where soccer takes precedence? Visiting campus means seeing posters, bulletin boards, and practice fields with your very own eyes. So if that underwater knitting club is a deal breaker for you, make sure it’s not just two students sitting in a bathtub.

Demonstrate “interest.” Maybe you’re the type of student who seeks the gold star . . . or maybe you aren’t. Either way, if you’re interested in attending a college, it is definitely to your advantage to get your name on their visitation records. Colleges want to improve their yield, meaning that the more students who accept admissions offers, the better. Therefore, the more interested you appear, the more likely (it would seem) you would be to accept an offer of admission . . . which means that the school might be more likely to offer you admission than, say, an equivalent student who did not tour the campus.

5 Reasons to Attend a College Fair


It’s that time of year again. Homeroom bell has rung, pencils are sharpened, and if you’re a junior, you’re starting to think about your college prospects, while if you’re a senior, you’re busy narrowing down schools of choice.

You already receive endless pamphlets in the mail and emails in your inbox. You have the SATs to study for, and grades to keep up. Should you really make time for a college fair?

These five reasons say “yes.”

  1. Find a starting point. If you have no idea what sort of college you might like to attend, a college fair is a good place to start. These events bring together multiple colleges and universities under one roof, so you can attend one event and get an idea of what’s out there without conducting aimless Internet searches or passively reading whatever brochures arrive in your mail.
  1. Get more bang for your buck. Visiting college campuses—whether to collect information and/or get face time with admissions officers—can be both time-consuming and expensive. College fairs bring the schools “to you”; therefore, they can be more convenient and cost-effective than going on multiple campus visits.
  1. Get answers to your questions—fast. If you’ve already investigated a number of schools, you’ve presumably learned enough about each to know what you don’t know. Google is great, but asking a college representative in real time is better, and oftentimes faster.
  1. Discover schools you may not have considered. You may think you’ve already considered every school that could possibly be of interest to you, but if so, think again. According to the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, more than 7,200 accredited colleges and universities exist in the United States as of 2012—and with enrollment numbers increasing every year, that number is only likely to rise. Therefore, attending a college fair can expose you to institutions you’ve never even heard of . . . and one of them might just be the college of your dreams!
  1. Earn “extra credit.” So you’ve done your research, you’ve whittled down your list, and you know where you intend to apply. Now it’s time to make yourself stand out. And believe it or not, colleges keep track of how much interest prospective students express in attending their institution. Therefore, attending a college fair and getting face time with a college representative from your school of choice can actually make a difference in your likelihood of being accepted to that school. Call it “extra credit” if you will, but in the competitive landscape of college admissions, every little bit counts!

College applications: how many is too many?

shutterstock_233708551Let’s face it: getting admitted to college is hard. Admissions are competitive, and even if you’re a top student with tons of extracurriculars, getting into your first or even second choice school is not even a close to guaranteed. Therefore, most college advisors will recommend mitigating the risk by applying to several different schools. But while “several” might have once meant 3 or 4, you now hear stories of students submitting 10, 15, even 20 applications. Is that crazy, or is that the new normal?

There is no question that the number of applications a student submits has risen substantially over the years. Based on data collected by The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, approximately 71% of students were submitting applications to 3 or more schools already back in 2005. By 2014—almost a decade later—that number increased to 83%. Now, even if that increase seems reasonable—after all, more students are applying to college, so competition is arguably fiercer—consider this: in 2005, just 17% of students were submitting 7 or more applications. By 2014, that figure more than doubled.

So 35% of students are submitting 7+ applications, and 83% of students are submitting 3+, but those are just numbers. Ultimately, what you want to know is: Is there a magic number of applications you should be submitting?

There does seem to be a magic range: 6–8. Submitting six to eight applications will ensure that you can apply to a range of schools based on how likely you are to get in. A good mix is to split it into approximate thirds: 2–3 safety schools, 2–3 match schools, and 2–3 reach schools.

But maybe you need to be convinced. After all, while that 6–8 applications strategy might sound logical, why shouldn’t you apply to more schools? Isn’t more better? Or what if you do apply to fewer schools? What, really, are the consequences?

If you apply to too few schools

This one’s easy. Take the most extreme example, where you only apply to one college. Maybe it’s your first and only choice, or maybe you are 99.9% confident you’ll be accepted. But then that letter arrives, and that 0.1% chance becomes reality. You didn’t get in. Now what? You have no other choice of schools, because you didn’t apply anywhere else. At this point, you can take a gap year to travel, or enter the workforce, but if your sole post-graduation plan was to go straight to college, you’re going to be out of luck.

If you apply to too many schools

On the other side of the equation, it may seem counterintuitive to limit the number of schools you apply to. After all, applying to multiple schools is easier than ever with the Common Application. Why would you limit yourself?

Well for starters, applications can get expensive. College application fees can run as high as $100, and if you start multiplying that fee by ten, twelve, fifteen applications . . . that’s money you could be saving to buy books your first semester!

But even if application fees are not a barrier, consider the tension that so often exists between quantity and quality. If you’re applying to just a handful of schools, you can spend more time and attention on each of those applications. When you aren’t trying to push so many applications out the door, you can afford to customize and personalize each application, and that extra time and care may very well be the difference between being accepted to and being rejected from your school of choice.

There is one final and very good reason not to apply to schools en masse. Often, students find themselves applying to a ton of schools because they don’t know where they actually want to go. This seems innocuous until, come April, you’ve been accepted to most or all of them but still have no idea which one you want to attend—only now you’re down to the wire. You have to make a decision.

Ultimately, you’re better off doing your research early in the application process, narrowing down your college selection, and then spending the time and attention it takes to create a really outstanding application for each individual school.

Having trouble narrowing your choices?

Consider these eight factors when reviewing your schools of interest:

  1. Size (student body, average class size, campus size)
  2. Location (including weather, proximity to home)
  3. Rankings & reputation
  4. Cost/financial aid
  5. Campus culture
  6. Majors offered & curriculum
  7. Local internship and job offerings
  8. Study abroad opportunities

If you really put in the time and effort to weigh these factors, your list will almost certainly shrink to a manageable size. And do you really want to waste time applying to schools you never intend to attend?

Top 5 questions to ask a college recruiter


5-questions-at-fair-blog-picYou’re at a college fair, waiting to talk to a certain college rep. You’ve been in line for what feels like ages, and you’re finally at the front of the pack. The college rep looks at you, smiles, and waits for you to say your piece. But wait—what is it you wanted to ask???

Here are five key questions that, should you draw a blank, will always help you learn what you want to know about a school (which is, of course, 1. Will I be happy there? and 2. Will they accept me?)

1. What do students like most about your school? The answer to this question can be very insightful. For instance, if the college rep cites academic well-roundedness, but you’re looking for an in-depth biomedical engineering program, this school might not be quite the right fit. Also, a fantastic follow-up question to “what do student like most” is: What is the biggest complaint from current students?

2. What kinds of students are happiest at your school? Here, you’re looking to find out whether you’ll fit in. Obviously you can’t ask the college rep whether you will be happy at their school, but if the description they provide sounds a lot like you, that’s a good sign that you, too, will be happy attending this college.

3. Do admissions officers make decisions based on numbers, or do other activities really matter? This might sound like a fairly blunt question, but for any school that might be a reach, it’s worth asking to avoid wasting your time (and money) applying if they’ll never look past an SAT score or GPA that doesn’t meet their standard.

4. How does your career planning department compare to other colleges/universities? This question accomplishes two goals. First, it shows the college rep that you are already thinking about life after college—which is good for them, because it means you’re there to be successful and prepare for a career! But second, their answer will tell you what level of priority that school places on placing students in jobs after they graduate. The more resources they cite, the better your chances of getting assistance and guidance when you begin the process of making your post-college plans.

5. Can you give me the names of a few students whom I could talk to about their experience at your school? This question is a little tricky, because college reps can’t give you the names and contact details of just anyone at the school. However, there are often student ambassadors who volunteer to talk to prospective students (and sometimes host them for an overnight visit!), or alumni who are happy to tell you about their experience. If the rep is unwilling to connect you with anyone, that’s probably a bad sign . . . so don’t take no for an answer!

10 Uncomfortable-But-Necessary Financial Aid Questions You Need to Ask

shutterstock_73041280No matter who you are or how much you have, talking about money is awkward. But it’s especially awkward when you’re asking for it.

Unfortunately, most students need to ask for money to attend college. And the number one beneficiary they’re asking? The college itself.

Navigating financial aid can be tricky; you need to know what questions to ask. Therefore, we’ve compiled a list of ten key questions to ask your colleges of choice about their financial aid policies. Some of these may not apply to you, and there may be others you need to ask based on your unique situation. These ten, however, should get you off to a great start.

  1. What is the average total cost—including tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, and other estimated expenses—for the first year?
  2. How much has this average increased over the last three years?
  3. What percentage of students graduate with debt?
  4. What is the average amount of student loan debt for graduates?
  5. Are there on-campus work opportunities for work-study students? What if I don’t quality for a work-study job?
  6. Does your college practice need-blind admissions, or will applying for financial aid hurt my chances of being admitted?
  7. How is financial aid affected if I apply early decision or early action?
  8. If I am awarded a grant, can I expect it to remain constant all four years (assuming my financial circumstances don’t change)?
  9. If I win a scholarship, will you reduce my financial aid package? If so, will you reduce the amount of loans or the amount of grants?
  10. Do you provide financial aid for summer classes or study abroad programs?

Whether at a college fair, on a campus tour, or in an admissions interview, you need to find an opportunity to ask these important questions. Ultimately, the amount of aid you receive may dictate what school you are able to attend, so make sure you get answers! And the best way to make sure you do? Schedule a meeting with the financial aid office!

The New(ish) SAT: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Standardized testing—the bane of every college-bound student’s existence. As if it weren’t hard enough to prepare for a 3+ hour test, the rules and design of the test keep changing. Is this just a strategy to keep students (and their parents . . . and their teachers . . . and their therapists) on their toes?

Let’s step back in time

The SAT was first developed in the mid-1920s by Carl C. Brigham, the same man who helped to develop the Army Alpha IQ test for US Army recruits. He was commissioned by the College Board to develop a new test that would measure general intelligence. The first SAT was initially used by some schools to select students deserving of scholarship, but eventually it became mandatory for admission at many—and now most—schools.

Over the years, the test has undergone many changes and revisions, often in response to developments in academia and the world at large. Some of the biggest changes early in the test’s history were the splitting of the test into two distinct sections—verbal and quantitative—and major adjustments to the time limits. (In the first SAT, students were asked to attempt to answer 315 in 97 minutes. That’s one question every 20 seconds!) A latter addition, calculators were permitted for the first time in the early 1990s.

In 2005, the SAT underwent one of its biggest overhauls. The “Verbal Reasoning” section was renamed “Critical Reading”, and the verbal analogy questions were eliminated because, as the argument went, they did not reflect the content of high school curriculums. In the Math section, quantitative comparison questions were dropped, and several new topics were added. Finally, in order to reflect the importance of clear and succinct writing, a writing skills section—including an essay—was added. To accommodate this new writing section, the test time increased from 3 hours, which had been its length since for decades, to 3 hours and 45 minutes. When totaled, the three SAT scores for Critical Reading, Math, and Writing, each rated on a scale of 200-800, now added up to a perfect score of 2400 (instead of 1600, which was the previous perfect score).

The latest changes

Just eleven years later, the new, revised SAT was unveiled on March 5, 2016. At a structural level, the test was reduced from 3 mandatory sections (Reading, Writing + Essay, and Math) to 2 (Reading & Writing and Math, with an optional Essay). A perfect score consequently went from 2400 back to 1600, and the test time decreased, also, from 3 hours and 45 minutes to exactly 3 hours (although with the optional Essay section, the time jumps back up to 3 hours and 50 minutes).

At a content level, the test was revised to try and remain in-step with high school curriculums, prioritize skills that are valued by universities, and minimize the inequality gap between economically disadvantaged students and those who can afford expensive test prep coaching and training. A few of the major changes are as follows:

  • No more obscure vocabulary words. Students are now asked to define words based on context rather than memorization. The argument for this is that the test will tap into reasoning methods that students use in the real world, rather than creating a contest to see who can memorize the most obscure words.
  • The essay section is now optional. Furthermore, the writing assignment itself has changed. Previously, students received a prompt and were asked to generate their own arguments in response. In the new version of the test, they will read a passage and explain how the author built his or her argument, supporting their claims with evidence from the passage. The argument for this change is that by asking students to analyze the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and style, the new essay assignment more closely mimics college writing assignments.
  • Guessing is ok. Previously, wrong answers cost students a quarter of a point. Now, however, they will no longer be penalized for incorrect answers. This means that, now that there are only 4 answers to choose from (there were previously 5), even if you guess blindly, you have a 25% chance of getting the question right!
  • Be prepared to part with your calculator. There is a completely new, 25-minute section called the Math No Calculator Section, during which students must answer 20 questions—you guessed it—without a calculator.

The College Board made these (and other) changes to the SAT for two primary reasons. First, they wanted the test to more closely reflect the work students are doing in high school, and in particular calling on evidence-based thinking to analyze and solve problems. Second, they made these changes in an effort to even out the playing field. That is, they are endeavoring to make a test where students who can afford tutoring/coaching don’t have such an advantage over those who cannot afford these supports.

Did they achieve their goal? According to a Kaplan-conducted survey . . . sort of. When asked if the new SAT reflected what they have learned in high school, 68% of nearly 500 students who took the new SAT answered either “very much so,” or “somewhat.” Seventy-one percent of students polled by the College Board gave similar feedback, saying that the test reflected what they were learning in school.

The proof, however, as they say, will be in the pudding. Who is going to conduct a poll that compares students who took test prep classes with those who didn’t? Who is going to recruit students to take the old test and then the new one, to compare apples to apples?

The verdict is still out, but the test is here to stay. So better get studying.

Helpful tip: Before taking the SAT (or PSAT) consider setting up a dedicated email address for the college admissions process.  The College Board does share your email with colleges, so it’s wise to get in front of that influx with a separate email that you will use through the entire process.  You will get hundreds of emails between SAT and move-in day.