Why the New SAT is a Big Deal
Unless you’re a high school junior hiding under a rock (if you are, I don’t blame you because this whole darn Redesigned SAT transition thing has been rather stressful), you’ve probably seen articles all over major publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post about the New SAT. Is it going to be harder? Easier? More prejudiced against low-level readers or disadvantaged students? Unfair to students who’ve been taught math with calculators?
I don’t blame you if you are worried about the spring of 2016 and the new SAT. I don’t fault you at all if you think it’s ridiculously unfair that some big shot company like the College Board is overhauling a test that is so important to you and your college goals and dreams. Why did it have to happen during your Junior year? Couldn’t they have done more to ease this abrupt transition? And what the heck…you’re not even going to get your scores on the March test until mid-May?
I can feel my own blood pressure rising, so let’s take a deep, soothing breath and back up a little and talk about why this is such a big deal and why you are perfectly justified in feeling like it is, and, most importantly, let’s talk about what you can do about it.
Why is the SAT So Important?
The SAT has been around for a long time, since the 1920s to be exact. In case you are wondering what does SAT stand for anyway and why does it now have such a chokehold on your future, back in the day, the SAT touted itself as a Scholastic Aptitude Test, meaning, in essence, it was supposed to show how smart you were. There were all sorts of problems with this claim: test prep companies could compellingly show that the SAT was not an IQ test, and we now all know that “scholastic aptitude” depends on all sorts of things that are not even remotely tested by the SAT. So now, the SAT is just the SAT. That’s it. An acronym alone that is perhaps no less intimidating, and probably even more intimidating as college admissions have gotten increasingly more competitive.
The test prep industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades to become a multibillion-dollar market. The number of test prep centers in the U.S. more than doubled between 1998 and 2012. As much as the College Board and ACT might like you to believe that test-specific prep shouldn’t matter, the truth is, for many students, it does. And rumor mills in high schools feed the flames: everyone else seems to be prepping, shouldn’t you? What’s going to happen to you if you don’t?
This is why the new SAT exacerbates the situation. It’s completely different from the old SAT, and now EVERYONE, including those students who are feeling completely confident (or at least pretending they are), feels a little on edge about what’s going to happen. There’s so many unknowns with the new test. Even though we have a few practice tests from the College Board and updated materials and strategies from reputable test prep companies, the New SAT still has the aura of a new, unpredictable beast.
Although it truly makes me sad that standardized tests have become such a source of stress in the lives of high schoolers, I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon. So instead, we need to all learn how to better cope with it.
Here’s how to do it:
Familiarize yourself with the New SAT:
When I first heard that the SAT was changing, I tried to put myself in the shoes of students seeing a new test for the first time. It wasn’t hard. As an adult who admittedly has become a little too reliant on my iPhone’s calculator, the no-calculator section caused my heart to skip a beat. As a vocab nerd, I felt a little sad about the disappearing sentence completions.
But then I took a look at the actual test. And honestly, it’s not so bad. The New SAT is different. It’s not better or worse. I had to adjust the strategies I had been using for over a decade as a tutor, but I got the hang of the new format pretty quickly. For your little brothers and sisters, the New SAT is going to be a non-issue. It’s simply going to be “the SAT.” Don’t make assumptions based on alarmist media reports. Get a copy of the Official College Board 2016 Guide or download the 4 free practice tests on the College Board website. The sooner you do this, the better. It can be really tempting to procrastinate to avoid the unknown, but I guarantee you’ll feel better once you take a look. Or at least feel better about knowing what to expect.
Practice good stress-reduction techniques
For some students, test anxiety has always been a concern. I’m willing to bet that even some normally cool cucumbers are going to have higher stress-levels with the new SAT simply because of all the fuss surrounding it. And studies have shown that when we go into flight or flight mode, our brain is focusing on survival, not the working memory required for complicated SAT questions—thus, we are more likely to make mistakes in a stressed-out state.
Here are two of my favorite tried-and-true strategies that have worked for students I’ve tutored:
Deep breathing: Breathe in for a count of 10 and out for a count of 10. Repeat 5 times.
Do this anytime you feel anxiety levels rising the morning of the test. Most students find their anxiety to be highest right before they open a new section and that the stress fades a bit as they get down to work. The few minutes between each test is a great time to practice a little zen.
Tense-release-relaxation technique: Tense a muscle for 5-10 seconds and then relax for 10 seconds. Start with your feet and work your way up your body to your face (although you might want to avoid that last one in the test room so people don’t think you are having a conniption). This helps release all the tension you are carrying in your body and is a great technique for before the test begins, during initial instruction time.
Put it all in perspective:
The SAT has never been, and still isn’t, a measure of your intelligence or a predictor of your future. It can be hard to keep it all in perspective when your friends are freaking out, but there’s more than enough evidence out there to prove them wrong. We could look at statistics of wildly successful individuals and their test scores (chances are you could beat a few Presidents of the United States at a standardized test), but the most compelling evidence right now is the increasing number of colleges and universities that are going test-optional or test-flexible, including many highly competitive ones. There are more than 850 colleges and universities that don’t use test scores to admit most of their students. Yes, good SAT scores can open doors, and you should absolutely take it seriously and prepare for it, but there are other doors that can be opened as well.
About Kristin Fracchia
Kristin creates awesomely fun ACT lessons and practice materials for Magoosh ACT students. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.