If you’re a high school student, you've probably heard that the new SAT is just around the corner.
In fact, this fall (October 2015), the PSAT given to sophomores and juniors will reflect the changes coming to the SAT starting in March 2016. For seniors graduating in the spring of 2016, this presents no problem. They'll finish up their SATs this fall — or at the latest in January — in time for college admission in spring 2016.
But what about juniors, or even sophomores? Does having the ability to choose between two different versions of the SAT offer any potential benefits? Are there advantages to taking the current SAT while it's still an option?
Reaping the Benefits of a Decade of Test Prep
Some students and parents think so, especially if a high schooler has been preparing for the current exam. For a decade, test prep companies and textbook publishers have flooded the market with every conceivable study tool for this 2,400-point version of the exam. Experts have analyzed the test from top to bottom, enabling savvy students to take advantage of tips and tricks for every section.
Students have also become familiar and comfortable with the test format. Some have worked hard to get a jump on the exam, starting their prep as early as eighth grade: mastering arcane vocabulary lists, honing test-specific essay-writing skills, becoming adept at solving classic SAT math puzzles, and taking practice test after practice test until they know the pacing in their bones.
What’s Going to Change?
In a matter of months, however, students will be confronted with a very different exam: There will be no more penalties for wrong answers, which means savvy students will no longer enjoy the advantage of leveraging partial knowledge. There will be no more sentence completions, so learning all those obscure words — unless you are a Scrabble freak — appears to have been for naught. Moreover, test-takers will have to put their calculators away for part of the math section. For years, tutors have taught students how to identify difficult-seeming problems that they may easily solve using mental math, so this is another time-saving trick that no longer favors the well-coached.
The essay — which once rewarded students who could wax metaphoric and make up stories for a manageable twenty-five minutes — has now become a fifty-minute behemoth that requires extensive reading and is indifferent to whether you've mastered Shakespeare or can deploy clever literary devices. Students who've thoughtfully chosen the SAT over the ACT may feel like the rug's been pulled out from under them; this new SAT looks a lot like the ACT.
The forthcoming exam features charts and graphs in the reading passages, and the reading section looks like a big riot of commas and apostrophes. Grammar mavens are in despair, too, as their strengths are seemingly no longer an asset.
Why You Should Wait
Despite the uncertainties surrounding the new test, and the apparent advantages of the old one, taking the current SAT is actually a bad idea for the vast majority of juniors and underclassmen.
The first and primary reason is that the final opportunity to take the test is in January. Think about it: As a junior, do you want your scores to compete with those of seniors who've had almost an additional year to study? January of your junior year is far too early to be finished with standardized test-taking, and if it weren't for the new test schedule, almost no one would dream of finishing so early in eleventh grade. And by focusing on the current SAT now, students will fall behind in preparing for the new one.
What You Should Do
You should start SAT prep the summer before your junior year in order to take your first exam in May (and SAT Subject Tests just after that, in June). Don’t waste time on an exam that’s only six months away from obsolescence. Get ahead of the game and begin familiarizing yourself with the new format before it rolls out in March 2016. After all, the College Board has already published four full practice tests and comprehensive study materials on Khan Academy for the new SAT, and test prep companies are hustling to update their texts. Smart students will start this summer, too, in order to be ready for the test this coming spring.
For those students who've already poured hours into math, vocabulary-building, and grammar mastery, that knowledge will not be wasted; it will just be tested in a different form. Now is just the time to starting adapting your existing skills to this new format using the resources currently available to you.
Should anyone take the old SAT?
The only students who should even consider the new test are rising juniors. Out of this group, the only ones who should prepare for and take the January 2016 SAT are those who have a shot at top scores. For students with perfect scores in two sections already, for example, a little push and they might approach 2,400. That's a keeper!
For everyone else, though, the future is now, and it’s not too late to gain an advantage. For those still uncertain about the new SAT, there's a better option than the old SAT. It's a good exam for which there are already myriad study tools, courses, and up-to-date textbooks readily available — it's called the ACT.