Students who will be in 11th grade in the fall of 2023 need to plan their future SAT and ACT testing more strategically than in most years because the SAT will be changing in the middle of their junior year. Here is what to keep in mind in the year ahead.
How is the SAT changing?
Instead of a 3-hour paper and pencil exam, the SAT is changing to a digital, adaptive format that will be 2 hours and 14 minutes long.
What does it mean that the test will be adaptive?
The first Verbal and Math sections will have questions with a range of difficulty: easy, medium, and hard. High performance on the first section will cause the next section to be comprised of medium/hard difficulty questions. Lower performance on the first section will cause the next section to be comprised of easy/medium difficulty questions.
So the test is not very adaptive: the first section doesn’t very accurately pinpoint a student’s score range and then select very targeted questions from that score range for the second section. There are only four paths the test can take:
- Highest score range for Verbal and Math
- First Verbal section → Hard Verbal section; First Math section → Hard Math section
- Lowest score range for Verbal and Math
- First Verbal section → Easy Verbal section; First Math section → Easy Math section
- Highest score range for Verbal; lowest score range for Math
- First Verbal section → Hard Verbal section; First Math section → Easy Math
- Lowest score range for Verbal; highest score range for Math
- First Verbal section → Easy Verbal section; First Math section → Hard Math section
In a typical year, most of our students take a mock SAT and ACT in June after their sophomore year, establish their baseline scores and which tests fit them best, do intensive preparation over the summer to get as much of it out of the way as possible before junior year, and start taking the real tests in the fall. Students benefit from starting to take the test early because they can now take the tests as many times as they want and only report their highest test date or even highest section scores from any tests they take. So, in the worst case scenario, taking the real tests is still the best possible practice a student can have — so the worst case is still beneficial. In the best case scenario, students will do well in at least one section and lock in that high section score.
Note: There are two groups of students who may want to start their mock testing and tutoring earlier than June after sophomore year:
- Recruited athletes whose recruiting season starts before senior year (which is the case for most sports). They may want to start their prep earlier (often in January of sophomore year) so that they at least have good initial scores by June of their sophomore year when some college coaches can start their recruiting.
- Students who know they will likely need a very large score increase. If a student’s sophomore PSAT score comes back dramatically below their eventual score goal, then they may want to get started earlier to ensure they have enough time to reach their score goal.
The goal is to finish with all testing by the end of junior year, ideally by March/April of junior year so that a student then has sufficient time to prepare for AP exams in May and finals in June of junior year. Why finish by the end of junior year? Then students will have the summer after junior year to get internships and work on their college applications so that in senior year they don’t have a hard course load, college applications, and very high stakes testing with even more pressure because they now have a limited number of remaining test dates that they can take. For most schools, early application deadlines (for Early Decision and Early Action) are November 1st and November 15th. For senior year testing, that only leaves a student with three tests that they can take (an SAT in August and October and an ACT in September) to still get their scores back before early application deadlines. That doesn’t leave much margin for error, and students’ scores naturally vary from one test date to the next so it’s a risky scenario to leave testing until the fall of senior year.
That is all for a typical year.
For current sophomores, however, they need to factor in that the SAT is changing substantially in the middle of their junior year.
Current sophomores can take the unchanged paper and pencil SAT in August, October, November, and December of 2023 of their junior year. However, if they haven’t reached their score goal by then, the next time the SAT is offered is in March of 2024 of their junior year — and that will be the digital version. Not only will the format of the test be substantially different and the content somewhat different on the Verbal section, but the last time the SAT revamped the test (in March of 2016), it took a few years before the test had a more predictable curve, the content had returned to its consistently high quality, etc. As with most new things, you can’t really anticipate all the problems before launch, so you have to work out some issues that you find as you go. The same was true of the SAT last time it changed, and I would not be surprised if the same was true again.
How should current sophomores adapt to the changes?
1. If the ACT is better for a student:
If a student scores higher on their ACT baseline than on their SAT baseline, then nothing changes: they prepare for the ACT just like it’s any other year. In their junior year, they can take the ACT in September, October, December, February, April, and/or June if they wanted to do so– and the ACT even allows students to delete their past ACT scores for free at any time so that students have complete control over their scores and have as little pressure on test day as possible. If need be (such as if they start testing late), they can also take the July and September ACT test dates and still get their scores back before early application deadlines.
2. If the SAT is the better test for them:
If a student scores higher on their SAT baseline than on their ACT baseline, then they have a decision to make:
- If their baseline SAT score is relatively close to their final SAT score goal, then it’s a regular year for them: they can take the SAT in August, October, November, and/or December of 2023 in their junior year and finish by the December test date.
- But, if their baseline SAT score is quite far from their final score goal, then — in contrast to prior years — they should still probably choose the ACT even though their baseline ACT score may have been a bit lower. Why? The digital SAT will be new, so there will be limited preparation material for it, students will have a limited number of testing opportunities on the digital SAT in their junior year (only March, May, and June — and May and June are during AP exams and finals), and the inherent uncertainty (amplified by the problems that occurred the last time the SAT changed its test) surrounding the quality of the digital SAT increases the risk of solely focusing on this test. So, if a student does not have a high probability of finishing their SAT testing by December of their junior year, then they should probably go with the ACT so that their prep for the paper and pencil SAT is not partially wasted by then trying to switch over and prepare for a digital test that is significantly different.
Note: For international students, everything is moved up a year. So the SAT will become digital in March of 2023 during their current junior year (not in March of 2024 as it does in the U.S.).
How can a current sophomore prepare for the digital SAT?
Don’t prepare for it. For current sophomores, there is absolutely no need to prepare for the digital SAT because either the ACT will be the better test for them, the SAT will be the better test for them and their score will be high enough that they will likely finish by December of their junior year on the current paper and pencil test, or they would have to risk taking the paper and pencil SAT until December 2023 and then hoping that their practice prepared them well enough for the digital SAT in March of 2024 — but in the later instance they should very likely just do the ACT.
So, to sum it up:
- Either students should take the ACT in junior year.
- Or they should very likely aim to finish with the SAT by December of their junior year.
In either instance, they aren’t preparing for the digital SAT. They can still just take the digital SAT in March of 2024 to see how it goes, but it’s not a path that you can build your testing strategy around, so I wouldn’t prep for the digital SAT just to take it in March of 2024 to see how it goes.
But, if you’re curious to see what the digital SAT looks like or for some reason really want to prepare for it, then you can go here to take the four official digital SAT practice tests.
Only current freshmen will really need to decide between the ACT and the digital SAT — and it’s too early for any of them to worry about any of this. So don’t! 🙂
If this sounds overwhelming: Deep breaths. It’s going to be fine. Really. Everyone gets through it, and it’s only complex at the beginning. To sum up for current sophomores: take the ACT or finish with the SAT by December 2023 of junior year. You don’t need to overthink it. And, if you have any questions, then guess what? We love answering questions. Seriously. I could (and basically do) talk about testing and college admissions strategy all day, and I love it, so feel free to reach out to us, send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or give us a call (908-277-0128). We are always happy to talk with you, and it is our privilege to help students and families through the process.