This post was originally published in our Paying for College 101 (PFC 101) group. It has been edited for clarity and flow.
Most of the information being shared about the new Digital SAT is irrelevant to what you really need to know: what your children should be doing differently now to maximize their scores on this fall’s (2023) digital PSAT, as well as on the digital SAT. The digital SAT will begin in the U.S. March 2024 (and internationally March 2023).”
What is a Digital SAT?
A digital SAT test is an online version of the SAT. In addition, the new Digital SAT will also be computer adaptive. The introduction of the adaptive format in the digital SAT represents one of the most significant changes in the test’s long-standing history of over 100 years.
As an adaptive test, the digital SAT will be tailored to the individual student’s performance. As the student answers correctly on the first section, the questions in the next section will become more difficult, but they will also carry more point value.
What Are the Changes to the Verbal Section of the Digital SAT?
The Verbal section of the digital SAT has changed the most, primarily because long reading passages cannot fit on one computer screen. This means that traditional Reading Comprehension is no longer a feature of the SAT.
Although many students will celebrate this, it just means that a new challenge has been substituted in its place. Remember when SAT prep meant cramming vocabulary? Well, it’s back, but even more so.
Approximately 22% of the Verbal now consists of advanced vocabulary questions, but a closer inspection reveals that another type of question (about 13% of the total) hinges exclusively on vocabulary as well. This means that over a third of the verbal questions are purely a matter of vocabulary and nearly every question (including new components like poetry) requires advanced vocabulary. Here’s an example:
In the three-sentence excerpt above, there are four “SAT words” that most high-schoolers do not know. To see why vocabulary is critical, notice that the word “exulted” in the last line creates a surprising twist: that Mrs. Ochiltree enjoys having no friends.
Fortunately, it’s far easier to master vocabulary now using free “spaced-repetition” software such as Anki. Almost any student who gets into the habit of spending five minutes daily will find a majority of the Verbal section of the Digital SAT to be simple and fun. Those who cram over six weeks can multiply their advanced vocabularies by a factor of about 10, simply by learning 33 words per day.
What Are the Changes to the Math Section of the Digital SAT?
The major change to the Math section is that a calculator is permitted throughout, and that an advanced, built-in calculator is supplied with the test. However, this means that students are likely to learn exactly the wrong lesson, because calculator overuse lowers scores.
Yes, I know this doesn’t make intuitive sense, but that’s the case with many things about the SAT. Here’s why: every SAT question is designed to fool a certain percent of students. An “easy” question is one that tricks a minority of students, while a “hard” one will often have a trap that ensnares nearly everyone.
The calculator can be a thief of attention which makes it very easy to fool a student who is preoccupied with the routine of entering calculations. Therefore, I generally advise avoiding the calculator because the SAT can use it as a tool for “misdirection” in order to slip something big by unsuspecting test-takers. However, a calculator is indispensable for simple arithmetic requiring precision and for built-in calculator functions such as systems of equations.
Here’s an example of where calculators are harmful, however:
Anyone who spends time finding the exact average of the ten supplied numbers will almost certainly be fooled by the fact that ninety of the numbers are not supplied. The answer choices are so far apart that finding a precise average would be ludicrous. Instead, a quick guesstimate that the numbers are somewhere in the 100-200 range is far preferable.
This means that the tiny minority of students who insist on the discipline of mental math will likely outperform their peers significantly. In fact, the key to acing the SAT continues to be “taking the road less traveled.”
How Do You Get a High Digital SAT Score?
One challenge in preparing for the digital SAT will be finding real test questions. Although there are dozens of real, previously administered tests available for both the paper-based SAT and ACT, the College Board has only provided four sample Digital SATs, and experience shows that these tests are unlikely to be fully representative.
There are commonalities, however, between the new test questions and various elements of the paper-based SAT, the pre-2016 SAT, and the GRE, so experienced test-prep professionals who know which questions from these tests to use for practice will provide a significant advantage for the next year or two.
A month prior to taking the digital SAT, it is worth trying out its new features by downloading the “Bluebook” app from the College Board. However, just because there are new features available does not mean that they will all serve you equally well.
For example, don’t rely on the annotation tool: use scrap paper instead. (Other features, such as the “eliminate answers” tool, and “mark this question for later review,” are helpful.) Also, bring your own calculator if you know it better than the built-in Desmos.
If you plan to use Desmos, you’ll give yourself a significant advantage by bringing a 17-inch laptop (preferably touchscreen). Otherwise, you’ll have to keep opening and closing the Desmos calculator to be able to see the questions.
If you’re using your own calculator, any size laptop works.
|Higher Score||Lower Score|
|Proactively learns vocabulary in a “spaced-repetition” flashcard app like Anki||Learns vocabulary only for tests|
|Reads voraciously for pleasure||Only reads books assigned for class; 9 hours daily of smartphone entertainment|
|Looks up every unfamiliar word||Believes “I understand words in context”|
|Reads books at a continuously higher level of difficulty||Stays in the “comfort zone” of easy reading|
|Regularly reviews all math from previous years||Focuses only on math test grades|
|Loves mastery||Believes “I have test anxiety” and “I’m not a ‘natural’ at reading and math”|
|Thinks after class about the “why” of math||The math class bell means “it’s quitting time”|
|Enjoys the challenge of mental math||“Why bother? I’ll just use the calculator”|
|Sticks with one calculator; masters every function||Never masters any one calculator|
|Ignores discussions about adaptive testing; simply tries to do the best on each question||Focuses on changes outside of his control, like how adaptive testing works|
|Relies on scrap paper||Relies on the largely worthless annotation tool|
What Is the Digital SAT’s Adaptive Testing?
The digital SAT is “adaptive,” meaning simply that although everyone gets the same first Math section, those who do well will then get a harder second Math section, while those who do poorly will get an easier second Math section. (The same goes for Verbal.)
This is a positive change because it shortens the test by over an hour, minimizes frustration by dramatically reducing the number of questions that are too hard or too easy, and improves the score accuracy.
Students shouldn’t pay much attention to this format change: all they need to know is to try their best on each question, and that ironically, if a test feels hard, it may just be a sign that they are doing well.
This article will be updated as new information about the digital SAT is made available.
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