Big news from the College Board came out recently that their principal exam, the SAT, will shift from traditional pencil and paper to a digital modality starting in Spring 2023 for international students and Spring 2024 for students in the United States.
This transition to virtual brings with it many changes to the test-taking process, and it is important for students and educators alike to be aware of these so that they may be well prepared come test day.
Read on for an in-depth look into the new SAT, including everything that’s new (and everything that’s staying the same), what content will be assessed, and how to prepare for this revamped SAT.
How Does The Digital SAT Reading And Writing Differ From The Paper SAT?
Let’s start off by talking about what will NOT be changing with the online test. Just like the original test, the online SAT will take place in testing centers with proctors; students will be required to bring with them a valid ID, admissions ticket, pen/pencil for scratch paper, and calculator (optional, more on this later); and students will have to register for the test prior to the deadline.
It is also important to note that scores on the digital version are designed to correspond to scores on the pencil and paper version (i.e. a student that scores 1050 on the digital test is expected to receive the same score on the pencil and paper test), however, there will be some key differences between the two versions of the test.
For starters, the digital version will only be 2 hours long (the paper test is 3 hours long), and because of the nature of digital grading, scores will be processed more quickly (on the order of days rather than weeks). The test has been restructured to allow for this, with the Reading and Writing being made into one section, and the no calculator section being removed from the digital SAT. Additionally, despite overall taking less time, students will be able to, on average, spend more time answering each question. Below you can see a breakdown and comparison of the timing for each of the sections on both versions of the test.
|Paper and Pencil SAT|
|Section||Time Allotted (minutes)||Number of Questions||Time Per Question (seconds)|
|Writing and Language||35||44||48|
|Math (no calculator)||25||20||75|
|New Digital SAT|
|Section||Time Allotted (minutes)||Number of Questions||Time Per Question (seconds)|
|Reading and Writing||64 (two 32-minute modules)||54||71|
|Math||70 (two 35-minute modules)||44||95|
The test will also be adaptive to each student, meaning that subsequent questions will be adjusted for difficulty based on student performance — this is meant to enhance the accuracy of assessment of achievement in the relevant subject areas as well as increase test security. Each section of the test will be made up of 2 equally spaced modules — the first of these will include a mixture of questions that range in difficulty from easy to hard, and the second module will use performance on the first to adjust question difficulty for each student.
Additionally, students will be required to bring a device on which they will take the test (click here to see if your device is eligible), but if a student is unable to provide their own device the College Board is able to provide one for them as long as students indicate this after registering for the test (click here for more information on borrowing a device). Students will be required to install the test administration application Bluebook (click here for installation information) onto their devices prior to testing day. The digital SAT will also include a graphing calculator built into the application, so students do not need to bring one, however, they are able to do so if they wish.
What Types Of Reading And Writing Questions Does The Digital SAT Ask?
Broadly speaking, the content assessed on the digital SAT Reading and Writing sections will not differ substantially from that assessed on the paper SAT, but these tests will certainly differ in some ways.
The digital SAT will be comprised entirely of short reading passages (25 to 150 words), and there will be one question per passage. The passages will cover the same topics as one the paper SAT (literature, history/social studies, the humanities, and science), and the questions asked will fall into 4 content domains:
- Craft and Structure: Measures the comprehension, vocabulary, analysis, synthesis, and reasoning skills and knowledge needed to understand and use high-utility words and phrases in context, evaluate texts rhetorically, and make connections between topically related texts.
- Information and Ideas: Measures comprehension, analysis, and reasoning skills and knowledge and the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, and integrate information and ideas from texts and informational graphics (tables, bar graphs, and line graphs).
- Standard English Conventions: Measures the ability to edit text to conform to core conventions of Standard English sentence structure, usage, and punctuation.
- Expression of Ideas: Measures the ability to revise texts to improve the effectiveness of written expression and to meet specific rhetorical goals.
Below is more information on the types of questions that will be asked (each of which will fall under one of the above domains). Questions on similar content will be grouped together and arranged in increasing order of difficulty.
Vocab-in-context questions ask you to provide the meaning of a word in the context that it appears in, here are some tips for approaching these questions:
- Ignore the answers and make a prediction — this will help you in honing in on the best answer
- Check your prediction — the option you choose should have the same meaning (both literally and contextually) as the word in the text.
- Be precise — even if an answer is just a little wrong, it is still (say it with me) WRONG. This goes not just for the definition of the word, but also the connotation (implicit meaning)
- Paraphrasing is your best friend — you may come across a confusing chunk of text, so it’s a good idea to reword this in a way you understand so that you can correctly identify the function of the word in the sentence.
- Don’t get distracted by synonyms — while these may be correct definitions in another context, they could very well be wrong in the sentence, this is not to say the synonym will be wrong every time, but it is a suggestion to approach synonyms with caution and evaluate them fully before committing to them as the best answer.
Paired passage questions require that you think about the relationship between two passages in a passage pair, here are some tips for answering these questions:
- Understand the main idea and context behind each passage — review paragraphs’ first sentences and your notes to help you find the main idea of each passage
- Make sure the answer correctly represents both views — remember to be precise, even one wrong word makes the entire answer wrong
- Don’t overinterpret evidence — authors’ positions can be nuanced, be sure that the answer you choose correctly represents these nuances rather than an extreme version of their views.
Some questions will ask you about the purpose of a passage, paragraph, section, or sentence — here are some things to keep in mind when answering these:
- Look for clues about the relevant context — think about whatever portion of text you’re being asked about in its relation to the bigger picture (i.e., what is the function of this paragraph/sentence/word in this passage/paragraph/sentence)
- Predict the answer — deduce the purpose of the text in question, this will help reduce the likelihood of justifying a wrong answer choice as you will have something to compare to
- Remember that you’re not being asked about substance (the “what”) — you’re trying to identify function (the “why”).
Main idea questions ask you to boil down a passage or paragraph to its essence, here are some tips for these:
- Make sure you’re looking for the most important idea — answer choices will often include ideas brought up in the text, it is important to identify the central idea, not just an idea.
- Look at how often an idea is discussed — if it’s mentioned once, it probably isn’t the main idea (and if it’s brought up several times, it’s likely a central idea).
- Think about describing the passage to a friend — whatever you focus on is likely whatever the passage focused on.
Reading Graphs & Charts
Visual data questions require interpreting data from a chart or figure, here are some things to consider for these:
- Review what the figure is telling you — take a moment to go over the graph again (review the title, axes, key, etc.)
- Identify the relevant part(s) of the graph and stay focused — make sure your analysis is guided by the question itself rather than the graph
- Don’t get distracted by irrelevant information — it can help to put a finger or pencil on the part of the graph that you’re interested in
- One wrong word or number makes the whole answer wrong — be precise!
These questions will ask you all about different parts of grammar. You will have to know rules regarding punctuation (commas, periods, colons, semi-colons, etc.), parts of speech (verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, etc.) and style (parallelism, redundancy, formality, etc.).
For these questions, it is crucial that you base your answers on the grammar rules themselves rather than on what sounds right. This is because what sound right (while it may be right) can often be wrong since we do not necessarily use perfect grammar in our day-to-day conversations and writing.
Check out our blog on the SAT writing section for specific grammar rules you should know.
Sentence addition & deletion
Some questions will test whether you know when to add or delete sentences, here are some considerations for these:
- Review the title and purpose of the passage
- Ask yourself what the purpose of the paragraph and the sentence in question is.
- In your own words, consider what function the sentence in question is fulfilling
- Ask yourself (a) ”is that information relevant?” and (b) “does it distract from the purpose of the paragraph?”
Practice Problems & Explanations
Now that you know what topics will be covered on the digital SAT Reading & Writing section, it is a good idea to get familiar with the style of the test. To help get you started, below are some practice questions along with explanations.
Sample Practice Problem & Explanation #1
Choice A is the best answer as it most logically completes the discussion of the relationship between the dodder plant and its host. In this context, “synchronization” refers to things happening at the same time, which works well since the text explains that when the dodder and its host plant flower in unison the reproductive success of the dodder plant is increased since it is able to absorb and utilize a protein produced by the host just prior to the host’s flowering.
Choice B is incorrect because hibernation (state of being dormant or inactive) makes no sense in this context. In fact, the text focuses on an active process carried out by the dodder plant — absorbing and using the protein produced by the host — which would be directly contradictory to a state of hibernation.
Choice C is incorrect because the dodder plant does not engage in prediction (stating or estimating something in advance). Rather than a prediction taking place, the text explains that the host plant produces the protein as part of its normal flowering and the dodder plant then
Choice D is incorrect because there is no moderation (causing something to become less intense) taking place. While the text does explain that the dodder plant absorbs and uses a
protein made by its host plant, there is no suggestion that this process reduces the activity of the host; the two plants simply flower in unison.
Sample Practice Problem & Explanation #2 -15
Choice D is the best answer because it provides direct evidence from the table that supports the assertion that plants growing in close proximity to other plants gain an advantage in their early developmental stage. The table indicates the total number of juvenile plants from five species that grew on bare ground and in patches of vegetation, as well as the percentage of each species growing in patches. The data for each of the five species show that more than 50% of juvenile plants grew in patches of vegetation, which is significantly higher than the expected 15% based on a random distribution of plants. This finding strengthens the argument in the text that growing in patches of vegetation is beneficial for plants in their early developmental stage.
Choice A is incorrect because although it is true that less than 75% of juvenile plants grew in patches of vegetation, this statement alone does not support the claim that plants growing in close proximity to other plants gain an advantage in their early developmental stage. The relevant information needed to evaluate the claim is the comparison between the observed percentage of plants growing in patches and the expected percentage based on chance alone.
Choice B is incorrect because even if this species had the highest number of plants growing in patches, this finding would not be relevant to the argument that plants of all five species gain an advantage from growing in close proximity to other plants. Furthermore, the statement is incorrect because this species actually had the lowest number of plants growing in patches.
Choice C is incorrect because the text notes that 59.1% of plants of this species were found growing in patches, which is greater than the 15% expected if the plants were randomly distributed. Additionally, if the percentage of plants growing in patches were lower than expected based on chance alone, this finding would weaken rather than strengthen the argument that growing in patches of vegetation is advantageous.
Sample Practice Problem & Explanation #3 -24
Choice A is the best answer. The convention being evaluated is the use of a colon within a sentence. A colon is used to introduce information that explains or illustrates the preceding information. In this case, the colon introduces an explanation of why some roundworms in the Southern Hemisphere move in the opposite direction of Earth’s magnetic field.
Choice B is incorrect because it results in a comma splice. The two long independent clauses (“Researchers…food” and “in…sources”) cannot be joined by a comma in this way.
Choice C is incorrect because it results in a run-on sentence. The two clauses (“Researchers…food” and “in…sources”) are fused without punctuation, and the conjunction “while” fails to indicate that the following information explains why some roundworms in the Southern Hemisphere move in the opposite direction of Earth’s magnetic field.
Choice D is incorrect because it results in a run-on sentence. The two clauses (“Researchers…food” and “in…sources”) are fused without appropriate punctuation and/or conjunction.
Study Tips For The Digital SAT Reading and Writing Sections
Now that you know about what to expect (and what content knowledge is expected of you), it’s time to prepare for the new digital test. Below are some tips to get you started with test prep.
Practice Using Bluebook To Get Used To The Format
As goes the age-old adage, you want to practice like you play, and in terms of the new digital SAT this means practicing using the new digital format. Click here to go to the College Board site where you can download the Bluebook software — the same application you will need to download before test day to take the SAT — and you will gain access to four full-length practice tests that will mirror what you will see on test day. These tests will be an invaluable resource for your preparation as they will be the closest experience to taking a digital SAT before sitting for the actual test.
Identify Weak Skills And Do Practice Problems
While it is important to complete loads of practice, it is equally (if not more) important to thoroughly review your mistakes. Students oftentimes take many practice tests without seeing substantial improvement in their scores, and this is often due to a lack of error correction.
What I mean by this is that when you finish taking a practice test, you should spend a significant amount of time reviewing each of your mistakes. This does not mean that you should score the test and simply see what you got wrong, instead, you should identify every question you answered incorrectly and not only understand why the correct answer is right, but also figure out why the answer you picked was wrong. This will help reinforce your understanding of the concepts and lead to more effective learning.
Additionally, it is important to look for trends in the questions you got wrong. For instance, you might get a lot of geometry questions wrong, or maybe on the writing section you consistently get questions dealing with commas wrong, or maybe it’s not pure content knowledge that you struggle with but rather there is a question type that you have a hard time with, regardless the important thing is that you identify what is causing your score to be lower than it could be.
Once you’ve identified these areas of weakness, you should then look for ways to fortify these points. For instance, there are loads of math practice sheets available on the internet (a quick google search will reveal practice on any math topic you’d like), and the same goes for grammar rules, and if it’s a certain question type you struggle with (for instance, main idea questions on the reading section), then it would be a good idea to change your approach to these questions by adjusting your testing strategy (maybe marking up the text, or rewording complicated chunks could be helpful).
The goal here is to use what you got wrong to find the weak points and work on them with outside sources, using the limited number of available practice tests as benchmarks to track your growth.
Learn How To Use The Annotate And Elimination Tools
The new digital format for the SAT brings with it some new tools for students. With the digital format, you can no longer mark up the text as you normally would, however, you will be able to highlight sections of text and add notes that pop up when you select the highlighted portion.
You will also have an elimination tool which will come in handy for multiple choice questions. Essentially selecting an option with this tool will mark an X over that choice, so you can have a visual marker for the process of elimination.
You will also have access to a testing timer at the top of the screen that will let you know how long you have left on a given section of the test, but worry not you are able to hide it from view to avoid testing anxiety.
The College Board has also included a flagging tool that will allow you to quickly see and return to any questions that you would like to review. They have also built a calculator into the application (but you may still bring your own as long as it falls under the SAT’s allowed calculators) and a reference sheet for you to see the relevant equations in the math section.
Practice Under Pressure
Once again I say to you, practice like you play. In the context of the SAT, it means that you want to keep within the time constraints that you will face on test day, particularly when you take practice tests. This time constraint may vary depending on what accommodations you have, so be sure to double-check the time you are allowed and stick to this when practicing for the SAT. A high score with loads of extra time will not translate on test day, so it is crucial that you get a feel for the pacing needed to complete the SAT within the allotted period.
Take Full Practice Exams
Once more, say it with me now, practice like you play. I said before and I will say it again, full-length practice tests are an invaluable tool for students preparing for the SAT. The College Board has made four online tests available to students to practice using the Bluebook application, and you can find 10 more official SAT practice tests here, complete with answer keys, explanations, and scoring guidelines for each test. As I mentioned earlier these tests should be used as benchmarks for growth, with outside resources being used to reinforce the areas that need it.
Overall, the new digital SAT has been quite the redesign from the old paper and pencil version. This new test brings with it some changes for both educators and students alike, so it is important to be well-informed and fully understand what it is you will be facing on test day so that you can maximize your outcomes and achieve your utmost potential.
Prepare For The Digital SAT With SoFlo
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About the author
Luis Rubio is an expert SoFlo tutor, researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a junior at Johns Hopkins University double-majoring in Neuroscience and Psychology. He scored 1520 on his SAT, and when he’s not studying on campus or meeting with friends, Luis enjoys playing rugby and rock climbing.