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Big Changes: What to Know About the Evolving SAT

The College Board announced big changes coming to the SAT: an online format! What does this mean for students preparing for the test? Read on to find out.

Originally known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT was created almost a century ago to give colleges and universities a tool for deciding which students they would admit. Although it may not seem like it to students, the purpose of the SAT isn't to put pressure on those planning to attend college. Instead, it should be seen as a gateway to opportunity. According to the College Board, the organization that offers the exam, the SAT measures the knowledge and skills that students are learning in high school that matter most for college and career readiness.

Over the years, the exam has been updated in a variety of ways, including a new development that’s getting a lot of attention. By 2024 in the US and internationally, students will no longer take the exam in paper form. That move is something most students will like, but what does it really mean for how the test will be administered, and what about the exam itself is changing? Let’s take a look at the most important things you should know.

How is the new online format changing the SAT?

According to Rich Goldman, Director of Tutoring for My College Planning Team, "The new SAT will be all digital, easier to implement, easier to take, and shorter." He explains that because digital tests will be easier to administer, testing date options will increase. Also, the digital format will have a built-in timer to help students with time management as well as built-in calculators, eliminating the need to buy and bring a test-appropriate calculator, which can often be pricey. Some other changes may improve access for some test-takers with plans for more tests to be available during the school day, which is helpful for those with many responsibilities who struggle with scheduling in-person tests. Additionally, for students lacking access to technology resources, there will be test sites offered where a laptop or tablet will be provided.

Related: How COVID–19 Is Affecting Standardized Tests

A big aid to student stress

An extra benefit to these changes is that they may cut down on stress for some test-takers, notes Walter Caffey, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission & Student Aid at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. "The shorter test time, the ability to use calculators for the Math section, and the shorter Reading passages all should provide more opportunity for focus during the test," he says. "The quicker turnaround for the availability of your score will also lessen the anxious wait time of understanding how one performed." That stress factor can be a big one. After all, the process of taking such a high-profile test is intimidating. Before announcing the change, the College Board tried the new version through a pilot project. Of the students who rated the experience, 80% said they found it less stressful.

Other major advantages

Students will also find that the updated SAT will take about two hours to complete compared to the current three, and more time will be allotted for each question. Shorter Reading passages will be presented, and they’ll reflect a wider range of topics that represent the works students read in college. Another plus is that score reports, along with providing information to colleges and universities where students plan to apply, will also connect students to info about local two-year colleges, workforce training programs, and career options.

The benefit to college admission

A different kind of change with the SAT involves not the way it’s structured, but rather how colleges and universities use the exams when making admission decisions. In recent years, some schools that historically required SAT scores have eliminated that requirement or adopted a test-optional policy. This practice became much more widespread, at least temporarily, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic when schools and testing centers began to close. But as society becomes more open once again, some are wondering if more colleges will find they prefer to operate without making these test scores a standard part of the admission process.

Related: Do the ACT or SAT Have a Future in College Admission?

What isn’t changing about the SAT?

While the future importance of the SAT may be open to question, the basic elements of the exam are still in place. It still includes three portions:

  • The Reading section: Five Reading passages are followed by multiple-choice questions about each passage.
  • The Writing and Language section: Also offered in a multiple-choice format, this portion involves identifying mistakes and weaknesses in written passages. 
  • The Math section: This part includes questions based on algebra, problem-solving, data analysis, geometry, and trigonometry. It’s divided into two parts, one where a calculator is allowed and one where it isn’t. While most Math questions are multiple choice, some must be written showing your work.

And despite the buzz about changes to come, their impact should not be overemphasized, says Bob Rowe, a Senior Admission Counselor at Florida Institute of Technology, who points out that the exam will still be challenging. “This is the same SAT test,” he says. “The questions will not change, and the scoring remains the same.” Students will still have to go to testing centers to take the exam, the questions will still cover the same subject areas, and students will still have slightly different orders of questions to help prevent cheating.

Related: SAT Word Game

Looking ahead to the new version of the SAT, it’ll be important to take advantage of practice tests that will be offered leading up to the release, Caffey advises: "Becoming familiar with the format, as always, will be critical." The same logic also applies to this year's exam. Regardless of the format, putting in the time on practice tests can build confidence and make the actual SAT experience much less formidable. "It’s always recommended that students take advantage of test prep in advance," Rowe says. “Test prep for some students can have a major influence on their scores." 

Fortunately, anyone can take obtain free resources to prepare for the SAT. The College Board offers eight full-length practice tests, thousands of practice questions, and other helpful info. Just go to the organization’s website to access these and other resources. And good luck on your test!

Before you try some practice tests, start preparing for the SAT right here on CollegeXpress by planning your test date with our SAT & ACT Date Wheel

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