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Is the New SAT Harder? 6 Challenging Changes

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Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Jan 16, 2016 9:00:00 PM

SAT General Info , New SAT



Significant changes are coming to the SAT in 2016, but the effect they'll have on the student experience is debatable. Is the new SAT harder? It's impossible to tell for sure without any data on new score patterns.

In the meantime, we can make a few predictions for how the changes to the format and content of the test could increase its difficulty. In this article, I'll give you an overview of the changes to the test, list some factors that might make it more challenging, and suggest study strategies for students who may struggle on the new SAT.


Overview of Changes for the New SAT

You should know some relevant background information before we dive into the reasons the test might be more challenging. Here’s a summary of changes you can expect on the new SAT. For more details, check out this article.


Overall Format:

  • The new SAT will be out of 1600 points instead of 2400 points.
  • The Reading and Writing (which is now called Writing and Language) sections will be compressed into one section worth 800 points (Math will still have its own section).
  • There will be four answer choices for each question instead of five.
  • There are only four sections plus the essay, similar to the structure of the ACT (Reading, Writing and Language, Math with no calculator, and Math with a calculator).



  • There will be no more sentence completion questions (all questions are passage-based)!
  • Some questions will ask you to identify textual evidence for your answers to previous questions.
  • You'll see data interpretation questions that will ask you to read charts and graphs that relate to the passages. 


Writing and Language:

  • All questions will be based on longer passages rather than individual sentences.
  • Writing style (paragraph structure, making logical arguments) will be more important than it was on the old test.  
  • You'll see a few data interpretation questions on this section as well. 





  • There will be some trigonometry on the test.
  • Some problems will have more than one part.
  • There's a no calculator section.
  • Questions will deal with real-world scenarios more frequently, and there will be fewer “tricky” questions.


body_changes.jpgOoh so many shiny new changes!


Why Might It Be Harder?

Here are a few reasons why I think the new SAT could be harder in general. 


You Can’t Memorize Vocabulary for Points

One of the major changes on the new SAT is that there are no more sentence completion questions. The College Board is trying to de-emphasize knowledge of obscure vocabulary words on the test. Many of these words are not relevant to students after high school, and there have been claims that the old sentence completion questions favor wealthier students. On the new SAT, you will see vocabulary in context questions rather than sentence completion questions. These questions will refer to a word in the passage and ask you to choose the answer that represents its most accurate definition given the context.

With this new format, memorizing lists of SAT words won’t help you much. You’ll need to have strong overall reading comprehension skills to understand nuances in the definitions of more common words. It’s harder to study for these questions than it might be to study for sentence completion questions because the skills you need are usually acquired over time through independent reading rather than by studying vocab flashcards.


Domino Effect on Reading Questions

Another new feature on the Reading section is the inclusion of “find the evidence” questions. You’ll get a question about a reading passage that requires you to make an inferred conclusion. Then, the next question will ask you to choose the evidence that you used for your answer. You’ll have a choice of four different quotes from the passage. 

I describe this as a “domino effect” because if you get the first question wrong (or can’t decide on an answer), you’ll probably get the second one wrong too. Even if you get the first question right, you might not be able to pinpoint the quote that fits best as evidence. Since one question relies on the other, it’s easy for things to get messy.

I'm presenting this view of the situation because this article is about how the test might be harder. However, it's also possible that these types of questions will make things easier for you instead. Seeing potential direct evidence for your answer might make you realize a mistake on the previous question and actually help to improve your score. I think it's likely that this will balance out the problem. 

body_dominos.jpgNoooo skinny naked Pillsbury Doughboy! What have you done?!


More Reading Overall

The new SAT involves a lot more reading than the current (soon to be old) SAT. All the Reading questions are based on passages. Even the Writing questions will reference parts of passages rather than isolated sentences. The essay also involves more reading because you’re asked to analyze an argument made in a passage rather than just reading a short prompt and responding to it. 


Less Room for Subjectivity and Variation on the Essay

The essay is changing a lot on the new version of the test. Whereas before you had to form an opinion and make up your own examples, now you will be asked to analyze an author’s argument. This will make for stricter grading criteria and less flexibility in general. On the new essay, there will be pretty clear correct and incorrect responses.


Data Interpretation Questions

The new SAT is going to have graphs on the Reading and Writing sections! The horror! This actually isn’t so bad, but it’s different from anything the College Board has done on the test in the past. These new types of questions could be confusing or challenging for some students who aren’t comfortable drawing conclusions in this context (or have avoided the ACT because of the Science section!). 


More Advanced Math and Writing Content

Math problems will get a little more in-depth with the inclusion of word problems that have more than one part in the grid-in section. Higher-level concepts will be tested, including a light sprinkling of basic trigonometry.

The Writing section will also test a wider variety of concepts that may be more challenging. The old Writing section primarily focused on grammatical rules, whereas the new SAT Writing section will ask more questions about stylistic choices within long passages. For example, questions will ask you to determine where a sentence belongs logically in a paragraph. 


body_stylish.jpgThankfully, only Writing style matters on the new SAT, not sartorial style. You can wear a burlap sack to the test for all I care (but I wouldn't recommend it; that stuff is distractingly itchy).


Will It Be Harder for You? How Can You Prepare?

It depends partially on what kind of student you are. I’ll go through a few different qualities that might cause students to struggle on the new test and provide prep strategies to help you combat these problems. 


Case #1: You Tend to Rely on Memorization

Like I said in the previous section, memorizing vocabulary words won’t help you much on the new SAT. If you’re a really intense studier and were hoping to ace the Reading section based on memorization skills, you might have some trouble. Understanding meaning in context will be a critical skill, so on-the-spot analytical thinking is more important than remembering the dictionary definition of “obsequious.” You should still know what obsequious means, though, because it's a fun word, and it describes a lot of people. 


Study Strategies:

Practice with passage-based questions. The best remedy for this issue is to get more comfortable with answering the types of questions that are hard for you. Although there are limited practice resources for the new SAT, passage-based questions on the old SAT will still be helpful to you for this purpose.

You can also practice reading comprehension in your daily life. Set aside time every day to read a couple of challenging articles online. Learning through experience is the easiest way to build better reading comprehension skills.


Case #2: You’re a Slow Reader

The new SAT will have way more reading than the current version, which means that time problems are more likely to happen. All questions in both the Reading and Writing portions are based off of passages rather than individual sentences. If you had trouble with time on the Reading section in the past, the new test might end up being harder. 


Study Strategies:

Again, I’d recommend setting aside more time for independent reading. You can also try and build up your speed by taking practice tests. The key is to start preparing early so that you have time to improve; reading quickly and comprehensively is a skill that you won’t learn overnight. 

You can also practice with the ACT English and Reading sections. ACT English is very similar to the new SAT Writing section because it’s all based on passages. It's a good idea to check out some strategies for ACT English that will give you better ways to approach this new format. ACT Reading is pretty different from SAT Reading in terms of what the questions look like, but if you’re just trying to improve your reading speed, you should time yourself and try to complete the section. 


Case #3: You’re Less Confident in Math and Science

The new SAT will test slightly more advanced concepts in Math, and it will also include a bit of data interpretation. If the Math section is the scariest part of the SAT for you, the new test could be more of a challenge. Math will also make up a greater proportion of your score with the elimination of the separate Writing section (half of the test versus a third). Your math skills will have a greater influence on your overall performance.


Study Strategies:

You can also use the ACT as a resource in this situation. The ACT Science section will give you some practice with data interpretation questions. ACT Math problems are more aligned with the format of the math section on the new SAT as well (trigonometry, more straightforward problems). Make sure you’re comfortable with any formulas that might show up on the test. You can also buy a review book that’s specifically designed to improve your math skills.


body_bargraph.jpgIf all you see when you look at this image is a terrible drawing of a staircase, you might have reason to be concerned about the new SAT.


Conclusion: Is the New SAT Harder?

That really depends on what's challenging for you! Changes that might make the test more difficult include:
  • Memorization won’t help you as much
  • Some reading questions depend on one another
  • There’s more reading overall
  • The essay has a less flexible grading structure
  • You’ll have to do some data interpretation
  • Math and Writing concepts are a little more advanced 
You personally may find the new SAT particularly difficult if:
  • You tend to rely on memorization for your vocabulary knowledge
  • Speed reading is not your forte
  • Your skills in Reading and Writing are significantly stronger than your skills in Math

The good news is that now you know what’s going to be on the test, and you can prepare accordingly. If you think you might struggle, make sure you plan your studying well in advance so that you aren’t caught off guard by the demands of the new format.


What's Next?

How can you set an appropriate goal for your score on the new SAT? Read this article for some advice on calculating a target score based on your plans for college. 

The new SAT is similar to the ACT in many ways. Check out this article for a full breakdown of the difference and similarities between the two tests.

Should you even take the new SAT, or is the ACT a better choice? This article will guide you in figuring out which one suits you better. 


Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points


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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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