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.