The Scholastic Assessment Test? No sweat. It's just a test, right? You sit down and whip out the old Number 2. Before you know it, you've filled in a snappy pattern of little black circles, guaranteed to give you a perfect score.
If only. The reality, unfortunately, is a bit more nerve-racking. When it comes to college admission, your college entrance exam is the second-most critical factor that admission officers at most schools consider. Only your grades in college-prep courses count for more. As Andrew Lutz, director of research and development at The Princeton Review, says, "A good SAT score may not get you into the college of your choice, but a bad score can definitely keep you out."
What's more--if the pressure weren't intense enough already--the College Board officially unveiled a new SAT exam last spring that presented these new challenges:
* A LONGER TEST The new SAT clocks in at a mind-numbing three and a half hours versus three hours for the old test.
* NEW SCORING The exam includes three sections (math, critical reading, and writing) instead of just two (math and verbal). The scoring for each section is based on a 200- to 800-point scale, so the maximum total score is now 2,400 versus 1,600. The College Board expects the median score to rise from 1,000 to about 1,500.
* WRITER'S CRAMP The most significant change is the addition of a 30-minute handwritten essay. You will be given a prompt, such as a quote, on which to base an essay You're now expected to stake out a position and support it with examples from your personal life and studies.
* NO MORE ANALOGIES Replacing the seemingly endless string of subtle vocabulary relationships (i.e. analogies: big drag) are short critical reading passages and new multiple-choice grammar questions.
* HARDER MATH Algebra II and geometry equations have been added; quantitative-comparison questions have been dropped.
* A BUMP IN THE COST The new test costs $41.50 instead of $26.
For students, the changes are a mix of good and bad news. The good news?" Overall, the new SAT is a slightly better test than the old one," Lutz says. "[Although it's a longer test,] it reflects more accurately what students actually study in college-prep classes."
Behind the Change
Colleges have been pushing for this change for years. In fact, a number of schools had limited or dropped their use of the SAT because of their dissatisfaction. (Check www. fairtest.org for a list.) In 2001, the pressure to change the test crested when Richard Atkinson, then president of the huge University of California system, threatened to drop the SAT unless a writing exam was added. His research showed that a writing sample could be a good predictor of college success.
The writing test on the new SAT is virtually identical to the old SAT II writing test, which the College Board has eliminated. "The essay is really something that can be prepared for," says Elizabeth Villanova, founder and director of The Academic Center of Tampa. Some test-prep companies are so confident that they can dramatically improve a student's essay score that they're increasing their guarantee on points of improvement.
As for the analogies, few test-takers miss them, and they were rarely covered in high school curricula. Regarding the math: Algebra II and geometry concepts are tough, but they're covered in college-prep classes. What's more, these questions will account for only 10% of the total math section. Another bonus: overall, students have slightly more time per question.
Going the Distance
The biggest downside? The length of the new SAT is daunting. Richa Dhawan, a 17-year-old from Bridgewater, New Jersey, took a free practice version of the new SAT and says, "The test took much more stamina than I had realized. You're switching from math to critical reading to a different kind of math. I was at the test site from 9 to nearly 1:30."
To score high, you have to prepare yourself to go the distance. Here are tips from test-prep experts, coolheaded kids, and the College Board.
* SEEK CHALLENGING COURSES. Look for classes that will help you polish your essay-writing skills. And take Algebra II.
* POLISH YOUR COMPREHENSION SKILLS. "Even on the math, you have to be a good reader to understand what is being asked," Villanova notes.
* PREP YOURSELF. Set up a regular SAT study routine well in advance of the test. There are test books, online exams, and software. Companies offer test-prep courses that typically cost up to $1,000 for 6 to 12 sessions, but some schools also offer free or low-cost prep. Also, juniors should take the PSAT this fall. It has been revised to reflect the new SAT.
* WATCH THE CLOCK. Time yourself on practice tests. "You'd be surprised at the number of parents who say, 'My child did well on the practice test,' and it turns out that the child had all weekend to work on it," Villanova says.
* TAKE CARE. Accuracy counts, so read all questions carefully and don't rush. It's better to get easy and average questions right than to charge ahead to the problems that very few people will answer correctly. Also, check that if you're on question 37, you're filling in number 37 on your answer sheet.
* GUESS AWAY. When you're unsure of an answer, try to eliminate one or two choices and make an educated guess. And if you hit a very easy question after some hard ones, think twice about what's being asked.
* PLAN YOUR ESSAY Take three to five minutes to think before you write. "Pick a direction and stick to it," Villanova advises. Write for 20 to 25 minutes--and say something meaningful. Use your last few minutes to proofread your work. Also, be sure to write neatly. "If the essay scorers can't read your essay, they can't score it," says Benjamin Paris, director of test preparation at Peterson's.
* STICK TO THE FORMULA. Two graders have just a few minutes to score each essay. Make their job easy. Indent your paragraphs deeply and follow established essay-writing procedures. Set up your theme in an introductory paragraph. Include a couple of paragraphs with examples that back up your position. Finally, wrap up with a conclusion. Also, Villanova suggests, "use plenty of college-appropriate 'wow' words--even when short, easy words will do."
* TRY AGAIN. The SAT is not a one-shot deal. About half of SAT test-takers repeat the test. You can take it in March and then in May or June of your junior year. You can even repeat the test in the fall of your senior year. Nearly 55% of juniors see improved scores as seniors, according to the College Board. Still, don't get carried away. Scores tend to go down after a third round, notes Judy Hingle, director of professional development for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "Students lose their edge," she says.
* DO YOUR BEST AND RELAX. "If you put some effort into preparing, you can feel good about yourself, whatever your score," says Brennan Bollman, an 18-year-old from St. Joseph, Michigan. And remember, there are 2,400 possible points on the new SAT. So next to your parents' piddling number, your score will be downright awesome.
RELATED ARTICLE: The ACT option.
While the SAT may get more attention, the other big admission exam, the ACT, can be just as important. Nowadays, almost all colleges accept the highest score on either exam, so more students are trying both.
"I didn't do so well on the SAT the first two times," says Sarah McCordie of Westfield, Massachusetts, "so I thought, why not take the ACT? I scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT, but only the 80-something percentile on the SAT."
Like the SAT, the ACT has introduced a new essay portion, which has a 30-minute limit and asks students to address a particular issue, such as school dress codes. Other than that, the ACT remains unchanged, testing students on the English, math, reading, and science they learned in school.
To familiarize yourself with the test visit www.act.org.
Maura Christopher, a former editor at both Futures and Parents magazines, specializes in writing for young adults.
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