New 2016 SAT vs Old SAT: Changes You Must Know


In 2016, the SAT changed drastically from the old SAT. In terms of content, no other SAT changes in the past few decades have been this dramatic. If you're familiar with the old SAT, here's what you must know to do well on the 2016 version of the SAT.

Update: The SAT is now fully digital. As such, much of the information in this article is no longer relevant. You can learn more about the digital SAT changes here.


In this article, I'll summarize the largest, must-know changes of the SAT. But for those of you who are serious about taking the test, it'll be well worth your time to read some of our more in-depth SAT guides. After all, a few minutes of reading through our expert guides is nothing compared to the sweet payoff of a high SAT score and an acceptance to the college of your dreams!

  • New 2016 SAT: What's a Good Score?Before you take the SAT, it's a smart idea to figure out what a good score is, both in general and for you specifically. This guide explains what a good SAT score is based on percentiles and your own college preferences.


The Main Differences Between the New SAT and Old SAT

The current version of the SAT is pretty different from the old version of the SAT. Below, I go over the major changes made to the overall SAT and to each section.


General Changes to the SAT

We'll start generally. This chart offers a broad overview of the biggest differences between the two versions of the SAT:

  Old SAT New SAT
Administration 2005-January 2016 March 2016-present
Score Range 600-2400 400-1600
Length of Test 3 hours 45 minutes 3 hours (w/out Essay)
3 hours 50 minutes (w/ Essay)
Total # of Questions/Tasks 171 154 (155 w/ Essay)
  • Critical Reading
  • Writing + Essay
  • Mathematics
Guessing Penalty Minus 1/4 point per incorrect answer None
75th %ile Score (Good)* 1720 1190-1200
50th %ile Score (Average)* 1480 1050-1060
25th %ile Score (Poor)* 1260 910-920

*All percentiles for the new SAT come from the College Board's 2017 percentiles, and all percentiles for the old SAT come from the College Board's 2015 percentiles.

As you can see, the current SAT is slightly longer than the old SAT if you opt to take the Essay, but significantly shorter if you don't take the Essay. It also combines your Reading and Writing section scores into a single Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score.

Perhaps the biggest change most students know about is the score range: on the old SAT the max score was 2400, but on the current SAT the max score is just 1600.

Finally, there is no longer a score penalty for incorrect answers on the SAT. Therefore, it's best to answer all SAT questions, even if you have to guess on some of them.

Now that you've seen the overall changes, let's look at the differences on each section of the test.


SAT Reading Changes

The SAT Reading section has undergone some massive changes since early 2016. Here are some of the biggest differences to note:

  Old SAT Reading New SAT Reading
Section Name Critical Reading Reading
Scoring 200-800 (separate from Writing score) 10-40 test score, which is then combined with Writing to get Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score on a scale of 200-800
# of Sections 3 1
Order on Test Random 1st
# of Questions 24, 24, 19 (in random order)
Total: 67
Total Time 25 minutes, 25 minutes, 20 minutes (in random order)
Total: 70 minutes
65 minutes
Time per Question 63 seconds 75 seconds
Content Tested High-level vocab in isolation, Sentence Completions, passage-based questions All passage-based questions, medium-level vocab in context, evidence support, data interpretation
Subscores None Words in Context
Command of Evidence
Analysis in History/Social Studies
Analysis in Science


Overall, you now have fewer questions on SAT Reading and more time per question.

The biggest change to be aware of, though, is that SAT Reading is now entirely passage-based. All questions, even vocabulary ones, are based on passages, so it's imperative to have a solid passage-reading strategy to use on test day.

In terms of content, you'll still see vocab questions, but these are more focused on medium-level vocab words and your ability to figure out their meanings in context. In addition, you need to be able to identify specific areas in passages you found your answers in.




SAT Writing Changes

SAT Writing has undergone some noticeable changes since the test's redesign in early 2016. Here are the most important ones to note:

  Old SAT Writing New SAT Writing
Section Name Writing Writing and Language
Scoring 200-800 (separate from Reading score) 10-40 test score, which is then combined with Reading to get Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score on a scale of 200-800
# of Sections 3 (one essay and two multiple-choice sections) 1 (essay = separate section)
Order on Test Random 2nd
# of Questions 35, 14 (in random order)
Total: 49
Total Time 25 minutes, 10 minutes (in random order)
Total: 35 minutes
35 minutes
Time per Question 43 seconds 48 seconds
Content Tested Improving Sentences, Identifying Sentence Errors, Improving Paragraphs, grammar rules in isolation All passage-based questions, grammar and punctuation, logic and expression of ideas
Subscores None Expression of Ideas
Standard English Conventions
Words in Context
Command of Evidence
Analysis in History/Social Studies
Analysis in Science


As the chart shows, the SAT Writing section is no longer scored on its own but in conjunction with SAT Reading (to give you a combined Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score). Additionally, the Essay is now a separate (optional) section and is not considered part of the Writing section.

You also now have fewer Writing questions, giving you slightly more time per question.

In regard to content changes, all questions are now based on passages (like the Reading section), and there is a bigger emphasis on sentence style, logic/flow, and punctuation.


SAT Math Changes

Though the SAT Math section has changed the least of all SAT sections, it still looks quite different now than it used to before the redesign. Here are the major differences between the current SAT Math section and the old SAT Math section:

  Old SAT Math New SAT Math
Section Name Mathematics Math
Scoring 200-800 200-800
# of Sections 3 2 (No Calculator Test and Calculator Test)
Order on Test Random 3rd = No Calculator Test
4th = Calculator Test
Calculator Permitted? Yes Yes, but only on Calculator Test (not on No Calculator Test)
# of Questions 20, 18, 16 (in random order)
Total: 54

44 multiple choice, 10 grid-ins
No Calculator Test: 20
Calculator Test: 38
Total: 58

45 multiple choice, 13 grid-ins
Total Time 25 minutes, 25 minutes, 20 minutes (in random order)
Total: 70 minutes
No Calculator Test: 25 minutes
Calculator Test: 55 minutes
Total: 80 minutes
Time per Question 75 or 83 seconds (depending on section) No Calculator Test: 75 seconds
Calculator Test: 87 seconds
Content Tested Arithmetic, numbers and operations, algebra, functions, geometry, some data analysis

Arithmetic, algebra, functions, advanced algebra, data analysis, word problems; <10% = geometry, trigonometry, complex numbers

Subscores None Heart of Algebra
Passport to Advanced Math
Problem Solving and Data Analysis


You now get more time on SAT Math and four more questions in total. The section is also divided into two subsections: a No Calculator test (on which you may not use a calculator) and a Calculator test (on which you may use a calculator).

Content-wise, you're still being tested on many of the same fundamental topics, including algebra, functions, and arithmetic. However, there is now less emphasis on geometry and more emphasis on data analysis, graphs, and word problems.

Moreover, the old SAT Math section did not test any trig whatsoever, whereas the current SAT has at least a few questions on trig.




SAT Essay Changes

Finally, we get to the SAT Essay section. Here are the biggest changes to know:

  Old SAT Essay New SAT Essay
Section Name Essay Essay
Optional? No Yes
Scoring 2-12 (based on two scores by two readers, each on a scale of 1-6) One score for each dimension on a scale of 2-8 (based on two scores by two readers, each on a scale of 1-4)
Dimensions None Reading, Analysis, Writing
# of Sections 1 1
Order on Test 1st 5th (if taking SAT with Essay)
# of Prompts 1 1
Total Time 25 minutes 50 minutes
Essay Prompt Answer a theoretical prompt by citing your own evidence Analyze a passage and the author's argument by citing evidence from the passage


As you likely already know, the Essay section is optional with the current SAT, while before it was a mandatory section (and part of Writing).

Essay scoring has also changed dramatically: test takers now get three scores, each on a scale of 2-8 (so a perfect Essay score would be 8|8|8).

Before you had to provide your own evidence and answer a theoretical prompt, but now you must read a short passage and analyze the author's argument using textual evidence. Note that you are not expected to insert your personal viewpoint into your essay.


New SAT vs Old SAT: 1-Sentence Summary

For those of you who are interested in a summary of big-picture changes, here it is: the current SAT is a lot more like the ACT in that it tests more skills considered relevant to college success and relies less on trying to trick you.


What's Next?

Got more questions about how the current and old SATs differ from one another? Then check out our detailed examination of all changes between the two. In addition, our guide to the new SAT format gives you tips on how to prep for the current version of the test.

Not sure what SAT score to aim for on test day? Get a step-by-step guide on how to find your goal score based on the schools you're applying to.

Looking for a detailed SAT resource to help you study for the test? Our ultimate SAT study guide contains links to our very best SAT articles and guides. And the best part is it's free!



Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
About the Author
author image
Dr. Fred Zhang

Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!