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23April2017

Understanding the new SAT & how international students can prepare for it

by The Red Pen

When The College Board announced they would be transitioning to a new format for the SAT starting in March of 2016, it set off a flurry of questions for students around the world. Updates in 2005 and 2009 had included radical changes to the format, additions to the writing section, an expanded math section and shifting of the score range from 1600 to 2400. Now, the test format has returned to an optional writing section, rather than a mandatory one, a new philosophy behind the math section, and the score range has returned to 1600.

But beyond that, the very test itself has a different ethos, which could be confusing to students all over the world. Many worried that this new version would once again overturn testing standards and put students at a disadvantage on a test that is so vital to the admissions process of US colleges. The logic behind this re-design, however, at least as the College Board explains it, was to make the test a better reflection of the way students learn and truly assess their college-preparedness.

In order to give you a better sense of the new test, we talked to two popular test preparation companies, one in India, and the other in the United States.

Here is a summary of what we have gleaned from their experiences working with students over the last couple of test cycles.

What are some of the biggest differences in the format of the test and the way students respond to it?
It is easier for international students to prepare for the new test, because it doesn’t have a vocabulary component. While in earlier incarnations of the SAT, students had to deal with word lists and vocabulary cramming, this new format cuts short preparation time. Therefore, someone who isn’t naturally good at English has a much better chance of doing well on this new test.

One of the test prep experts we talked to was pleasantly surprised to find that students seem to enjoy the new SAT a bit more than the old SAT. Apparently the elimination of the “Fill in the Blank” vocabulary section and the overhaul of the grammar section to now focus on context align better with the skills that students pick up in their everyday reading and writing.

What about the optional essay section? How should students approach that?
International students with good writing skills or students from the IB curriculum might see this as an opportunity to highlight their writing prowess. At the same time, students less inclined to writing or from curricula where writing is less emphasised are now able to skip a section that might not help them perform well.

Does the test really correspond to the way students learn in class? Do students from different educational backgrounds respond to it in different ways?
The College Board focuses on engineering an exam that predicts college performance primarily first year college GPA, by tracking several metrics. While it is too early to predict trends in how students from different backgrounds respond to the new SAT, overall students seem more comfortable with the writing and math sections in this new version of the test. The writing section has shifted to a context based approach and everything is in a passage/paragraph format, while the math section is noticeably less reliant on trick questions and complicated word problems. Also unlike the earlier SAT which comprised of 60% geometry, Now algebra is a cornerstone in the new test, which helps many prepare.

The best thing about this new format, experts agree, is that there are no surprises. Which means students who prepare well, do well!

What challenges do international students specifically face on the new testing format?
While the writing and language sections have become much easier for students from all backgrounds, the reading section presents some specific new challenges.

International test-takers should think about how they prepare for the reading section. As a result of the shift away from magazine style prose to passages with more elevated language, some international students might stumble with the language they are reading and analysing. For most passages it’s much more important to be able to pick out the ‘main idea’ of each paragraph and passage. Students need to remember, it’s not about understanding every detail in the passage, it’s about being able to answer the questions quickly and correctly. Some students might benefit from having a rudimentary knowledge of American Civics and the history of race and gender in the United States, and read historical government documents, such as the the US Constitution, Gettysburg Address or the Federalist Papers.

Any English works written between 1770 and 1890 will be useful for students, and one expert recommended writings by Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, which are all available in the public domain, so finding them should be as easy as a quick google search.

As with everything, the more prepared students are, the better. Some Indian test prep experts feel that Indian students don’t spend enough time studying for the test, because instead of studying slowly over a period of three or five months, they give themselves one month of intensive preparation, which doesn’t serve them for the SAT. The general recommendation is that students need between 150 to 200 hours to prepare for the test.

Both experts agreed, reading is essential, especially brushing up on some of the classics, or at least the abridged versions. If you want to do well on this test, you have to read. Period.

One expert shared a unique preparation tip with us: Students who can manage it should consider preparing for the US History SAT II test. This will kill two birds with one stone as prep for this subject test will also serve to ready students for the reading section of the SAT itself. Students willing to take on this challenge should start the subject test preparation before the general test prep.

Finally, the latest news about the SAT is that The College Board has reduced the number of International test dates for SAT1 to only four per year (previously the test was administered six times a year internationally). The SAT test dates are now in October, December, March and May. Given that there only 4 SAT test dates, students who need to take the test will need to check their calendars and plan ahead to make sure they have enough time to prepare and crack the SAT! For the SAT2 there will be 5 test sittings with the additional test date in June.

Get in touch with us if you want discuss test preparation options or need college admissions consulting services.

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