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Help Your Teenagers with Real Scoop Behind The SAT Format Change

by Diana Simeon

When the College Board announced it would be changing the format of the SAT, several teenagers told me: “Oh, the SAT is going to be so much easier because they’re getting rid of the hard words.”

Sorry, but that’s just not the case. The SAT will be different, sure, but it won’t be any easier to get a top score. Here’s what you and your teenager need to know about the new SAT format change, which will be administered starting in spring 2016:

1. Some obscure words will go away, but the test will still have lots of tough vocabulary.

The College Board says it will do away with “obscure” words in favor of more “relevant” vocabulary. But there really aren’t that many obscure words left in the SAT to begin with (thanks in part to the last major overhaul to the test in 2005).I’m sure we could each point to a few, but the majority are words we would classify under college bound vocabulary,” explains Megan Dorsey, founder of the Houston-based College Prep Results.

2. Kiss that calculator goodbye.

This could be the toughest change. Some sections of the Math portion of the SAT will have to be completed without a calculator. Today’s high-school math curriculum is heavily dependent on calculators, so this could trip up a lot of teenagers. “Many are not accustomed to doing timed mental math,” says Dorsey. “So having to do long division or other calculations by hand, under time pressure and under stress, may not be the best evaluation of a student’s math skills.”

3. An optional essay? That depends.

“Here’s the funny thing,” adds Dorsey. “The essay is currently optional on the ACT, but there are a lot of schools that require students to take it.” Anticipate the SAT to be the same. Whether the essay is optional or not for your teenager depends on where she’s applying. The essay format will also change. Starting in 2016, students will be required to support their answer with a cited passage.

4. 1600-point scale, with no penalty for wrong answers.

Parents may be more comfortable with the new SAT scoring because they’ll return to the same 1600-point scale we had back in the day (well, until 2005). In the new SAT scoring system, essays will be scored separately. The College Board will also do away with the quarter-point penalty for wrong answers, so guessing is now safe.

5. This is really about the ACT.

For decades, the SAT was the admissions test of choice for the majority of students in the United States. And it was the only test accepted by most elite institutions, especially on the East and West Coasts. But that’s changed dramatically in the past decade. Most colleges and universities are now accepting both the SAT and the ACT. This year the number of students taking the ACT surpassed the SAT for the first time. 1.8 million students took the ACT, about 140,000 more than the SAT, according to Inside Higher Ed. With each student paying around $50 per test—and more to have scores sent to schools—that’s big money.

So, what should teenagers do now to prepare for the new SAT? That depends on your teen’s grade. The first group to take this test en masse are now in ninth grade. Dorsey advises those students to keep doing what they’re doing: learning what’s taught in school, as the majority of questions on both the SAT and ACT will be based on their high-school curriculum. Sophomores, however, will have to make some decisions, including whether to rush to take the current SAT this fall, instead of waiting until the spring of their junior year to take the new version.

If your sophomore is already prepping to take the PSAT this fall—which will be based on the current SAT—it may also make sense to take the SAT before it changes. Notes Dorsey: “As we transition over to the new SAT, we’ll see a bunch of kids who say, I’m going to take the current SAT or I’ll just take the ACT.”

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.