When high school junior Seth Ranta studied for the SAT this spring, he didn’t spend hours memorizing “SAT words” — the infamously obscure vocabulary words that have filled students with dread for decades. Instead, he focused on reading critically and solving math word problems. His study sessions included watching videos and using an app on his phone to complete practice questions. When his test date arrived, Ranta was ready.

Released in March 2016, the new SAT is designed to align more closely with Common Core Standards and the skills students need to succeed in college and in their future careers. Gone is the vocabulary section; the new test places less emphasis on memorized facts and more emphasis on reading and analytical thinking. The essay question is now optional (though some universities require applicants to have completed it). There’s a deeper focus on fewer areas of math, including algebra, and test takers no longer lose points for wrong answers.

Is the new test harder than the old one? That depends.

The new test is so much more reading-heavy, even in the math section, that students who are not strong readers may be at a disadvantage. On the other hand, because the material on the new test more closely mirrors what students are learning under Common Core, teachers can integrate SAT preparation into students’ regular coursework, and students may find that studying for the SAT supports work they’re already doing.

College Board President David Coleman says the redesign was geared to make the test more applicable, not more difficult. “You should never ask a student to prepare something because it’s on the SAT,” he said. Instead, he says, students should be learning skills they’ll really use, in college and beyond.

Easier access

Success on the old SAT depended on learning how to take the test, which likely meant enrolling in an expensive test prep course or investing in materials. Along with making the new SAT more relevant to what students are learning in school, the College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer free tools to help students prepare, including video lessons; interactive, personalized practice questions; full-length practice tests; and a daily practice app that students can download to their tablet or phone.

Denay Taylor, who teaches English and a course called College Pathways at Sachse High School in Garland, Texas, says these self-guided resources work well for some students, but others may need more support. “Some kids are very driven,” she says. “They have the motivation to work hard and do it on their own. Others, they need that face-to-face, they need someone holding them accountable.”

For those students, extra support — from parents or a study group — can be critical. Some students will also benefit from test prep services or courses. High schools and local libraries may offer free test prep courses and hold free practice tests so that students can experience a formal test setting.

Don’t discount the ACT

The new SAT is in the spotlight, but there’s another option for students applying to college: the ACT. The two tests cover similar content and are accepted equally by all schools, but they require different strategies for preparation. The ACT gives test takers less time per question but is more straightforward, while the SAT, with its wordy problems, demands more critical thinking and data analysis. The ACT allows a calculator for all math problems; the SAT only allows a calculator for some. The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not.

So how should students decide which test to take?

“Parents should recommend their kids take a practice test for each and see how their scores on the two compare,” says Michael Boothroyd, Kaplan Test Prep’s executive director for pre-college programs. Whichever test they score higher on is the one they should prepare for and take, he says. “The good news is that colleges treat both tests the same in admissions decisions.”

Keep it in perspective

A good SAT or ACT score can signal to colleges that a student has what it takes to succeed and can open doors to scholarships, especially at public universities. However, standardized test scores are just one element of a college’s holistic review. “The new SAT is the last factor in applications,” says Colin Riley, Boston University’s executive director of media relations. “The most important is the transcript, next are counselor and teacher recommendations and the student essay.”

So when test prep gets underway for your high school student, keep in mind that test scores, while important, are just one part of a well-rounded application that lets admissions officers see your child’s full potential.

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Updated: June 22, 2018