What's the Difference Between the Old SAT and New SAT? 5 Major Changes on the Reading Section

Posted by James Z. on 12/5/16 9:09 PM

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What does the reading section look like on the new SAT? In short, it’s a lot more predictable and straightforward than its predecessor, but there are some changes that could prove tricky. Let’s look at these changes in detail.

1. Passage Style and Content

First, passage style and content: although on the old SAT, you were never really sure about the content of the passages you were going to read, you now know that on the new SAT, you will find five passages with predictable content: one passage about US and world literature, two passages about history and social studies, and two passages about science (usually with graphs or other visuals you might need to interpret). This might sound like a lot of content, but don’t worry! Everything you need to answer the questions comes directly from the passage. In addition, since you will know the broad themes, styles, and approaches of each type of passage ahead of time (through your diligent preparation, of course!), you will know the kinds of questions you can anticipate for each passage. More on this below.

2. How You Use Vocabulary

The second major change relates to how you will use vocabulary knowledge on the test.  On the new SAT, there are no sentence completion questions. This means that you won’t be expected to know the meanings of lots of obscure words—but it doesn’t mean that vocabulary isn’t important on the new SAT. Since the test writers wanted the changes to create a test that is more relevant for college preparation and a future working life, they are more concerned that, instead of knowing the definitions of less frequent words, you know the different shades of meaning of more common words. Vocabulary questions now focus on the meaning of words “in context,” meaning that a question will ask you to choose a word that most closely shares the meaning of a word in a specific sentence. The best way to prepare for these in context vocabulary questions is to read: read books that are assigned in school, read articles from magazines like Science News, and from newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

3. The New Science Passages

The third major change is the new science passages. Although on the old SAT, you had passages focusing on literature, history, politics, and social science, the new SAT includes passages on these topics as well as those dealing with scientific findings and phenomena. These passages often first describe a research question or make an observation about natural phenomena, and then describe the experimental process carried out to investigate the answers and explanations for these questions and observations. With these science passages, it’s important to remember: don’t be intimidated! Though the content and style are different, these passages work just like their humanities and social science counterparts: read them while making short notes about themes and arguments. This also applies to the graphic associated with the passage: take note of the title, the labels, and the scale on the graph. What is the point of the graph? What information does the graph show, and what argument is it making? Making a few notes next to the graph, or even just underlining key words in the title and the labels, can help you more efficiently find the answers you’re looking for when you finish reading the passage and start working through the questions.

4. A Shift of Focus to Evidence

What do all these changes have in common? Evidence, evidence, evidence. All of them are designed to foster the skill of searching for evidence in the passage. In truth, this is no different from the way you were expected to answer questions and look for evidence in the passage on the old SAT: but this skill is emphasized even more strongly on the new SAT. In short, always make sure you can back up your selected answer by finding specific places in the passage that support it. Being able to point to specific sentences and line numbers (instead of big sections of text, or whole paragraphs) will help you ensure that you are using the most specific evidence to help you get to the best answer.

5. How You Prepare

The fifth major change involves you: the four changes mentioned above will affect how you prepare for the reading section. As described above, you’ll want to focus less on stacks of vocabulary flashcards, and more on reading as much as you possibly can from the kinds of materials that are similar to what you’ll see on the test. Of course, you should devote adequate time to working with SAT prep materials, but you should also use your free time to read actively. Active reading means that, at the end of a page, a chapter, or an article, you ask yourself the following questions: What is the main theme of this text? What is the author’s position on this theme?  How do I know that this is the author’s position? Are there any words that I don’t know or understand?  (If the answer to this last question is yes, look up those words!).

If you make preparing the right way a priority by reading challenging material and developing good active reading habits, then your efforts will continue to reward you long after the test.

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