Examining Your Mind: What the New SAT Tests

Reality isn't just material for television shows anymore. It takes a starring role in the rede­signed SAT. Nearly all the changes on the exam attempt to measure the skills you need to succeed in school and in the workplace. Gone are questions that fall into the “guessing game” category — sentence completions and recognition of grammar mistakes in random sentences, for instance. Questions on the new SAT tend to be longer and to rely more closely on the most common elements of the average school's curriculum.

That said, the SAT is still just a snapshot of your mental prowess (ability) on one weekend morning. College admissions offices are well aware of this fact. No matter how rigorous (tough, demanding) your high school is, other factors may influence your score, such as whether you deal easily with multiple-choice questions and how you feel physically and mentally on SAT day (fight with Mom? bad romance? week-old sushi?). Bottom line: Stop obsessing about the SAT's unfairness (and it is unfair) and prepare.The college admission essay is a great place to put your scores in perspective. If you face some special circumstances, such as a learning disability, a school that doesn't value academics, a family tragedy, and so on, you may want to explain your situation in an essay. No essay wipes out the bad impression created by an extremely low SAT score, but a good essay gives the college a way to interpret your achievement and to see you, the applicant, in more detail. For help with the college admission essay, check out College Admission Essays For Dummies by Geraldine Woods (published by Wiley).

The SAT doesn't test facts you studied in school; you don't need to know when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic or how to calculate the molecular weight of magnesium to answer an SAT question. Instead, the SAT takes aim at your ability to follow a logical sequence, to comprehend what you've read, and to write clearly in Standard English. The math portion checks whether you were paying attention or snoring when little details like algebra were taught. Check out the following sections for a bird's-eye view of the three SAT topics.


This portion of the exam used to be called Critical Reading, but for some reason the test­writers dropped half of the name. However, reading-comprehension passages still play a critical (vital, essential) role in your SAT score. Besides dropping sentence completions — statements with blanks and five possible ways to fill them — reading-comprehension ques­tions now ask you to choose among four, not five, possible answers. Here's what you see on the new SAT Reading section:

  • Quantity: A total of four single passages plus one set of paired passages, each from 500 to 750 words long, with each passage or pair accompanied by 10 to 11 questions, for a total of 52 questions.
  • Content: Two passages, or one passage and one pair, in science; one literary passage, either narrative fiction or nonfiction; and two passages, or one passage and one pair, in history/social studies. One of the history/social studies passages or pair deals with what the College Board calls the “Great Global Conversation” — a historical document, such as a presidential speech or a modern discussion of an issue relating to democracy and human rights.
  • Reading level: Some passages on the 9th and 10th grade level, some on the college­entry level (12th grade and beyond).
  • Graphics: Charts, tables, graphs, diagrams: one to two in science, and one to two in history/social studies.

Reading-comprehension questions are a mixture of literal (just the facts, ma'am) and interpretive/analytical. You'll be asked to choose the meaning of a word in context and to understand information presented graphically (though you don't need to know math to answer these questions). You may also have to assess the author's tone or point of view. At least two questions per passage or pair ask you to recognize supporting evidence for your answer. Take a look at this pair of questions.

Tim was frantic to learn that the first GC-MP8 handheld was already in circulation. And here he was wasting his time in college! The degree that he had pursued so doggedly for the past three years now seemed nothing more than a gigantic waste of time. The business world, that's where he belonged, marketing someone else's technology with just enough of a twist to allow him to patent “his” idea. Yes, Tim now knew what he must do: Spend time with YouTube until he found an inventor unlikely to sue Tim for intellectual property theft.

In this passage, the word his is in quotation marks

  1. because it's a pronoun
  2. because the reader is supposed to hiss at Tim, whom everyone hates
  3. to show that the idea is really someone else's
  4. because the typesetter had some extra quotation marks

The best evidence for the answer to the preceding question is

  1. “Tim was frantic . . . circulation.”
  2. “The degree . . . years now”
  3. “The business world . . . belonged”
  4. “marketing someone else's . . . twist”

Note: In the real exam, the lines will be numbered and the questions will include the line they're interested in.

The answer to the first question is Choice (C). These quotation marks refer to Tim's claim to “someone else's technology.” Although he isn't quoted directly, the quotation marks around his imply that Tim says that a particular invention is his, when in fact it isn't.

The answer to the second question is Choice (D). As you see in the explanation to the first question, these words reveal that the technology isn't Tim's invention and support the cor­rect answer, to show that the idea is really someone else's.


To the chagrin (disappointment or embarrassment) of English teachers everywhere, the new SAT Writing and Language section contains even less actual writing: one optional 50-minute essay analyzing the writing style of a passage you've never seen before plus 35 minutes' worth of short answers. Why so little writing? As those of us who sit with four-foot-high piles of essays on our laps know, it takes a long time to read student prose. The SAT test­makers must pay people to read and score essays — a much more expensive and time­consuming proposition than running a bubble sheet through a scanner. Here are the details.

The essay

The prompt, or question, never changes, but the passage does. You have to figure out the author's point of view, what he or she is arguing for or against. Then you must pick apart the passage, discussing how the author attempts to persuade the reader to accept this point of view. Finally, you get 50 minutes to write your own essay, describing what you've discovered. Your own ideas on the subject, by the way, are irrelevant (beside the point). The College Board doesn't care what you think; graders simply want to know whether you can identify the relationship between style and content in someone else's work.

Many standardized tests may now be taken on a computer. The College Board has begun to move toward a computer-based SAT, too, at the speed of an elderly turtle. As of this writing, the computer-based SAT will be available at only a few sites. The College Board promises that at some point it will be everywhere. When? Don't hold your breath! No date has been given, and the College Board has never been famous for its speed in technical innovation. Currently, only those who have been certified as dysgraphic (having a learning disability that affects handwriting) may type the essay. For everyone else, handwriting is your only option. Start practicing your penmanship.

Mlultiple-choice questions

You get four passages, each from 400 to 450 words long, accompanied by 11 questions per passage. The passages represent fairly good student writing, but they all have room for improvement in grammar, punctuation, organization, logic, and style. The multiple-choice questions address those areas. In terms of content, you see one passage in each of these areas: careers, history/social studies, humanities, and science. One or two passages will make an argument for a particular idea, one or two may be informative or explanatory, and one will be a narrative. At least one passage (and probably more) includes a graphic element — a chart, table, diagram or graph relating to the subject matter. One question checks that the passage accurately represents the information in the graphic element. The questions may focus on a single word (to check your vocabulary-in-context skill) or on the passage as a whole (to determine your ability to organize information).

Take a look at this example, which, on the real exam, would be part of a longer passage. Your job is to decide which answer best changes the underlined portion of the sentence.

Having been turned down by 15 major league baseball teams, Milton changed to basketball, and he succeeded in his goal where he was aiming to be a professional athlete.

  2. in that he reached his goal of aiming to be a professional athlete
  3. where he became a professional athlete
  4. in his goal of becoming a professional athlete

The answer is Choice (D), because that version conveys the information smoothly and cor­rectly. Did you notice that Choice (A) keeps the wording of the original passage? That's the design in most multiple-choice Writing and Language questions.


SAT math questions rely on Algebra II and some advanced topics in geometry, statistics, probability, and trigonometry. The new SAT Mathematics section contains one 55-minute section when you can use a calculator and one 25-minute section when you can't. Of the 57 questions, 45 are multiple-choice, in which you choose an answer from four possibilities, and 12 are grid-ins, in which you supply an answer and bubble in the actual number, not a multiple-choice letter. Whether calculator or no calculator, multiple-choice or grid-in answer, each question is worth the same except for one grid-in question called Extended Thinking, which carries four times the weight of the other math questions. Here's a sample multiple-choice problem:

If xy -12 = z, and the value of x is 2, which of the following must be true?

  1. z = xy
  2. y = 12 + z
  3. z = 2y-12
  4. 2y - z = 100

Substitute 2 for x, and see which answer most closely resembles 2y -12 = z. The correct answer is Choice (C).