In 2014, the College Board released a giant 210-page specification for the redesigned SAT which first started being implemented in the Spring of 2016.
We’ve read through this document page by page so you don't have to. This article is a new SAT guide that will go through the most relevant points for students, parents, and educators to understand about the new SAT test. We'll dig deeper than most of the guides out there, which seems preoccupied with superficial changes like easier vocabulary and the shift to a 1600 scale.
By reading our guide, you'll know answers to the following questions:
- What are the meaningful changes from the old SAT?
- How will these changes affect how students should prepare for the SAT?
- Is the College Board living up to its promises?
We’ll also be showing example questions that best illustrate these changes. You'll see questions that are new to the SAT and questions that will never appear again.
Here's a table of contents in case you want to find a specific section. I recommend you read through the entire article to get a full grasp of how the new SAT works.
The College Board has promised that the new SAT test will test skills that are more predictive of success in college and beyond. We find generally that the SAT changes in 2016 accomplish this goal.
Greater Emphasis on Reasoning Skills and Context, Not Skills in Isolation
Historically the SAT has tested skills in isolation. Vocabulary-based questions would basically evaluate whether the student knew the common definition of that word (like "expropriate"). Writing questions would often test a single grammatical rule in a single sentence. Math questions would test a single math concept for a question of limited scope.
Instead, the new SAT emphasizes higher-level logical and reasoning skills. The Reading and Writing questions are now entirely passage-based, giving more opportunities to test a deeper understanding of how the passage is logically constructed and to draw connections between different parts of the passage. The Math section emphasizes more practical, realistic scenarios and introduces multi-step problems.
Fewer Learnable "Tricks"
The SAT has often been criticized for asking deceptive questions and for using tricks to complicate questions. This meant that students who performed well in school may do poorly on the SAT simply because they were unaccustomed to the presentation of questions.
As a result of emphasizing higher-level reasoning, the new SAT features fewer tricks, particularly in the Math and Writing sections. The skills tested are more difficult, but the presentation is more straightforward.
Greater Predictability of Test Content
The College Board now spells out the makeup of each section, with percentages of questions represented across each major skill. It also specifies the types of passages that will be used. For example, the Reading section will contain one passage in US and World Literature, two passages in History/Social Studies, and two passages in Science.
This makes the test more predictable - the tests will deviate less from test to test. This fits the SAT's goal of being more transparent to reduce test anxiety for students.
- The SAT is now scored out of 1600.
- The Reading and Writing sections on the old SAT have been combined into a single section in the new SAT, with a maximum score of 800. Writing is now known as "Writing and Language."
- The Math section is still scored out of 800.
- The Essay is optional and has changed dramatically.
- Instead of five answer choices for each question, there will be only four. This doesn't necessarily make the test easier since the SAT will just remove the most unlikely answer.
At this point, I can't help mentioning that the new SAT looks a lot like the ACT. Whereas the pre-2016 SAT had major differences from the ACT, the 2016 SAT is quite similar.
From here, we'll break down each of the major sections of the SAT.
Overall Gist of Changes to the Reading Section
- All questions are now based on passages.
- The subject matter of passages are pre-determined. There's one passage concerning US and World Literature, two for History/Social Studies, and two for Science.
- Some passages will now contain data and require interpretation of data.
Greater emphasis on: vocabulary in context; command of evidence; constructing logical arguments; scientific reasoning.
Lesser emphasis on: difficult vocabulary and vocabulary in isolation.
Reading Questions You'll Never See Again:
Sentence Completions: These questions often tested more difficult vocabulary, and it was difficult to answer correctly without knowing the definition of the word.
(This question and all current SAT questions come from the 2014 SAT Practice Test by the College Board).
New Reading Question Types
Evidence Support Questions: For the first time, the SAT Reading section will have questions that build on each other. The student will be prompted to answer a question about the passage - for example, the author's tone or stance on a topic - and in the next question be asked to cite evidence for the answer in the previous question. Here's an example:
(The full passage can be found on page 88 of the SAT specifications.)
This type of question builds on the SAT's desire to move toward higher-level reasoning skills. The student will need to support his or her answer with evidence from the passage.
Data Reasoning Questions: For the first time, the SAT Reading section will include figures that show data. The student will need to interpret the data in the figure and place it in the context of the overall passage - for example, how does this figure support the author's argument?
This type of data analysis and graph reading has never before been tested on the Reading section of the SAT. Especially tricky questions will likely be inference questions - for example, "the author is least likely to support which interpretation of the data in this figure?"
Student Study Tips for the New Reading Section
Because the passages now test higher-level reasoning and ask you to analyze arguments, reading real-world examples will be helpful like never before. Understanding and deconstructing pieces from well-written publications like the New York Times will help your understanding of how effective arguments are made.
The new science passages will not be heavily focused on science. You won't need to know any formulas. You will have to know how to read graphs and understand their relevance.
Evidence Support questions are double-edged swords. Because they’re intertwined, they can be an opportunity to check your thinking - if you can't find evidence that supports your answer to the first question, you can catch your mistake. However you can bet that the SAT will also try to lead you astray - if you pick a wrong answer to the first question, they'll give you a corresponding wrong answer on the second question.
Personal biases have always been a common cause of mistakes on the SAT. Your job isn't to interpret the passages; it's to find the answer within the passage. But because the passages are now more relevant to real life and will draw from recent examples, you now need to be in greater control of your personal biases. The SAT will always try not to be controversial (it'll never have any passages on marriage equality) but you'll be more at risk for personal bias.
Overall Gist for Changes to the Writing Section
- This is the new name for the current Writing section. It still tests grammar and writing logic. It's combined with the Reading section for a total of 800 points.
- All questions are now passage-based instead of individual questions.
- The subject matter of all four passages is predetermined.
Greater emphasis on: Logic and expression of ideas, higher-level writing skills, punctuation rules.
Less emphasis on: Grammatical rules tested in isolation, “Gotcha” questions like faulty modifiers, subject/verb agreement.
Questions You'll Never See Again
The SAT is getting rid of individual writing questions, like the Sentence Error and Improving Sentences questions below:
These questions typically tested single grammatical rules in isolation. Furthermore, they were "tricky" in the sense that the SAT would use the same methods to obfuscate the grammar rule being tested. If you weren't familiar with these tricks, you would be likely to get the question wrong.
For example, the rodeo question above tests Number Agreement. The error is B - "rodeo" is a singular noun, which means "they predate" should be replaced by "it predates." The SAT complicates this rule by inserting a complicated phrase in between ("includes games...century"). On the current SAT, this is one of the most common skills tested, and it nearly always shows up in this way. If you don't know this trick the SAT plays, it's harder to answer the question.
New Writing Question Types:
The new SAT scraps the single questions for passage-based questions. They still test grammatical and writing logic concepts, but the presentation is very different.
Each question now refers to a sentence within the passage. Most grammatical questions will still deal with just a single sentence - questions 1-3, for example, can be answered in isolation without reading the rest of the passage.
However, some questions will require you to read the whole passage and understand its organization. Question 4 requires you to know the context of the sentence to choose the right word. Question 5 requires you to understand the point of the paragraph so that you can determine the most logical flow.
Student Study Tips for Writing
Writing style now matters a lot more. The Writing section previously focused mainly on grammatical rules. The new SAT will test writing logic within the context of a longer passage. This makes what you learn in school more relevant for the SAT, particularly how you construct paragraphs and essays.
Knowing grammatical rules is still important. The specific rules tested have changed to emphasize punctuation and common English usage rather than tricky subject/verb agreement and dangling modifiers.
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Overal Gist of Changes
- The essay is now 50 minutes long instead of 25 minutes.
- It gives a passage written by an author who is taking a stance on an issue. The student's job is to analyze how the author builds the argument.
- The essay is scored on a scale of 2-8 on each of Reading, Analysis, and Writing. This is not combined with the Reading and Writing section score of 800.
Greater emphasis on: analyzing an argument; understanding how evidence and rhetorical devices contribute to an argument.
Lesser emphasis on: answering a theoretical prompt; coming up with your own evidence to support your thesis.
Questions You'll Never See Again
The old SAT usually asked students to answer a theoretical prompt and support with evidence. Here's an example:
The College Board received heavy criticism for ignoring factual inaccuracies in the essay. A student could, for example, say that World War II occurred in 1980 with no score deduction. It was also criticized for constraining the essay time to 25 minutes, which made it difficult to craft compelling arguments.
New Question Types
The new SAT essay is much more mechanical and argument focused. These are the new instructions:
(The passage text has been omitted, but you can find it on page 125 of the document).
The prompt is now asking for something completely different from the current SAT. The student is asked to analyze how the author builds an argument, cite evidence from the passage, and to ignore the student's personal stance on the subject.
On a high level, this is a much more relevant skill for college and ordinary life compared to writing a 25-minute essay on whether technology is improving the world.
Student Study Tips for the 2016 SAT Essay
Despite the change in format, this is still a very predictable and trainable section. Analyze the following types of logic to build your essay:
Evidence: Understand how the author uses data and facts to support the main argument. Understand different types of data - research numbers, surveys of people, statements from authority figures - and why the author cites these examples.
Reasoning to develop ideas: Analyze how the author draws inferences from data and extrapolates from data to build larger arguments.
Stylistic or persuasive elements: Point out specific rhetorical devices that strengthen the argument and connect the author to the reader. Common examples are word choice, hyperbole, figurative language, rhetorical questions, and emotional appeals - devices that you've probably learned in school.
A couple more helpful tips for the new SAT Essay:
Your essay can always follow the same format. Just like the current SAT essay can be answered with a standard 5-paragraph response, every new essay prompt can be answered with the same format focusing on what the argument is and how the author supports it.
You won’t be able to make up fictional examples any longer. Evidence must come from the passage.
Once again, avoid biases. These passages will sometimes come from recent literature and articulate a viewpoint. Your goal is to analyze how the author constructs the argument, not describe your own stance on the issue. That much is obvious, but you may find it hard to craft an effective essay when you disagree with the author. You might even practice with passages that indicate an unpopular view just to get over your mental block.
Overall Gist of Changes to Math
- Out of all sections, Math has changed the least. The skills tested have shifted, but the format is almost the same.
- There are now multi-step problems that ask the student to take multiple mathematical steps.
- There is one section that bans the calculator. This doesn't change the difficulty, since these problems are inappropriate for calculators anyway.
- Basic trigonometry is now on the test, but there are very few questions that test this.
Greater emphasis on: data interpretation and graphs; algebra and solving equations; realistic scenarios as prompts for questions.
Lesser emphasis on: geometry and shapes (like triangles and circles); abstract logic questions.
Math Questions You'll Never See Again
The current SAT has questions that don't test concepts explicitly taught in school. There's often a trick to these questions that doesn't translate well into math that's practical for the real world. Here's an example:
This question requires you to decipher the convoluted point of the question, then understand how to use the data in the chart to find the answer. It's no surprise that this is one of the most difficult questions on the practice test. I call these questions "logical reasoning," but in a bad way - these are more like IQ questions rather than an application of math skills.
Geometry, which currently takes up 25-30% of questions, will be reduced to 10% or less.
New Math Question Types
The new SAT emphasizes real situations and word problems much more. Real situations make the questions seem more relevant to everyday life:
Questions are more straightforward. In the following question, the student simply has to solve for k, rather than a more complicated question typical of the current SAT.
Multi-part questions are not only based on realistic scenarios but also present more complicated situations that require understanding what math concepts to employ.
Finally, trigonometry will be appearing on the SAT for the first time, but it'll be limited to very few (<5%) questions.
Student Study Tips for the New Math Section
Overall, the new SAT will test more difficult concepts but with more straightforward presentations. There will be fewer tricky questions and more emphasis on understanding what a long scenario question is asking for and how to get to the answer.
The critical focus should be on identifying your weak points and drilling those skills. If you're weak in algebra, you need to do a lot of algebra problems.
Don't be worried by the no-calculator section. You'll always be able to solve these questions in a straightforward way, and often a calculator will actually slow you down.
We've gone through all the tips for how the new SAT is different, and how that means the guide to studying for the new SAT will be different. At this point, we can conclude that ...
- Overall, the College Board lives up to its promises. It wanted to make a new test that tested skills more relevant to college success and everyday life. By focusing on higher-level logical and reasoning skills, it successfully moves in this direction.
- Students will still benefit from test prep. By working with Khan Academy, the College Board is acknowledging that test prep helps improve SAT scores.
- The nature of test prep, however, will be different. Instead of teaching a few tricks that are not apparent to the average student, prep will now have to teach more meaningful skills, focusing on logical reasoning and higher-level analysis. This broadens the scope of test prep from preparing just for the SAT to hopefully teaching meaningful skills relevant to college and other aspects of life.
- We must point out that the new SAT heavily resembles the ACT. The new SAT Writing and Language section resembles the ACT English section in format and skills tested. The allocation of SAT Reading passages mirrors what the ACT has been doing for years, and the Math sections on both tests now appear closer than ever before.
- There's a common conception that the College Board is enacting these changes because it is losing market share to the ACT. Because the new SAT resembles the ACT so closely, it may have the unintended effect of encouraging students to take both exams. This might ultimately contribute to the College Board losing further market share.
- Unfortunately, we do predict that the correlation of SAT score with family income will not change. The ACT has shown strong correlations between ACT score with family income. Because the SAT now closely resembles the ACT, it's very unlikely that this pattern will change, even with free high-quality resources like Khan Academy.
We'll continue dissecting the 210-page SAT specifications into finer points, but these are the most relevant points for students, parents, and educators to understand today.
For every student in the class of 2017 and below, we recommend taking the pre-2016 SAT. All colleges will accept this for admissions, and there's so much known about this test that it's in your advantage to take this test.
What does it take to get a perfect SAT score? Read our guide to getting a perfect score, written by a perfect scorer.
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As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.