Standardized testing—the bane of every college-bound student’s existence. As if it weren’t hard enough to prepare for a 3+ hour test, the rules and design of the test keep changing. Is this just a strategy to keep students (and their parents . . . and their teachers . . . and their therapists) on their toes?
Let’s step back in time
The SAT was first developed in the mid-1920s by Carl C. Brigham, the same man who helped to develop the Army Alpha IQ test for US Army recruits. He was commissioned by the College Board to develop a new test that would measure general intelligence. The first SAT was initially used by some schools to select students deserving of scholarship, but eventually it became mandatory for admission at many—and now most—schools.
Over the years, the test has undergone many changes and revisions, often in response to developments in academia and the world at large. Some of the biggest changes early in the test’s history were the splitting of the test into two distinct sections—verbal and quantitative—and major adjustments to the time limits. (In the first SAT, students were asked to attempt to answer 315 in 97 minutes. That’s one question every 20 seconds!) A latter addition, calculators were permitted for the first time in the early 1990s.
In 2005, the SAT underwent one of its biggest overhauls. The “Verbal Reasoning” section was renamed “Critical Reading”, and the verbal analogy questions were eliminated because, as the argument went, they did not reflect the content of high school curriculums. In the Math section, quantitative comparison questions were dropped, and several new topics were added. Finally, in order to reflect the importance of clear and succinct writing, a writing skills section—including an essay—was added. To accommodate this new writing section, the test time increased from 3 hours, which had been its length since for decades, to 3 hours and 45 minutes. When totaled, the three SAT scores for Critical Reading, Math, and Writing, each rated on a scale of 200-800, now added up to a perfect score of 2400 (instead of 1600, which was the previous perfect score).
The latest changes
Just eleven years later, the new, revised SAT was unveiled on March 5, 2016. At a structural level, the test was reduced from 3 mandatory sections (Reading, Writing + Essay, and Math) to 2 (Reading & Writing and Math, with an optional Essay). A perfect score consequently went from 2400 back to 1600, and the test time decreased, also, from 3 hours and 45 minutes to exactly 3 hours (although with the optional Essay section, the time jumps back up to 3 hours and 50 minutes).
At a content level, the test was revised to try and remain in-step with high school curriculums, prioritize skills that are valued by universities, and minimize the inequality gap between economically disadvantaged students and those who can afford expensive test prep coaching and training. A few of the major changes are as follows:
- No more obscure vocabulary words. Students are now asked to define words based on context rather than memorization. The argument for this is that the test will tap into reasoning methods that students use in the real world, rather than creating a contest to see who can memorize the most obscure words.
- The essay section is now optional. Furthermore, the writing assignment itself has changed. Previously, students received a prompt and were asked to generate their own arguments in response. In the new version of the test, they will read a passage and explain how the author built his or her argument, supporting their claims with evidence from the passage. The argument for this change is that by asking students to analyze the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and style, the new essay assignment more closely mimics college writing assignments.
- Guessing is ok. Previously, wrong answers cost students a quarter of a point. Now, however, they will no longer be penalized for incorrect answers. This means that, now that there are only 4 answers to choose from (there were previously 5), even if you guess blindly, you have a 25% chance of getting the question right!
- Be prepared to part with your calculator. There is a completely new, 25-minute section called the Math No Calculator Section, during which students must answer 20 questions—you guessed it—without a calculator.
The College Board made these (and other) changes to the SAT for two primary reasons. First, they wanted the test to more closely reflect the work students are doing in high school, and in particular calling on evidence-based thinking to analyze and solve problems. Second, they made these changes in an effort to even out the playing field. That is, they are endeavoring to make a test where students who can afford tutoring/coaching don’t have such an advantage over those who cannot afford these supports.
Did they achieve their goal? According to a Kaplan-conducted survey . . . sort of. When asked if the new SAT reflected what they have learned in high school, 68% of nearly 500 students who took the new SAT answered either “very much so,” or “somewhat.” Seventy-one percent of students polled by the College Board gave similar feedback, saying that the test reflected what they were learning in school.
The proof, however, as they say, will be in the pudding. Who is going to conduct a poll that compares students who took test prep classes with those who didn’t? Who is going to recruit students to take the old test and then the new one, to compare apples to apples?
The verdict is still out, but the test is here to stay. So better get studying.
Helpful tip: Before taking the SAT (or PSAT) consider setting up a dedicated email address for the college admissions process. The College Board does share your email with colleges, so it’s wise to get in front of that influx with a separate email that you will use through the entire process. You will get hundreds of emails between SAT and move-in day.
If you’re preparing for a college fair, you’ve probably read countless articles and received endless advice on what to do before, during, and after the fair. Do your research! Go armed with questions! Follow up with colleges you liked! But there’s a flip side to this coin, and that is what not to do. After all, there are a number of things that could unintentionally sabotage your experience or a potential college’s impression of you. Therefore, read on to learn ten things that you should NOT do at your next college fair.
- Don’t spend all your time talking to the schools you already like. A college fair is an opportunity to learn about many different colleges all at once. Therefore, don’t miss the opportunity to discover a new school of interest by spending the whole fair talking to schools where you already intend to apply. Definitely stop by those tables, too, but portion out your time wisely. Explore! Discover! But. . . .
- Don’t try to talk to every school. When you arrive—or, ideally, before you arrive—look through the list of schools in attendance and try to scope out the ones you think will interest you the most. Plan time for “browsing” schools that are entirely new to you, too, but don’t try to hit up every single table. If you do, you’ll wind up having a lot of brief, superficial conversations that probably won’t help you much in defining your college search.
- Don’t ask a college representative to predict your chances of admission. Yes, you should come to a college fair armed with questions for college reps, but skip the ones like, “Is my GPA high enough?” or, “Should I retake the SAT?” The college rep isn’t there to judge your admissibility, they’re there to offer information about the school and help you to determine whether it would be a good fit. Therefore, if you’re dead-set on talking about admissions, stick to questions about the process (e.g., “Are admissions interviews offered?” “How much weight is given to essays or letters of recommendation?”).
- Don’t let your parents do all the talking. You’re the one going to college, right? If so, you’re the one who should be asking the questions. And if you’re feeling shy, remember: when you get to campus, you won’t be able to hide behind your parents anymore; therefore, be assertive, and use this opportunity to show college representatives that you’re a mature, well-informed, college-ready adult that they would be proud to admit to their incoming class.
- Don’t skip colleges that seem “too hard.” Ideally, you’ll apply to a variety of colleges that range from “safety” to “reach,” with plenty of likely matches in between. Therefore, use the college fair as an opportunity to explore the whole range, not just schools where you feel confident you’ll get in.
- Don’t ask questions you can Google in two seconds. This wastes your time and the college rep’s time. Numbers-related questions (their preferred SAT or GPA, student-to-faculty ratios, etc.) can typically be found on the college’s website, so try to ask more experience-related questions, such as: What is student life like? How is the food? What do students especially like or dislike about the campus?
- Don’t fill out a card (or scan your barcode) unless you are actually interested. At each table, college representatives will encourage you to fill out a card with your personal information (or to scan your personal barcode). For each card you fill, you can expect a series of pamphlets to arrive at your door soon after, plus emails in your inbox and even, possibly, voicemails on your phone. Therefore, save yourself the headache (and a few trees) and don’t sign up for this onslaught of information unless you are actually interested in the school.
But. . . .
- Don’t walk away from a school you like without filling out a card. If you’re already receiving emails and pamphlets from this school, you might assume that they don’t need your information again. However, filling out one of these college fair cards is an expression of interest—something colleges do track. So if you are interested, definitely fill out a card! It can only help your chance of admission.
- Don’t disrespect the fair hours. Larger fairs might have security guards who enforce the fair hours, but whether someone is guarding the doorway or not, don’t march inside before the official start time. You might think that entering early makes you look like a go-getter, but the fair starts at a certain time for a reason: the college reps need time to set up! And staying after the fair has ended is just rude. After all, would you want to be held hostage at your job after your shift ends?
And, last but not least . . . .
- Don’t forget your manners. Sounds basic, but manners can be easy to forget. Don’t cut in line. Don’t interrupt another student. Don’t talk or text on your phone in the middle of interacting with a college rep. And don’t grab-and-go. Snatching a giveaway and shuffling away like you didn’t see the college rep standing right there is just rude. Don’t do it!