The New SAT: Preview and Initial Thoughts

By Dr. Callie Batts Maddox

Here at University Select, we have been diving deep into the revised SAT practice tests recently released by the College Board as a preview to the changes that will take effect in spring 2016. We are just as curious about the new test as high school students, parents, and guidance counselors are, so we have spent the past two weeks familiarizing ourselves with the practice tests and understanding the substantive changes. Using our unique system of categorization and analysis, we pored over each new practice test to identify recurring question types, highlight noteworthy changes, and break down each section to understand the underlying concepts driving the test. The result of this work is a holistic approach to tackling the redesigned SAT—a method that strips the test of its mystery and offers a clear path for diligent preparation.

In the blog posts to follow, we will strip down each section of the new SAT and share our insights, strategies, and tips for success. For now, allow me to offer a few teasers to satisfy curiosity about the new test and preview our tutoring framework designed specifically to address the changes to the SAT.


1.     Much of the hoopla surrounding the new SAT revolves around the argument that it is simply becoming more like the ACT. While we agree that certain elements of the new SAT do indeed echo the ACT (especially the Writing section), we see enough difference between the two tests to recommend exploring which test best fits a specific student’s skills and goals. Don’t assume that the new SAT is just the ACT in different clothing! It is important to recognize the difference between the two and assist students in choosing the test that is right for them.

2.     The new SAT is still a test of endurance, but the redesigned format makes it somewhat more predictable and manageable. Students will have three hours to complete one math test and one evidence-based reading and writing test, both of which are divided into two sections. At 65 minutes, the reading section is particularly lengthy, but the extra time allows students the chance to carefully answer each question as opposed to the race of speed that is the ACT. So yes, the test is still long and exhausting, but fewer overall sections means you know what to expect in what order and can prepare accordingly.


1.     The new SAT moves away from the smorgasbord style of testing a wide range of math content in favor of a more directed selection of questions. The first math section is 25 minutes long and includes 20 questions (no calculators allowed!). The second section gives you 55 minutes to answer 38 questions using your calculator if needed. Expect linear, quadratic, and exponential equations to appear frequently, while geometry questions now account for no more than 5% of the math section.

2.     Students are concerned that the revamped SAT math will be difficult. The question content and presentation is certainly different, but not necessarily harder. Our analysis of the practice tests suggests that the new math questions are more predictable and less gimmicky than those on the current SAT. Fewer tricks, and more relevant to high school coursework!

Critical Reading:

1.     In the new SAT, critical reading takes the form of a 65-minute section comprised of 52 questions divided amongst five reading passages. Expect four long passages and one parallel passage drawn from works in literature, history, the social sciences, and physical science. One of the most noteworthy changes is the switch from straight vocabulary to vocabulary in context. While we can expect such words as “perfidious” and “sagacity” to disappear, we cannot abandon all preparation for vocabulary! Even though the new SAT asks for a definition of a word within its contextual positioning, you still need to know what the potential answer choices mean. So don’t put away those vocabulary flashcards just yet!

2.     Each passage includes at least one pair of questions that are linked. These paired questions are essentially a “two-for-one” deal—get the first one correct, and you will likely get the second one correct as well. Unfortunately, the flip side is also possible—get the first one wrong, and you will probably get the second one wrong too. Therefore, the key lies in spotting these types of questions and knowing how to tackle them. We can show you how!


1.     The new SAT features a 35-minute writing and language test containing a total of 44 questions. This section asks students to revise passages to “improve the expression of ideas” or to edit to correct errors in punctuation, sentence structure, or word usage. As many observers have noted, the new writing test is very similar to the English section on the ACT. Our early analysis indicates that maintaining logical flow is a recurring category in this section, meaning that editing for context and transitions appears most frequently.

2.     Now appearing in the writing section…graphs and charts! Not to worry, though. Questions about these graphs and charts account for only 3% of the writing section. Don’t fear the graphs—they might look scary and confusing, but they are a miniscule component of the writing section.


The essay is now optional and appears at the end of the test. Students have 50 minutes to write an analytical essay in response to a given prompt. The focus is on identifying how the prompt’s author builds a persuasive argument. We will dissect this new, and very different, essay in a future blog post. Rather than automatically dismissing the essay since it is optional, we want students to consider the essay as a chance to shine. With the right strategy, it is a very manageable task!