The Changing Landscape of the SAT

Posted by Katherine H. on 7/11/18 4:45 PM

SAT prep

This week, our SAT prep tutor Katherine writes on her opinions of the changing landscape of the SAT. 

In the past week, I have been forwarded articles regarding the University of Chicago’s decision to no longer require standardized test scores for admission. The accompanying messages ranged from “Have you seen this? Thoughts?!” to “What are YOU going to do?” I am an SAT prep tutor. My bookshelves are lined with every SAT prep book you can imagine, some dog-eared and filled with my own marginal notes: read the questions trickery AGAIN! I have worked with dozens of students on the SAT and more on the ACT. I’ve built a career that at least on the surface focuses on demystifying multiple choice questions for sixteen-year-olds who are sure that they’ll never see anything like this again. What’s the point? University of Chicago agrees with them. However, from my perspective as a tutor, the student’s score on the ACT/SAT —the number that colleges will see— has only ever been the short game; the long game is teaching students how to find patterns and manage time, skills that will put them at a huge advantage once they're in college.

The ACT and SAT: do they predict college success?

The SAT and ACT have not, as numerous studies have shown, been good predictors for performance in college. They are not particularly in line with the types of knowledge students are being taught in high school. Numerous studies show the effects of social and economic status on standardized test scores. As a result, many schools are seeking other methods of assessing the student as a candidate for the university.

Yes, I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this coming and I am so excited for the opportunity it presents for students to represent themselves and their abilities better. I am happy that universities want to remove unfair barriers to students who belong in their halls but who struggle with tests designed to trick and confuse them, slow them down, and second-guess their critical thinking skills. I want each and every one of my students to achieve the success they’re capable of without unnecessary barriers.

As for what I’m going to do about it, I am going to continue to do what I have done in the past eight years. I am going to work with students on honing their skills and confidence. You see, I have never seen the SAT score as the ultimate goal. My students have goals that involve acceptances to college, and they conflate that goal with some often-arbitrary score on a standardized test. Rather than buy into that, I have worked hard to convince my students to see the SAT as an opportunity.

Refining your scheduling and study skills

The SAT is an opportunity to refine their scheduling and study skills. In high school, students are rarely given such clear opportunities for self-paced and individual work. Even long projects have ample in-school time scheduled for them. In contrast to their in school work, I focus on building the expectation of autonomy and independence with my students. I teach my students to make a timeline, complete work neatly, and stay organized.

SAT prep is largely a test of pattern recognition. Students who do not study often just don’t have enough data yet to pick out the patterns. When I work with a student, we call back to past questions, compiling a reservoir of examples for each pattern. Especially in math, pattern recognition builds skills and confidence. After three months of SAT prep, my students tell me they see improvement in their academic classes too. Applying pattern recognition and confidence builds my students’ trust in their own abilities. I give my students the opportunity to actually see their progress.

I challenge my students to see their brain as a muscle and to value consistent and steady improvement rather than quick fixes and big jumps. Athletes and musicians do not become talented overnight, and neither do SAT students. They practice; they devote time. They learn to trust themselves and their instincts.

The SAT itself is not what teaches these skills; I do. Many educators strive to provide their students with trust and confidence, and I have the privilege and responsibility to do that in an individualized environment that is managed by my student. The SAT is the work that we focus on now, but as the college process changes and more schools adopt UChicago’s decision, students will not lose the need for these intangible skills.

What does the University of Chicago’s decision mean? Right now, it means students have the opportunity to submit application materials to a school without standardized test scores. However, many schools still require those tests, and it is likely that most high school student will still need to take a test for at least some of their applications. UChicago’s decision also signals that there is there is exciting change on the horizon. I, for one, am excited about the next frontier. My love for teaching has certainly never been conflated with a love of the SAT. I do have a profound respect for the test’s usefulness in teaching a set of skills to sixteen-year-olds. But ultimately the SAT isn’t intended to measure confidence, trust, commitment, or independence, and those are the skills I believe my students most need.


Katherine graduated from Columbia in 2013 where she received her B.A. in Psychology with a special concentration in Linguistics. There she combined her love of language with attention to philosophic inquiry and data-driven research. In addition to her studies, Katherine dedicated much of her time to teaching. She worked as a T.A. in the Psychology Department and volunteered with Brainiacs, a program that brought extracurricular science courses to public schools. Katherine is currently completing an M.A. in Linguistics at The Graduate Center at CUNY where she works on computational models of language acquisition. She is also a adjunct lecturer in Computer Science at Hunter College. 

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Want to read more on SAT prep?

Plugging in Numbers: The Top Strategy for the Math Section of the SAT and ACT

How to Ace the SAT Math Section

What I Learned When I Retook the ACT and SAT

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