The SAT: What Parents Should Know
Most parents come into the college admissions process with a lot of questions. There’s a dizzying array of information to digest. And whether you prepped extensively for the SAT yourself or never took it, much has changed over the past few decades--in both the test itself and the admissions environment it occupies. With that in mind, we’ve curated a list of important points for parents to consider when gearing up for the test prep process.
This article doesn’t so much cover answers to parents' frequently asked questions, as our own frequently delivered discourses when speaking to new clients (on topics many parents wouldn't know to ask about).
The ACT vs. the SAT
Depending on when and where you graduated from high school, the SAT may have been the only college admissions test you were familiar with. Over the past few decades, another test--the ACT--has catapulted to national prominence, even surpassing the SAT in number of students taking it as early as 2012.
There are a number of differences between the two tests--though not as many as there used to be, with the SAT having redesigned itself for the 2016 academic year to more closely resemble the ACT. That means that one test is likely to be a better fit for your child than the other.
In general, the SAT comes from more of an IQ test background, and still tends to seem a little intentionally tricky, while the ACT has more of an achievement test focus, requiring more knowledge of content. While the SAT has a Reading, English, and two Math sections, the ACT replaces one of those Math sections with a Science section, essentially focused on chart and data comprehension. There are other differences, too. A good tutor can help guide you through the process of selecting the right test to prepare for.
Also, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, schools are increasingly allowing test-optional applications. Given the recency of these changes, it's not clear how actionable this option will serve for most students looking to get into a good school. Applicants are always best served by nailing an admissions test and submitting a great score, though, so most students should prep and submit the best scores they can achieve. That said, in exceptional circumstances, students may not need to submit either test.
How Standardized Testing has Changed
The SAT has undergone substantial design changes over the past few decades. The College Board (makers of the SAT) dropped analogies and quantitative comparison questions from the test in 2005, on the basis that they were weird, puzzle-y, socioeconomically biased IQ test nonsense. (If you felt this way as a teenager, feel free to take a moment to bask in your vindication.)
The test also saw the addition of a “Writing” section, including a written essay and associated with its own 800 point score, pumping the total composite score for the test to 2400.
In 2016, though, the SAT was redesigned again, making it even ACT-ier. The Writing and Reading Comp section scores were merged, returning the scoring system to its original “800 Verbal+800 Math=1600 Total Score” format. The infamous “guessing penalty” was removed, making blind guesses worthwhile. The essay became optional, and in 2021 the SAT dropped it outright. In essence, the test is now straight-up multiple choice questions about Reading Comprehension, Writing and Language Skills, and Math (with a few non-multiple choice questions on the Math sections).
Taking the SAT Multiple Times
Most schools consider an applicant's SAT "superscore"--essentially, a Frankenstein score cobbled together from the best Math section score they received on any test date, and the best Verbal score they received. That means you can bomb on Verbal in June and nail the Math, and vice versa in October, and schools will consider a higher total score than you received on either date alone.
If a student can nail a great score on their first test, they're done and don't have to worry about future prep. But if not, they have a second shot to bring up a weak section (which means your student shouldn't wait until the last available opportunity to prepare for and take their first test).
Why Colleges Appreciate Test Scores
Even as schools begin to consider test-optional admissions, SAT scores remain important to admissions officers. The test scores still serve their original role--as a(n imperfect) standardized measure of students’ test-taking ability--and by so doing, make the admissions process feasible in the first place. Colleges receive thousands of applications every year, and they don’t have thousands of admissions officers. It’s not possible for these officers to perfectly evaluate each applicant, coming to know them holistically as a student and citizen, in order to make decisions based on essays, grades and extracurriculars. Some estimates suggest that admissions officers can spend only four minutes on a given application. In this environment, test scores serve to draw a numerical comparison between applicants, making admissions decisions considerably easier.
This is why, though you pay for your student to take the test, you should keep in mind that the College Board’s real clients are the schools. So long as colleges find SAT scores useful and consider them for admissions, you’ll have to keep shelling out the testing fees.
There’s another, more insidious-seeming reason why test scores matter to schools. Outside of top-tier, world famous institutions, colleges are generally scrambling to climb the college rankings. This attracts a higher caliber of students, allows them to raise more money, and can create a virtuous cycle of improvement (or precipitate a fall from grace). Historically, admitted students’ test scores made up a sizable proportion of the calculations used by publications like U.S. News and World Report to rank these schools. As test-optional admissions become more prevalent, the proportion of rankings formulas made up by test scores has been on the decline, but they’re still significant.
If you have any doubt about how important these tests remain to colleges, you need only consider the median test scores reported by top schools for the classes of 2024. At least a quarter of incoming students at Princeton who took the SAT received a perfect Math section score. At least a quarter received a perfect score on the Reading and Writing section. The vast majority of students are in at least the 98th percentile of total SAT scores. If colleges aren’t accepting most students based considerably on SAT scores, then they’re wasting a lot of time evaluating students on non-numerical qualities that are somehow perfectly correlated with those SAT scores.
What the SAT Measures
Many parents and students come into the process thinking that the SAT will measure their overall level of intelligence or scholastic achievement. The College Board will gladly trip over itself to remind you that SAT scores correlate well with the grades students achieve during their first year of college. (Digging into the numbers reveals that it is, on its own, a less successful predictor of first year college GPA than is high school GPA, but that combining these measures can provide a slightly stronger predictor of first year GPA than high school GPA alone.)
Tutors can tell you from experience that what the SAT best measures is how good you are at taking the SAT. Many of the test-taking skills we teach provide very significant advantages to students who practice them in advance of their tests. We reliably see students’ scores increase with mindful and well-directed practice. Average students’ scores improve, top students’ scores improve, and weaker students’ scores improve. One of my student’s test scores just jumped from the 87th to the 98th percentile over the course of a program, and they didn’t get smarter than 11% of their peers. They just got better at taking the test.
Students (and parents) should avoid making value judgments about SAT performance, which is a poor measure of a person’s worth. They should avoid focusing on outcome over process, which is detrimental to outcomes anyway. That said, they should absolutely do their best to prepare for these tests by practicing the key skills that allow good test takers to perform well on them--which, like it or not, will open up academic opportunities.
Learning Difference Accommodations
If your student has a documented learning difference, they may be able to receive accommodations for the SAT. Possible SAT accommodations include extended time, extra or longer breaks, and accessibility accommodations like large-type or Braille test books. The SAT’s accommodations process is somewhat less arduous than that of the ACT, which generally requires that students receive similar accommodations during testing at school. If your student qualifies for necessary accommodations on one test, but not the other, they should take the test that will provide them with their accommodation.
How to Start Preparing
There’s a lot to know about the SAT and its place in admissions today, and it’s impossible to convey all the nuances relevant to your child in an article. If you’re just getting started on your student’s standardized testing journey, it is strongly advised that you have them take a diagnostic test to get a sense of where they’re starting out. Many strong students have difficulty with this part of the process, and it’s easier to help them grow into the best test-taking version of themselves gradually, over time. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at Noodle Pros.
Standardized exam on the horizon? Thinking about supplemental academic tutoring? Our Education Specialists can help navigate you towards success with a free 1:1 consult.
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