Exams & Curriculum

Preparation for the new SAT: Demystifying the Process

February 23, 2017

Help build your child’s confidence, relieve the stress and anxiety and increase their SAT scores.
Being successful in the SAT requires not only possessing the necessary academic skills but also understanding the test, becoming familiar with its structure, content, timing, question types, language and more.
Preparation for the SAT can seem like a daunting task.  Ideally, students should design a structured program of preparation for the SAT with a predetermined timetable.  This is particularly so as the SAT must usually be written while students are involved in full-time school study with all the related pressure in addition to their extra-curricular activities.
Here is where a qualified and experienced SAT trainer can be of great help, either one-on-one or with small groups. The trainer will review the academic skills the students need, take them through practical, relevant and current test-taking strategies, and supervise their practice on sample SAT questions.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardised test used as part of the admissions process for American universities. This means that admission to a particular university may depend on the student achieving a certain SAT score.  The higher a student’s score the better the chance of acceptance at their university of choice, although other factors such as GPA also play a role.
Students considering study in the United States as an option should therefore take the SAT, or the ACT which is a similar standardised test, and attempt to achieve as high a score as possible.
The SAT is developed and administered by an organisation called the College Board.  It tests three skills: critical reading in English, writing/language in English, and mathematics; it assesses students’ ability to apply the knowledge and skills needed at University.
Most questions in the SAT are multiple choice, while in the essay section students are required to do written work, and in the maths section about 20% of the questions require students to deduce the answer rather than select from a set of given answers.
The College Board recommends that students should plan to write the SAT at least twice. Only the best of the scores will be used by the universities in assessing applications. There are several test dates spaced throughout the year. After taking the SAT for the first-time students will be more familiar with the format and the conditions under which it is written, and they should be more at ease. Students can also improve knowledge and skills in areas that they recognised as weak when taking the test for the first time.
The SAT examiners set difficult and tricky questions. They are real life questions, and life can be difficult and tricky. The examiners expect students to prepare well, to absorb the guidance given, and to do lots of practice questions. The bottom line is that students that do this will do well in the SAT. Those that don’t will be at a severe disadvantage and will achieve a low score far below their potential.

The new SAT

The new SAT (in effect as of end 2016) introduces significant changes. As its introduction is so recent, and as students and parents may have heard a lot about the SAT over the years, it is important to be aware of the changes.
The new format is more user-friendly.  For example, instead of sections set out in random order, they are now more streamlined, the English sections grouped together followed by the math sections and then the essay section, which is now optional and is scored separately.
In the multiple choice questions, there are now only four answers to choose from as compared to the previous five. Further, there is no longer a penalty for wrong answers. Students should therefore answer every question even if it means guessing.
The content of the new SAT has also been modified. The reading and writing components focus more on understanding the structure of a piece of writing.  In addition, there are no longer short vocabulary questions which are rather out of context. However, extensive vocabulary knowledge remains vital to success in the SAT. An important change is that graph- and chart-based questions appear frequently in the new SAT and are included in every section.
The mathematical skills tested in the SAT are: algebra, especially linear equations and inequalities, but also more complex equations; analysing data, i.e. being able to think quantitatively; using these skills to solve practical problems. Some questions also require skill in geometry, trigonometry and graphs.
To prepare well for the SAT students need to sharpen the skills taught in the mathematics courses at school. They should become as “fluent” as they can in the use of those skills so that they become a natural part of their thinking. For each problem posed students will need to be able to choose appropriate mathematical procedures and implement them accurately and efficiently.
The mathematics section has two parts, one part is done with access to calculators and the other without calculator access. However, even when calculators are permitted, the solution to a question can sometimes be found more efficiently through using mathematical reasoning without the use of the calculator. In fact, questions are designed to test students’ reasoning ability and their ingenuity in finding less obvious but simpler solutions to problems

Advice to Parents

The most important part of preparation for university and, by extension, preparation for the SAT, happens at school. Students need to develop their reasoning skills, both in language and mathematics. To do this they should take challenging courses at school; for example, they should try to avoid taking the easiest mathematics course available. They should work hard at their courses.
At home, parents should encourage their children to read widely – books, magazines, and newspapers – and to watch television (yes! but selected news shows, documentaries, etc.).  Through speaking and listening at the dinner table for example, parents can help enhance their children’s vocabulary and reasoning skills – discussing current events, their English literature course, and other school courses and other topics.
As far as the SAT itself is concerned, parents should not have their children take the SAT before they are adequately prepared, just to “see how they do”.  Neither should they simply do a series of practice tests. This could be counterproductive and just reinforce bad habits. Parents should rather first help them to find an appropriate preparation environment, for example, a qualified trainer to help them to check and consolidate their knowledge and skills in English language and mathematics, as well as to acquire appropriate test-taking techniques.
It is important not to wait until the last moment to begin serious preparation. One should plan on at least three months of hard work to prepare well for the SAT.
An educational maxim is that preparing for and writing tests is a vital part of the learning process. As the SAT is designed to test what students are supposed to have learned at school, preparing for and writing the SAT is an excellent way for students to complete their school careers. Studying hard at school improves SAT scores, and preparing well for the SAT can only improve school exam scores. It is win-win.
The most important parental role in the SAT preparation is one of support and encouragement – providing a calm and healthy environment for the students’ studies, nudging them (firmly maybe) towards good habits, and providing a trainer to guide them and help build up their confidence.


By Pamela Gerber and Dr Dennis Engel
Pamela and Dennis work together helping students with SAT training both in schools, and privately. Dennis specialises in Maths, with Pamela taking a specialist role in English. If you need any information about SAT training, you may contact Pamela or Dennis at:
Gerber Education and Communication – 022 779-4216 – 079 512-6636 – pgerber@bluewin.ch for more information about SAT training

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