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--if you're a junior this year, graduating in 2006, you'll be in the first class to face the new SAT. (Note: The SAT is officially called the SAT I, while SAT IIs are subject-specific tests in areas such as world history, French, and physics.) The College Board officially unveils this revved up, revamped exam on March 13, 2005, when about 335,000 test-takers are expected to sit down for a collective sweat-in.
Ready to join them? It helps to know just what you'll be facing. So take a deep breath and prepare for:
* 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 points will be 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 will be the addition of a 30-minute handwritten essay. Test-takers will be given a prompt, such as a quote, to base an essay on. You'll be 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) will be short critical reading passages and new multiple-choice grammar questions.
* MORE CHALLENGING MATH. Algebra II and geometry equations have been added; quantitative-comparison questions have been dropped.
* A BUMP IN THE COST. Expect to pay between $36 and $38 for the new test instead of $24.
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 improvements were made. His research showed that the old SAT II writing exam was a better predictor of college success than the SAT I, so he and others demanded an essay test. They wanted to get an unadulterated writing sample from applicants.
The writing test on the new SAT is virtually identical to the old SAT II writing test, which the College Board is dropping from its line-up. "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 scores that they're increasing their guarantee on points of improvement.
As for the analogies, few test-takers will miss them. More to the point, analogies were rarely covered in high school curriculums. Regarding the math: Yes, 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 percent of the total math section. Another bonus: Overall, students will have slightly more time per question.
Going the Distance
The biggest downside? The length of the new SAT is daunting. Richa Dhawan of Bridgewater, New Jersey, took a free practice version last spring. "The test took much more stamina than I had realized," the 16-year-old recalls. "You're switching from mare 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 to the distance. Here are tips from test-prep experts, cool-headed kids, and the College Board.
SEEK OUT 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. Well-known companies such as the Princeton Review, Sylvan, and Kaplan offer test-prep packages that typically cost up to $1,000 for 6 to 12 sessions, but some schools or districts also offer free or low-cost courses. 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 gel 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 it, 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 rather than leave a blank. And if you hit a very easy question after a string of hard ones, look particularly closely to see what's being asked. If you realize, "Oh, that's what they want," you're probably on the right track.
PLAN YOUR ESSAY. "Fake 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, and that's bad for you," 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. Don't forget the words, "for example," and provide topic sentences. 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 percent 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, a 17-year-old senior from St. Joseph, Michigan. "Your SAT score isn't an accurate indication of your college potential." 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.
The ACT Gets Into the Act
Although the media is mostly focused on changes to the SAT, let's not forget the other big admission exam, the ACT, administered by the American College Testing Program.
Historically, the SAT has dominated East and West coasts while the ACT has been more popular in the Midwest and South. But nowadays almost all colleges accept the highest score on either exam, so more students are trying both. ACT estimates that around a quarter of students now take the two exams.
"I wasn't doing 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 is also introducing a new essay portion, which has a 30-minute limit and asks students to address a particular issue, such as school dress codes. (Check www.act.org for an essay sample.) Unlike the SAT, the ACT essay is not mandatory. "Not every college wants to see a writing score.," explains Ken Gullette, director of communications for ACT. "Some schools don't think this essay will help them further evaluate a student."
In a recent ACT survey of 900 colleges, 58 percent said they are not requiring the essay. "Students should check with each college if they need the essay or not," recommends Gullette.
Other than the essay addition, the ACT remains unchanged because it was always curriculum-based, testing students on the English, math, reading, and science they learned in school.
Firms like Kaplan and the Princeton Review offer ACT test prep courses, but Gullette says, "The best test prep for the ACT is to take challenging courses. The higher level math and science you take, the better prepared you will be." To familiarize themselves with the test. students can also go online at www.act.org to view sample questions and order practice tests.
Maura Christopher, a former editor at both Futures and Parents magazines, is a freelance writer specializing in articles for young adults.
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