The New SAT: About the Vocab, The Math, and The Writing

“It’s dumbed down.”
“It’s more like the ACT.”
“They took the vocab off of it because there aren't any sentence completions.”

Boy, oh boy, are people weighing in on this new SAT and, in keeping with the zeitgeist of the test prep industry, it’s a jungle out there.

Given the industry’s intense competition, empty promises, and fear mongering marketing that preys on the anxious student, it’s no wonder it’s incredibly difficult to get to brass tacks about this new SAT.  ...which is what brings us together today.

First, you may want to keep in mind that the test has gone through two major overhauls in the past 12 years: the first was in 2005, and the more recent was in 2016. The 2005 change saw the disappearance of analogies in the Reading section and the removal of Quantitative Comparison in the Math; before that the time the test had largely gone unaltered for decades.

The new iteration has changed the test far more profoundly than the change a decade ago. 

A note on pacing: I used to feel like the SAT used to have a lot more wiggle room for timing-- there was more pressure to get a lot done on the ACT than on the SAT. I don't think that's the case anymore. You have to really keep it moving on this SAT, particularly on the reading. 

Reading Comprehension:

Just one section. 65 minutes long. 52 Questions.

First, we need to talk about vocabulary.

It’s well known within the industry that one of the primary reasons that the ACT garnered such enormous market share over the past 8 to 10 years was because of vocabulary. Specifically, the SAT still had several sentence completion questions that asked students to provide the most appropriate, advanced vocabulary word for a blank in a given sentence. The ACT has never included this question type, and as the trend in K – 12 education moved further away from teaching wrote college level vocabulary, the ACT became an obvious choice for most students.

As much as it pained me, I was usually forced to say the following to low SAT scorers: Look, if you can only devote X number of hours to preparation between now and when you would have to take the SAT, you probably do not have the time to learn the sheer quantity of vocabulary the test requires. You can spend those hours memorizing vocab plus preparing for the rest of the SAT, or you can spend those hours preparing for the ACT in its entirety.

As a writer, a lover of the English language, and someone who likes preparing students for college more than for a test—which means instilling in students a big, fat vocabulary—this was not advice I was enthusiastic about offering. Nevertheless, this was reality, and students moved to the ACT.

So the SAT adjusted.

But not quite like you think.

What follows is a list of vocabulary words I harvested from the reading passages and questions of a new SAT Reading section (Test 4, to be specific). To be clear, just because I’ve included these words on this list doesn’t mean I personally think every word on this list is particularly challenging, and most of them aren’t exceedingly arcane.

These are, however, words that every college-aspiring student should know, and the SAT is, in a sense, testing them.

verifiable, yearning, consummation, borne, indifferent, bearing, yielding, hostile, cache, cairns, enterprise, doctrine, volition, ephemeral, egotism, disdain, empirical, inevitable, albeit, inversion, affluent, recession, prevailing, fiscal, incur, prosperous, prominent, enclave, submerge, degradation, preserve (n), instrument (econometric, not musical), phenomena, static, deflated, obscure, continuum, inhibited, crude, genome, novelty, envision, consequential, tweak, pharmaceutical, sidle, escort, prone, lactate, apprehension, ambivalence, appreciation, yield, stem (v), secrete, abstract, inconstancy, versatile, obstinacy, prejudice, consecrate, corruption, due, reformation, subversion, pious, solicitude, rash, incantation, regenerate, paternal, subordinate, dissolution, reverence, subservient, gross (not as in "yucky" or 144), speculation, continent, asunder, band (not rubber and not The Beatles), civil, precede, precedent, vanity, presumption, insolent, tyranny, utmost, nonentity, brevity, prominence, rigidity, petty, deplete, inadequate, notion, plausible, resolve, perturb, haze, subsequent, persist, flanks, underscore

Is it possible to be successful on this test without knowing every one of these words? Yes.

Is it possible to deduce the meaning of a few of them from context clues? Yes again.

But is it likely a student who isn’t comfortable with most (if not all) of these words to move at a pace fast enough to get through all of the reading and comprehend it at a level that makes breaking 700 a real likelihood?

Probably not. 

All to say: yes. The SAT still tests vocabulary, and yes, you should still be studying if you plan to take the SAT. 

Writing and Language Test

One section. 35 minutes. 44 questions. 

No two ways about it: this thing is almost exactly like the grammar section on the ACT. We've never really seen a grammar test like this on the SAT before and I, for one, am personally glad it's on there because we also don't often see students who have received a strong grammar background. Since I'm an educator first and foremost, I'm glad that everyone is going to need to grab a grammar crash course before they attend college. 

All of the major mechanics and usage fundamentals that contribute to good writing are tested on the SAT now. I'm not saying you need to be able to diagram a sentence to take the SAT these days, but it wouldn't hurt. 


Two Sections.  No Calculator: 25 minutes, 20 questions. Calculator 55 minutes, 38 questions. 

I have to say, having just gotten extremely intimate with the math section of the new SAT while developing my self-paced video course for math for the New SAT, this test is generally unrecognizable from its former self. The new SAT math test could have had its own episode of Extreme Makeover.

Frankly, the new SAT is a lot less fun than it used to be, and that's because in many ways it's, again, a lot more like the ACT. There are far fewer questions that feel like puzzles, questions that smacked of the intelligence test from which the SAT began to evolve six decades ago (or longer?). Those questions required some thinking and imagination--or, at the very least, bravery--from the student, and most of them are long gone. 

What the SAT has now are more functions and systems of equations/inequalities than you can shake a stick at. This is important pedagogically because these are the building blocks upon which students learn calculus, linear algebra, and college level statistics. In fact, stats are on the SAT now, too, including an occasional appearance of standard deviation and, more often, lines of best fit. 

Also, like the ACT, the new SAT asks questions that require advanced algebra II and introductory trigonometry, which, again, makes sense because most students applying to top colleges have at least worked through trigonometry if not Calc I. Fortunately, this is all learnable, and while a lot has been removed from the breadth of the test, it hasn't been "dumbed down," and the random, one-off questions that the test makers reserve the right to include are sometimes far more advanced than anything that used to be on the test.

Interestingly, the sections of the new SAT that permit the use of a calculator by and large do not require a calculator. A piece of me feels like the calculator section is there to psych students out, like perhaps they're "missing something" if they don't use the machine. 

Optional Essay

It used to be that every student had to write an essay as her first task on the SAT--right before embarking on nine other sections. It was terrible and tedious. The new essay section allots a student more time to write an analysis of an argument, which is much more in keeping with AP tests and the GRE. The essay asks students to consider an argument and explain not only what the argument is but also how the argument is structured and why it's effective. 

Frankly, this essay, while probably more challenging than the one on the ACT and certainly than its SAT predecessor, is a far more worthwhile essay to learn to write for students who intend to go to college.