Podcast: What do you need to know about the digital SAT?

Join me today as I delve into the transition to digital SATs, unravel strategies for choosing between the SAT and ACT, and explore the intricacies of test-optional admissions policies. Tune in for valuable insights and guidance on navigating standardized testing!


Sheila Akbar: 

But grades and rigor of the curriculum, the how hard the classes your student took are the two most important things just across the board that has not changed in a very long time. And even when tests were required at the majority of colleges, they were still third or fourth on the list. They were not at the top ever. So testing is not the end all be all, it can be important, it can be helpful to your student, but it’s not like it’s the only thing that matters. Friends, welcome back to the podcast. Today, I am going to share with you some information on the digital SAT, the ACT and test optional and how to navigate that whole thing. We had the first administration of the digital SAT in March of this year. And you know, honestly, I think everyone’s still really working to wrap their heads around it. As I get into the subject matter here, we only have a few practice tests. So we don’t have a lot of great information about what this test is going to look like and exactly how the scoring mechanisms work. So I think there’s a lot left to be discovered. And of course, as we get more practice materials and more understanding of the test, I will continue to update you. But today I really wanted to start with like, let’s get a lay of the land. What does this actually mean for college admission, especially with some of those elite schools like Dartmouth, brown, Harvard, Yale, bringing back their testing requirements, this probably does change the equation for quite a few students. So you’ll hear my advice on how do you navigate how do you decide if you’re going to test or not? And then if you’re going to test what do you do, then, because there’s still more to do. So I hope this helps you kind of get, like I said, a lay of the land, a framework for making some decisions. And then if you need more help you know who to call. Today, I just want to share some information with you about the digital SAT, what you need to know about the testing landscape, how do you decide whether to take either the SAT or the ACT, or go test optional, which is also one of your options, it can be very confusing, and overwhelming. So even though I’m going to speed through all of this, I hope that you’ll find some clear frameworks to help you make the decisions that are right for your family. Like I can’t tell you what to do. I don’t know enough about any one of you or your kids. But I will give you enough information and the tools and the data to be able to make the right decisions for yourself to let’s get into this. Firstly, I want to start by painting a picture of how colleges actually look at college applications. So you know what role the SAT or the ACT might play in your student’s ability to get into a college or not, the majority of colleges in the United States use something called holistic admissions, which means there’s not like a strict formula of you know, the GPA counts for 20% of my decision and the extracurricular activities counts for another 15%. And everybody uses that rubric. That’s just not the way it works. And what they’re trying to do is allow every student’s unique strengths to be the thing that leads their application. Now, there are certain kinds of buckets that are going to be more important than others. But it’s not a strict formula. And it’s not applied the same way to every single student even within a single college. So the National Association of College admissions counselors, or NACAC, which is an industry group that we’re a part of does a survey every year of all of its member colleges to see what is the most important thing for them, what gets the most importance in their process of evaluating students. And this list has not changed a lot in the last 15 or so years. But there is one change that I want to highlight for you. And we can see just off the bat that SATs ACT scores are somewhere around fourth, it really depends on if they’re required or optional. Out of school, there are some colleges that are we called Test blind that even if you have a perfect score, they’re not going to be looking at it, you have no way to submit it to them. So that one kind of gets an asterix because it’s going to be different at every school depending on their policy, but grades and rigor of the curriculum, the how hard the classes your student took are the two most important things just across the board that has not changed in a very long time. And even when tests were required at the majority of colleges, they were still third or fourth on the list. They were not at the top ever. So testing is not the end all be all it can be important. It can be helpful to your student, but it’s not like it’s the only thing that matters. And that change that I was taught But okay, let’s focus in on testing. Before we get into our deep dive about the digital SAT, I want to make sure you know there are two options for students who are considering submitting a standardized test score with their college applications. There’s the SAT, which is going digital starting next month. And then there’s the ACT, which is launching a digital version as well. It’s not as different as a digital SAT is from the paper SAT, but they do have an option to take it on a computer now, the digital SAT is scored out of 1600s. So this might be familiar to you from when maybe you took the SAT, there was a short stint in there where the SAT was out of 2400. But they’ve gone back to the 1600 scale, you can get up to 800 on the verbal section, which consists of reading, writing, and language, and then up to 800 on the math section. And this new digital SAT is much shorter than the paper SAT was about by a little more than an hour. There are still four sections, but it is what we call adaptive. So adaptive means however the student does on this first module is going to affect how hard the second module is. And saying that the first module of math is going to affect how hard or easy the second module of math is. And that is a big change here. And we’ll talk about some of the other changes in the formatting of this test as well. The ACT also has four sections, but they’re each discrete topics. We have English, math, reading and science. And the content is still very similar to what’s on the SAT. It’s just arranged a little bit differently. So reading and English are part of the reading and writing language section of the SAT. The science section on the ACT is really like that technical reading section where you’re reading about maybe a scientific experiment. And you also have to read charts and graphs. Those kinds of questions are interspersed throughout all sections of the digital SAT, you’re going to have a passage or a section on the reading on the SAT that has some charts and graphs is full of scientific jargon, right? So really the content is is very similar. It’s the way the questions are asked, the SAT kind of has that brain teaser II feel you do get more time for question, and students are going to need it. And then there’s the ACT, which you get less time for question, but the questions are far more straightforward and they look a lot more similar to what the students gonna see on your typical math test or something like that. So in some ways, it’s more accessible, but the speed of it makes it very challenging. Alright, we’re gonna go into more of this detail on the digital SAT. So they actually released the digital SAT this time last year internationally. So all over the world, students were taking this test on their computer, it went off mostly without a hitch, certainly without any major scandals or security incidents like we’ve had before with the SAT where entire countries have had their test canceled because they find out that the test has been compromised and somehow somebody got a version of it and ship it back before the the test was actually administered. And that’s really one of one of the major motivators for them switching to this digital format is to have increased security. The last time anyone could take a paper SAT was in December of 2023. The PSAT if your student took it last fall was also digital in preparation for the launch of this new format. As I mentioned, it is shorter than the old sa t and you have more time per question. There is a built in calculator called Desmos. That is so valuable to get into the math section, you can use it on the entire math section. But it is a tool students will really need to learn how to use to be effective with it. But once they learn how to use it, they can use it to solve like 90% of the math problems without actually knowing any math. And I’ll give you an example of that a little bit later on. Desmos is a calculator that exists outside of the SAT as well. And there is a kind of a demo module that students can play with right now. So if you Google Desmos, you’ll find that and I really encourage them to get familiar with it as soon as possible. I mentioned this adaptive testing that the second and fourth modules depend on how accurate the student was in the first and third models. And getting into that harder module, or getting stuck in the lower easier module do lock students into score bands. So it looks like if you get about 65% of the first module, correct, you’ll get into the harder module, and then you could get up to an 800 on that section. But if you get less than 65%, right on the first module, it’s a little different between verbal and math, but 65% is kind of in the middle. If you get less than that right on your first module, you’re going to be in the easier second module, which means the maximum score you could achieve is around a 600. Even if you get everything in the second module, correct, right. So it’s extremely important for students to be super focused and as accurate as they can possibly be in the first module. And of course, we want them to do well on the second module too. But that first module performance really determines what their overall score could be. The verbal sections on the SAT are also very different in structure and content. Instead of having a long passage, and then having like 10 questions to answer about that single passage, on the new SAT, you get three or four sentences for each question. And there are 54 questions. So there are 54 of these little texts that students will have to get through and answer either a reading comprehension question about or a grammar question about in order to do well on this section. And so some students really hated the long passage and the 10 questions about the same boring long passages that their eyes glazed over when they were reading. And they made like this something new every time and they don’t have to hold so much in their mind to answer the questions. But I think a lot of students are also going to be challenged by that, right, this 54 short little passages is a lot to get through, and you have a little more time per question. But some of those passages will stay in their heads. And it might be hard for them to kind of clear it out and stay focused and move on to the next text. It also may feel like because they have less questions about each text, they have less opportunity to get really familiar with what the text is saying or how it works. Whereas when you have a long passage and 10 questions about it, you get to build your understanding of familiarity with the passage as you move through all those questions. And so some students are going to love this new format, and some students are really going to hate it. So this is why it’s really important to choose which tests your student can do best on and focus on that between the SATs and the ACT. The other thing I think that’s important to know right off the bat with the digital SAT is we have very limited official practice materials, the College Board has only released four practices. And that’s it, we don’t really have other practice questions or practice tests to work through. And we know the thing that actually moves a student’s score the most is doing full practice tests and realistic conditions. So there are third party people that have made their own tests like the Princeton Review, and Kaplan and countless other test prep agencies. My philosophy is students should be practicing on official materials, because that’s the best approximation of the testing experience. But while Ray have these limited materials, you will have to look elsewhere for practice materials. And they may not just, they just may not be as good. So keep that in mind. So let’s look at the power of Desmos. Here. Here’s a question from one of those SAT practice tests. Because it’s the podcast, I’m gonna read out this question to you see if you can capture what this looks like in your mind. It is a little bit complicated here. So we have two equations. The first one says 8x Minus seven y equals 13 y plus two. The second equation says TY equals 1/3 plus 2x. And then we have a little bit more information in the given system of equations. T is a constant. If the system has no solution, what is the value of T? I don’t know how many of you are doing algebra on a daily basis. This is you know, par for the course for me, but any of you may be looking at this and saying well, I don’t even know where to begin. And I would venture that many high school students, even if they’ve just taken algebra are going to notice that this is a little different from many of the system of equation type problems they’ve seen before. Because we have three variables and only two equations. There is a mathematical way to solve this, it involves, you know, shuffling these equations around, manipulating them plugging one into the other, you know all of these things. But if you know how to use Desmos, it actually becomes very easy. You can type in the two equations, and you will have to learn how to type in the math into Desmos. And then you set up what’s called a slider for that T value. And the only real piece of math you have to understand is if we go back to the question, the system has no solution, when a system of equations has no solution, that means we are looking at two lines that do not intersect. That’s the only piece of piece of math you need to know. To solve this, you set up the slider and then you just little slide this little dot around until you get to lines that don’t intersect. And it tells you what T is five. So the algebra for this would take me someone who’s very familiar with this at least 30 to 45 seconds. And typing this into Desmos took me about 12. And I didn’t have to use much of my math knowledge. And this is a medium level problem, you can imagine how helpful it is on a harder level problem. So I really encourage students to get to know this calculator and all the ways you can use it. And then here’s a snapshot of what one of those reading writing language questions looks like. They call this a short text. This is kind of long, it’s pretty dense. In my mind, it’s also from an 1854 novels. So here, let me read it to you. The following text is from Herman Melville’s 1854 novel The lightning rod man, the stranger still stood in the exact middle of the cottage where he had first planted himself, his singularity impelled a closer scrutiny that last line is underlined. A lien gloomy figure hair dark and length madly streaked over his brow, his sunken pitfalls of eyes were ringed by Indigo halos, and played with an innocuous sort of lightning, the gleam without the bolt, the whole man was dripping, he stood in a puddle on the bare oak floor, his strange walking stick vertically resting at his side. So, you know, we’re gonna have some, you know, archaic language and sentence structures here. And they’ve, you know, chosen this one on purpose. They want this to be hard that Texas students have to struggle with, I would say, this is a harder problem on the reading section, but this is a good kind of question that is a pretty exemplary of the kind of thing, they’re going to see which choice best states the function of the underlying sentence in the overall structure of the text. You know, a lot of students are going to want to jump in and read the text in its entirety before looking at the question. But in order to get through all of this and stay really focused on what the question is, after I actually recommend students read the question first, and let that dictate what, if any part of this text they actually read, we’re not going to work through this, but I just wanted to show you what this looks like. So you can have a sense of is this something your students get to like or not. And then beyond those two big kind of format, things that I just showed you, there are the differences of taking a test on paper versus on a screen. And of course, our teenagers are more used to working off of the screen than I think us old people are. So there is a difference between reading on a screen and reading on a piece of paper, your eyes just move differently, you might have a different level of tolerance for looking at a screen than looking at a piece of paper. So eye fatigue is a thing, that’s a thing that you want to think about, it can be more difficult to do the scratch work for the math problem. So writing out your calculations, there is space for human error, even in typing into the calculator, if they type it in wrong, or if they copy the equation down wrong, they could, you know, mess up their calculations. Whereas on a paper test, they can do their calculations right on the page and have to read copy any of that original information. And so there’s maybe a little less room for that kind of error, though. calculation errors, of course, are always possible. Another piece of this is they’re not going to be able to mark up a passage like circle keywords or draw a bracket around, you know, a particular part that they need to pay attention to. There are tools that are built into the SAP testing platform that allow them to do some of that. And same with using the process of elimination there. There are ways to cross out an answer, but you’re going to interact with it a little bit differently on paper versus a screen. So those might be things you also consider could have an impact on how well your student can perform. But overall, this all means means that the digital SAT really requires students to learn how to take the digital SAT much more than just knowing the content, or even being familiar with the question type question types, they’re going to need to know how to use the tools in the testing platform, they’re really going to need to know how to approach each question. And so I think that that is going to be where the challenge is going to lie for a lot of students is the test taking skills and the familiarity, not so much the content. And to be fair, knowing how to take the test is really like half the battle on the SATs and the ACT in their current forms. But it’s more so in the digital SAT. All right. Moving on. We’ve done our deep dive on the SAT, I am going to talk about how to choose between the SAT and the ACT in a minute. But I want to stop here to talk about what test optional actually is. So test optional is an admissions policy that says students do not have to submit ACT SAT scores in order to be considered at a particular college. And this was something that was in place and gaining momentum before COVID. During COVID, of course, people couldn’t gather to take these tests. So virtually every college except a handful went test optional. And then, as we’ve come out of the pandemic, many colleges have made their test optional policies permanent, or they’ve extended them. And they’re still the majority of colleges that are test optional. As we look ahead to fall 2025 admission. Now, there’s been some media frenzy around Dartmouth and Yale reinstating their testing requirements. We do think there will be more colleges releasing their permanent decisions on test optional in the coming weeks. So stay tuned. But this actually should inform how you approach this question, right, you really want to understand is testing something that’s going to help your student or is it something that’s going to be wasted time or a distraction for them from other things that might be more important to their applications, they do encourage you to think about whether it makes sense for them to apply to a test required school if testing is not going to help them. But if one of these schools is on the list, and it belongs on the list, you are going to have to test but you’re still going to have to decide between the ACT and the sh t if you’re going to test. So this is what that looks like, right? I’ll tell you how to decide but you’re gonna have to decide between the ACT in the SAT and I really encourage you to just choose one of them and go full steam ahead on that one, they aren’t different enough that your students gonna have to learn different strategies and you know, different kind of muscle memory needs to be built. So it’s better for them to just be preparing for one of them, instead of both, you’re gonna have your student prepare for three to four months, that’s the average at Signet with a one on one tutor. There are places where you could do a course where maybe you’re meeting four hours a week, and the course is for six weeks. And so it can be done in less time. But I like to see a three to four month runway, you’re going to spend that time diagnosing your students strengths and areas for improvement and making specific plans around practice and, you know, building on those areas that need improvement, you’re gonna have time for study. And then practice, as I mentioned, the practice is the thing that actually moves the score, but you want to make sure that they’re practicing in the right way. They’re practicing good testing habits. So the studying the diagnosis is actually very important before you go all in on practice. Once you’ve done the preparation, you’re going to take the test, most students do take it twice, or even three times colleges don’t care how many times you take it. Usually once we pass three, I say alright, let’s stop here, there are probably other things that you should be doing. And it’s not worth you testing again, but two or three is very common. And then you want to make sure that the scores are locked in by the fall of your students senior year. If they want to apply early somewhere, they’re going to need a test score by November 1. If they’re just planning to apply to the regular decision round, they’re going to need a score by the end of December. So that’s all in the fall of senior year. I personally think it’s much better if they can get the testing out of the way in their junior year, even before the summer after junior year because you want to save that for writing essays. So I like to start this process the summer after sophomore year deciding between the ACT and the SAT and setting up a plan for preparation during the course of 11th grade. Now if you decide to go test optional, and again, I’ll tell you how to decide this in a minute. You really need to start by identifying colleges that are the right fit for your student and have a test optional policy. You really want to make sure you commit to that decision and the last thing you want is to have built this college list and written all these things essays and then a month before everything’s due, say, oh my gosh, should we have taken the SAT? Right? We don’t want to have regrets on this. So really make sure that you’re building a good college list. And you’re really comfortable with this decision. And you also want to double down on your strengths that actually goes for whether you’re testing or not testing, figure out your strengths, and really lean into them. And find ways to demonstrate your academic abilities and your the values that you share with the colleges that you’re targeting. You’re going to renew your focus on grades, you’re going to take maybe some unacademic extracurriculars not just, you know, sports and music and creative endeavors, but maybe something that’s more related to an academic field that you’re interested in. And you really want to make sure you live your values in your community. And that could be at home, in your town, at your school, in your city, you know, in broader ways, that that’s one of those things that’s colleges are looking to, to assess those positive character traits and what kind of student your student will be on their campus. And that’s a really important piece of all of this. So now I get to how do you decide, I think every student should take some practices to get some data so that you can make an informed decision about testing or not testing and which tests and all of this stuff. So you can get free practice tests on the College Board website, or on the ACT website, I can point you towards those if you need that, let me know, we also have a testing platform that we use to do an ACT diagnostic. If you want to do an SAT diagnostic test, I’ll send you to the official College Board website. But I’ll ask for your scores. And then we put those through an analysis that we have to understand if your student has the right content knowledge, if there are gaps that they need to learn some material, we want to assess their testing skills, and whatever those strategic insights or instincts they have, especially around the timing, if they understand how to take this kind of test just naturally, some do some don’t. And then we also want to assess their comfort levels. And of course, their scores on the SATs and the ACT they do and there’s an official concordance that translates an ACT score to an SAT score, so we can really see which one they perform better on. And we’ll make a clear recommendation of what kind of score they could get to have been doing this for so long, we can say pretty accurately with this much prep, they’re probably going to get to this score. And that opens the doors to these kinds of colleges or this would be a helpful score at these kinds of colleges, we can help you understand what they need to study, when they should start studying and how they should prepare and how they should study these things. Is it practice? Questions? Is it learning the underlying material is it you know, X, Y, or Z, when they should test when we think they’ll be ready to hit that target score. And then that’s always a conversation with a parent around Okay, well, they’re in the school musical or they’re they’ve got a spring sport, so we can’t really find the Availability to study event. So we got to move it ahead. So it’s a little bit of a puzzle, but we’ll figure that out together. And then as I mentioned, how the scores are going to play a role in your college applications. And I think that piece of it is almost the most important part. Because I don’t want you spending all this time energy and money, preparing for a test, and then getting a score that is not going to be helpful at the schools that really are a right fit for you. That will be a complete waste of your time and effort. And so really, we want to figure out, does this diagnostic indicate that they can get to a score that will be helpful for the kinds of schools you’re looking at? Does that mean you should change the schools you’re looking at? Or does that mean, we should change your thoughts about testing. So even after you talk to somebody like me and have done these practice tests, you still need to make the right decision for your student and you know them best, I think it’s really important to think about their stress levels. There are some students that these tests just freak them out. And yes, some students can overcome that test anxiety. And we have really great experts who do well with that kind of student. But there’s some students where it’s just not even worth it, it’s going to blow up their lives if you try to push this on them. And so you really want to gauge that. You also want to gauge their Availability. If studying for the SAT is going to take up, let’s say three hours a week for them, is that going to put them in danger with another commitment they have? Or their grades? Are they going to not be able to study or sleep? Right? Those things are important. And then what’s their ability and desire to close that score gap? Right? I’ll be very honest with you. If I see a score come in that’s like really low or there’s some sort of fundamental problem in the way they approach a certain kind of thing. I do believe every student can learn to do very well on these tests. For some students, this is going to take longer than others and I’ll tell you very honestly, if I think that length of time is worth it or not for your student, but if they have no desire or to do this, if they are not bought into this, if they are sure that they want to go to, I don’t know, UC Santa Barbara, which doesn’t require scores, well, then why why do any of this, I think it’s fine, you don’t have to do it. And a general guide here also is if they can score at or above a college published average, which you can just Google, they should test and submit their scores. And if that doesn’t seem likely that they can score at or above that average, or if preparing for a test is going to derail them or cause too much stress, just don’t do it. There are plenty of schools that accept a good amount of students without test scores. And there are some schools that are test free. So you have you have options there. And this is the first year we’ve had data from colleges about how many students enrolled that did not have test scores. So you can look that up. If you Google, the common data set, and the college that you’re thinking about, you can look through this report that they put together, it will tell you the percentage of students that have SATs and the percentage of students that have ACT’s, and then therefore the percentage of students that had neither. And you’d be surprised, it’s it’s a pretty high percentage at NYU University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, some of these very selective colleges admit a lot of students without test scores. So keep in mind, as I mentioned, right after 10th, grade is a great time to start this plan, the planning process, you don’t necessarily have to prep and test right away. But you need to start early enough to allow for the work you may have to do, right. If your child is a junior and is just starting to think about testing, that’s fine, it is not too late, the vast majority of juniors take the test in May or June of junior year. So you got time. And if your kids a sophomore, we also have a little time, just to know that we’re going to start the planning process. Maybe in June, maybe a week or two after school is out. And if you would like to do that planning process with me, it’s totally free, no strings attached, you could just send me an email and I will get you set up, I’ll set a reminder, I’ll reach out to you at the end of May. And we’ll do this whole process and you’ll come away with a plan and some information then you can use to make your decision. I also want to let you know that you’re going to see this out here, selective colleges with test optional policies have seen their average test scores rise. So the example I like to use the University of Chicago, which actually went test optional in 2015. And since then, every year, there are tests, the average test score has gone up, because only students with the strongest test scores are submitting them. Right. So when you look at those averages, they are a little bit inflated, right, there may be students who could get in just fine with a slightly lower test score. So most of the time, we’d like to look at the middle 50% of scores. And that’s a good gauge, if your student is in that middle 50%, then you can be pretty sure submitting the test score is going to help you admission rates are higher for those with test scores than for those without. And that’s mostly because the people who are submitting test scores have really strong test scores. And that tends to indicate they’re very strong student, and maybe from a wealthy family and come from a culture of, you know, a long line of people who have gone to college. And so they kind of know how to move through this system. So it’s not just they had a strong test score, and that’s why they got it. Right. There are a lot of other things that that impact that. And as I mentioned, if you look at the common data set for each college that you’re thinking of, you can see the percentage of enrolled students who apply with or without test scores and then gauge for yourself like, Okay, do we have much of a chance if we apply without test scores, or actually Oh, is a pretty good percentage of people who get in without test scores, I feel comfortable not submitting test scores. So of course, this is a complicated, nuanced exercise, I really do encourage you to get some data, talk to somebody who knows this really well so that you can make the right decision for you. And I’m sure you have a million more questions. So feel free to reach out to me, follow me on LinkedIn, stop by my blog on the Signet website. You’ll get a lot of your answers there. But I guess I’ll leave you with the idea that you shouldn’t feel ashamed if you don’t know how to do this. It’s just not as simple as it was when we were applying to college. Maybe it was never that simple. But now we know more and it’s complicating our lives. So please don’t try to do this on your own. Make good informed decisions for yourself and your your kid. And we’ll get through this together. Alright, that’s it for this week on the podcast. I’ll see you next week where we’ll go back to our normal format of an interview. You won’t have to listen to me drone on for for so far. Take care everybody. See you next week.

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