SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The 10 New SAT Changes and What They Mean for You


Times, they are a-changin’. Bob Dylan’s 1964 anthem of change may not have originally referred to a college admissions test, but it certainly applies to the SAT overhaul of 2016. The redesigned test features huge changes from its previous version, in terms of its structure, scoring, and content.

Read on to learn about the major updates and what you can do to prepare for them. To start, let’s take a look at the test’s structure and exactly how it’s a-changin'.


Changes in SAT Structure: Four Long Sections and Optional Essay

Anyone familiar with the old SAT will immediately notice huge structural changes in the new test. While the old SAT had ten shorter sections, the new SAT has just four (or five with the optional essay).

The old SAT’s subject order was largely random, but the new SAT’s order is predictable: first, Reading; second, Writing and Language; third, Math No Calculator; and fourth, Math with Calculator. Its Essay section is now optional, and you can choose to add it as a fifth section at the end. You can compare the structure of the old and new tests and see just how different they are in the charts below.


Old SAT Structure

The old SAT had ten sections. The first was always the essay, and the last was always a short Writing section. In between, though, you couldn't predict the order of Critical Reading, Writing, and Math. Students had different tests, so the person beside you might have been working on Math while you were skimming through Critical Reading passages.

Two of the Math sections were 25 minutes, and one was 20 minutes. Similarly, two of the Critical Reading sections were 25 minutes, and one was 20 minutes. As for Writing, you had a 25-minute essay, a 25-minute multiple choice, and a 10-minute multiple choice. Compared to the redesigned SAT, this old format seems pretty random!

Order Section Time in Minutes
1 Essay 25 minutes
2 - 9 3 Critical Reading, 3 Math, 1 Writing, and 1 Experimental Section in any order six 25-minute sections and two 20-minute sections
10 Writing 10 minutes
  Total: 3 hours, 45 minutes


New SAT Structure

By looking at the chart above, you can tell that students who took the old SAT went into the test with a lot of unanswered questions about its exact format. They couldn't know exactly what order the majority of the test, sections 2 through 9, would come in. On the new SAT, you can know the order and length of each section. You also get more insight into passage and question types, which we'll explore below. First, take a look at the predictable structure of the new SAT.

Order Section Time in Minutes
1 Reading 65
2 Writing and Language 35
3 Math No Calculator 25
4 Math Calculator 55
5 Essay (optional) 50
  Total: 3 hours, 50 minutes (3 hours without essay)


Notice that some of the section names have been changed. Critical Reading has been shortened to Reading, while Writing has been lengthened to Writing and Language (but we'll probably still call it Writing anyway). Another difference you might notice between the two tests is that the new SAT features two Math sections, one where a calculator is permitted and the other where one is prohibited. This is a new feature, as you could always use a calculator on the old SAT.

Since the two tests are so different, they require somewhat different approaches to prep. Whether you’ve already studied for the old SAT or not, how can you shape your studying now to approach this new SAT structure?



Since you'll get fewer sections for longer, you'll have even more responsibility for managing your time on the SAT.


Tips for Your Prep

The new SAT is all about focus. With just four sections (or five with the essay), you’ll work on one subject for a big chunk of time. While students taking the old SAT had to get used to quickly shifting their mindset from Reading to Math to Writing and back again, students taking the new SAT will need to concentrate on one subject for an extended period of time.

Since you’ll encounter longer sections, you should also practice managing your time across a large amount of material. On the Reading section, for instance, you’ve got to divide your time among five passages over 65 minutes. On the old SAT, you might struggle with one Reading section but have two (or three if your experimental section was Reading) more sections to try again. On the new SAT, you only get one Reading section and can’t return to it. You'll need to manage your time well and make sure you don’t let one tricky passage or word problem trip you up for the rest of a section.

In addition to test-taking and time management strategies, you’ll also need to do some research before you register for the SAT. Besides figuring out your best test date for the SAT, you also need to decide whether or not to take the Essay section. For the most part, this decision relies on your colleges’ requirements. Before you register, check whether your colleges require essay scores on your SAT score report.

As a result of its restructuring, the SAT now has a new scoring system too. Read on to learn how the new SAT is scored and tips for adjusting your test-taking strategies.



The SAT has shed its scales and embraced a whole new look.


Changes in SAT Scoring: Return to 400 to 1600 Scale

Any students who took the SAT in 2005 or earlier will recognize the new SAT scoring scale. It now has a maximum score of 1600, rather than 2400. Your score will be half math and half verbal. The math sections will be scored together from 200 to 800, and the Reading and Writing sections will be combined into one Evidence-based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score between 200 and 800.

If you choose to take the Essay section, your essay score won’t be factored into your total scores. Instead, you’ll get three separate essay scores between 2 and 8 for Reading, Writing, and Analysis. As with the old SAT essay, two readers will read and score your essay.

Just as your essay score is broken down by skill area, your test scores will also get a variety of subscores. You’ll get test scores between 10 and 40 so you can see how you did on Reading, Writing, and Math separately. You’ll also get cross-test scores and subscores that reveal how well you did on specific skill areas and question types.

Finally, another big change is the adoption of rights-only scoring. While the old SAT deducted points for wrong answers, the new SAT has no penalties. You’ll get one point per correct answer, but no points added or taken away for wrong or skipped answers.

The SAT has undergone big changes in its scoring system. Is there anything you can do to prepare for the new scale?



Don't underestimate the Math section, as it's now worth half of your total score!


Tips for Your Prep

The changes in SAT scoring affect your test prep in a few ways. First, your Reading and Writing scores no longer count for two-thirds of your total score, as they did on the old SAT. Now Reading and Writing are half the score, while math is the other half. This change may shift the amount of time you devote to prepping for each section. Make sure to spend sufficient time on Math, especially if it’s not your strong subject, as it now counts for a greater proportion of your overall score.

If you’re writing the essay, you’d be well served to familiarize yourself with the rubric on which graders base their scores. Since you’ll get scores for Reading, Writing, and Analysis, you should learn exactly what you need to accomplish to score an 8 in each of these three categories.

While your section and total scores matter most for college, the more specific cross-test scores and subscores can be useful feedback. If you’re retaking the SAT, then these scores can help you identify exactly which question types are your strong point and which ones are weak points. Even if you haven’t taken the SAT yet, you can take the time to calculate these scores from your own practice tests. These scores will give you insight into your strengths and weaknesses, insight you can then use to shape your study plan.

Finally, the switch to rights-only scoring means that you no longer have to worry about which questions to answer and which to leave blank. In fact, you shouldn’t leave any questions blank, as there’s no penalty for wrong answers. If you’re not sure on a question, you should still give it your best try. With only four answer choices on the new SAT (as opposed to the previous five), you have an even stronger chance of making a lucky guess!

Now that we’ve reviewed the big picture 2016 SAT changes, let’s take a closer look at specific changes to content and question types in each subject area, Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. After you read through these changes, you’ll get an extra one that appears in all three subjects - data interpretation questions. First, though, let’s take a look at the new SAT Reading section.



On the new SAT Reading, you'll know the general topics of each of the five passages.


Changes in SAT Reading: New Question Types

One change to SAT Reading is its greater predictability. You know exactly how many passages you’ll get - five - and the subject matter that each with will deal with - one with US and World Literature, two with History and Social Studies, and two with Science.

All of the questions will be passage-based and will test four main skill areas: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Analysis in History/Social Studies, and Analysis in Science. Many Reading questions resemble those on the old SAT; they ask you to interpret the meaning of a passage, supporting detail, or individual word.

There are two big 2016 SAT changes to Reading that you should know, though, the first being the elimination of sentence completion questions.


#1: No More Sentence Completions

As you just read, the SAT Reading questions are all passage-based. This means that the sentence completions on the old SAT have been completely done away with. These were stand-alone questions that asked you to fill in one or two blanks with often obscure, high-level vocabulary words. On the new SAT, these question types have disappeared.

Vocabulary still plays a role, though, as sentence completions have been reincarnated as Words in Context questions. Words in Context questions will ask you the meaning of a word in the context of its passage. These words won’t be especially obscure; instead, they’ll feature more commonly used words that may be being used in an unusual way.

While the new SAT has gotten rid of sentence completions, it’s introduced an entirely new question type: the evidence-based question.


#2: Evidence-Based Questions

For the first time, SAT Reading features questions that relate to one another. One question may ask you to interpret the meaning of a sentence or paragraph. Then the next question may ask for the reason behind your answer to the previous question. This official sample question features one of these new evidence-based questions:


Most evidence-based questions will feature this same wording: “Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” In the past year, a few students noticed these new question types on the experimental sections of their SAT tests; if you’re in this group, then you may already have some experience with this question type on test day!

In addition to learning about these changes in question types, what else can you do to prepare for them?


Make sure to incorporate historical and scientific texts into your prep for SAT Reading.


Tips for Your Reading Prep

There are many concepts and strategies you can use to prep for Reading, but, for now, let’s focus on what you can do to prepare specifically for the changes described above. First, you learned that the texts are no longer predominantly prose, but instead are sourced from history, social studies, and science. To get ready, you should seek out a variety of texts - readings from history and science class may be helpful here - to develop your reading comprehension skills across genres.

Science passages can be especially technical, so you want to practice reading scientific texts. College Board’s first official SAT practice test, for example, features a passage by “Fathers of DNA” Watson and Crick. This type of writing, produced by scientists in 1953, is quite different than a passage from, say, Jane Austen’s Emma.

Since sentence completions are gone, you don’t have to worry about studying long lists of obscure vocabulary anymore (as a taker of the “old SAT,” I still can’t believe students won’t need to memorize the definitions of words like obstreperous and perspicacity!). Instead, you should focus on more commonly used, multiple-meaning words and gain a sense of how meaning shifts depending on context.

The final new SAT change for which you should prepare is the introduction of evidence-based questions. While these questions are new, the mindset of backing up your answer with evidence from the text shouldn’t be. Reading questions have always required that you base your answers completely on information presented in a passage. In many ways, these new questions serve as helpful reminders to refer back to the text and to double check that you have specific proof from the text to back up your answers.

Now let’s take a look at the new SAT changes in Writing, many of which resemble the changes in Reading.



SAT Writing and Language still tests grammar, but in a somewhat different way.


Changes in SAT Writing and Language: Passage-Based Questions

One new SAT change involves naming: the Writing section is now technically called Writing and Language. Since most long words and titles inevitably get abbreviated, though, the majority of people will probably still refer to it as the Writing section.

Just like in the Reading section, the Writing section’s questions are now 100% passage-based. They still ask about English grammar and usage, but they’ll also ask you to do big-picture editing, like reorganizing ideas or adding a sentence to improve meaning. Additionally, you’ll now get some questions that ask about punctuation, like comma and apostrophe usage.

As with the Reading section, the subject matter of the Writing passages is predetermined. You’ll get four passages, one each dealing with Careers, Social Studies, Humanities, and Science. Unlike the Reading, you won’t get any prose; instead, the passages will be texts that are argument-based, explanatory, or nonfiction narrative.

You’ll get many questions that ask you whether adding a detail or reorganizing sentences would strengthen a passage. Some words and sentences will be best just as they are, so one of your answer choices will be, “No Change.”

Given this switch to passage-based questions, many of which focus on big-picture editing, what can you do to prepare for the new SAT changes in Writing?


Tips for Your Writing Prep

Your prep for the new Writing section remains similar to what it was for the old. You should focus on rules of grammar and usage while also adding punctuation rules to your review. The redesigned section also calls for a strong understanding of structure, organization, and transitions between ideas.

Developing your writing and editing skills in school will help you do well in this section. As with the Reading passages, you should also work to sharpen your reading comprehension of texts from various nonfiction genres, especially from the fields of social studies and science. As you read, pay attention to how an author introduces, concludes, and moves between ideas, as well as how she uses supporting details to reinforce an argument or central thesis.

Again, both verbal sections now place a heavy emphasis on vocabulary, details, and ideas in context with their entirely passage-based questions. As you read, write, and edit in your SAT prep, in school, and in your own time, make sure to pay attention to the context around a word or detail that helps shape its meaning and purpose.



Get ready to write out math problems by hand. There are 20 questions that you'll have to solve without a calculator.


Changes in SAT Math: New Skills and Calculator Rules

The new SAT Math is divided into a 25-minute section and a 55-minute section with a short break in-between. Let’s take a look at the 2016 SAT changes in skill areas, as well as explore the new calculator rules.

#1: Different Skill Areas

The new SAT Math focuses largely on algebra. For the first time, it also features problems that ask about trigonometry and complex numbers. The number of geometry problems has been largely reduced, now making up only about 3 to 5% of the total questions. These trig, complex numbers, and geometry questions fall into the skill area called Additional Topics. The other skill areas are Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, and Problem Solving and Data Analysis.

Another 2016 SAT change is the emphasis on word problems featuring “real world scenarios.” College Board says that it wants to test the math you’ll use in real-life situations, like in college courses, jobs, and even your personal life. You’ll see questions, for instance, that ask you to calculate gas mileage of a car or to convert one country’s currency into another.

Before discussing how you can prep for the changes in math content, let’s review the second big change: the division into a “calculator prohibited” and a “calculator permitted” section.


#2: No Calculator and Calculator Section

You’ll start in on SAT Math with a 25-minute section during which you’re not allowed to use a calculator. The 20 questions in this section don’t necessarily require a calculator; instead, they’re meant to test your understanding of a mathematical concept, rather than your ability to perform complex calculations out by hand.

You’ll probably get some basic arithmetic on the No Calculator section, but it won’t go beyond multiplication or division of numbers with decimals. In fact, many of the questions on both sections are easier to solve without the use of a calculator. So even when you’re allowed to use it on your second section, you might be better off solving many of the problems by hand. Taking these changes together, how can you sharpen your math skills and do well in these two sections?


Tips for Your Math Prep

To begin, you should familiarize yourself with exactly what concepts will be tested on SAT Math. Make sure your practice materials break down each of the major skill areas - Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Additional Topics - into their component subtopics. Then you can pair your review of each concept with relevant practice questions.

Your main focus will be algebra, but you’ll need to be able to do some trigonometry and geometry as well. You should also practice reading comprehension when it comes to word problems. Some of these word problems will contain extraneous information, so you’ll need to discern which details are important for working toward a solution.

In order to prepare fully for the No Calculator section, you should sharpen your skills of solving multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction problems by hand. You won’t have to do a lot of calculating, as this section aims to test your conceptual understanding rather than your ability to mimic a calculator. Still, though, you’ll get a few questions that will require calculations, so you want to make sure you can still write out these problems long-hand.

Finally, you read above that you might not always need a calculator, even on the problems when you’re permitted to do so. College Board says it wants to test your calculator fluency, or ability to determine when a calculator’s a useful tool and when it’s unnecessary. Keep a critical eye on your calculator use as you answer practice questions and take note of which question types call for a calculator and which ones don’t.

Now that you’ve seen the main changes in SAT Reading, Writing, and Math, let’s look at the optional fifth section, the SAT essay.



Your essay prompt may say something like, Explain how the dog presents his argument that sweaters should not be shared with parrots. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with the dog, but rather explain how he builds an argument to persuade his avine audience.


Changes in SAT Essay: Analyzing an Argument

The fact that the essay’s now optional is one major change; in the past, it was your first section on the SAT and factored into your overall Writing score. Now, the essay will come last if you choose to take it.

The old SAT essay was only 25 minutes. It presented you with a quote and asked you to “take a stand,” supporting your opinion with examples from just about anywhere. You could talk about experiences in your own life, observations of others, characters in books, or historical events, to name a few. Your examples had to support your opinion, and you were welcome to use the first person “I” throughout.

The new SAT essay is twice as long at 50 minutes. Unlike the old essay, the new essay doesn’t ask for a personal opinion. Instead, it asks you to write a third-person analysis of the argument presented in a given passage. (If you’ve made it this far in the guide, you’ve probably noticed that lots of content on the new SAT is passage-based.)

You’ll get a passage, followed by a prompt that asks you to analyze the passage’s central argument. In particular, you’ll describe the devices the author uses to present his/her point of view. In order to analyze the argument, you’ll need to understand how supporting evidence and rhetorical devices function in the passage.

While the old essay was often abstract, personal, and philosophical, the new essay is more concrete and analytical. Because this section has changed so much and uses a distinct scoring system from the other sections, you’ll want to prep specifically for this section if you decide to take it.


Tips for Essay Prep

First and foremost, you need to figure out whether taking the essay is beneficial to you. For most students, this means researching your prospective colleges’ policies on the SAT and whether or not they want to see this section. If you’re a younger student unsure where you want to apply or if your colleges still haven’t set a policy, then you may choose to take this section just in case. More selective colleges are likely to require that you take the SAT with Essay.

Your prep for this section should be largely different than it was on the old SAT. For instance, you don’t need to show up prepared with flexible examples that you could apply to many prompts. Instead, you should practice your skills of analysis, particularly analysis of how an author uses rhetorical devices and presents evidence to persuade readers of her point of view.

As with the old SAT, you should get a firm grasp of structure and practice writing this kind of essay under time limits. You might pair up with a friend and grade each other’s using the essay scoring rubric. Through practice, you’ll improve your skills at analyzing an argument and writing a thesis-driven five paragraph essay under time limits.

Before reviewing the key new SAT changes you’ll see on the redesigned test, let’s look at one more addition that pops up across the test: data interpretation questions.


Prepare yourself. We're heading into charted territory.


One More Change: Data Interpretation Questions

If you flip through a sample SAT, you’ll see graphics popping up in every section of the SAT. While you may be used to seeing graphs in the Math section, now you’ll get graphs, tables, and charts in Reading and Writing too.

A graphic will accompany one or more passages in both the Reading and Writing sections. You’ll get a few data interpretation questions that may ask whether the passage and graph are in sync with each other. A Writing question could ask if adding or deleting a data point from the graph would clarify a passage’s main argument. Below are a few official examples of data interpretation questions, one each from Reading, Writing, and Math. We'll be posting a guide to answering data interpretation soon, so check back for more strategies on attacking these new questions!

Example of a Data Interpretation Question in Reading



Example of a Data Interpretation Question in Writing



Example of a Data Interpretation Question in Math


The latter is also an example of an Extended Thinking question in Math, in which more than one question refers to the same graphic or word problem. You should only get one Extended Thinking question, and it will likely show up in the calculator permitted section.


Since data interpretation questions show up all over the test, you’ll want to sharpen your skills of reading graphs, tables, and charts. This shift, along with the others mentioned above, will help you prepare for the 2016 SAT changes. Let’s quickly review the main updates in each section and the test as a whole.


Students, the SAT of the future is here.


Final Thoughts: Key New SAT Changes

In many ways, the new SAT looks like a whole new test. Its structure is radically different, with just four sections, Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, and Math with Calculator, as opposed to its previous ten. While the old SAT had students write a 25-minute opinion-based essay at the beginning of the test, the new SAT gives students the option of writing a 50-minute evidence-based essay at its end.

While the old scores fell between 800 and 2400, the new SAT is scored between 400 and 1600. No longer do all three sections have equal weight. Now, Math counts for half of your total score and Reading and Writing together make up the other half.

As you read above, the Reading section has largely eliminated high-level vocabulary words and features new evidence-based questions. Writing questions are also all passage-based and ask you to edit grammar, punctuation, and structure.

For the first time, the SAT contains a Math section for which you can’t use a calculator. The math questions primarily focus on algebra, but you’ll also get a few geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers questions. As you just read, data interpretation isn’t consigned to just the Math sections; you’ll find and interpret graphics on all three sections of the test.

If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve already completed an important first step of your SAT prep: familiarizing yourself with the changes on the redesigned test. By first understanding the structure, scoring, and content of the new test, you can then move onto studying concepts and taking practice tests. Once you’ve learned all about the test, you’re ready to jump into studying and master the SAT.


What’s Next?

You’ve learned all about the changes, so now it’s time to delve into SAT content and strategies. Check out our ultimate study guides to learn all about concepts, question types, and strategies for the SAT Math, SAT Reading, and SAT Writing.

Are you taking the SAT with Essay? This comprehensive guide walks you through how to write an SAT essay, step by step.

Are you deciding between the SAT and ACT? This guide compares the two tests so you can see all of their similarities and differences.


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:

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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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