SAT Prep – Overview

Preparing for the 2023 SAT

In 2023, the SAT will transition from a paper-and-pencil exam to a digital exam taken on a computer. While the scoring and the content of the test have not changed significantly since the 2016 overhaul, there are other important factors to be aware of, and we recommend students familiarize themselves with this latest version of the test prior to registering for it. In order to obtain the best score possible, students should only take the SAT after thorough preparation that covers SAT subject matter, SAT format, and test-taking strategies.

Notable changes to the 2023 SAT include the following:

  • Format of the exam: Starting in early 2023 for international students and later in the year for students in the United States, the SAT will be administered as a digital exam on a computer. Paper-and-pencil versions of the exam will no longer be offered except to those students with documented disabilities receiving approved accommodations.

  • Length of the exam: In 2023, the SAT will be reduced from a 3-hour exam to a 2-hour exam.

  • Calculator usage: Calculators will be allowed on the entire Math section. In previous versions of the exam, there was a “no calculator” section, but beginning in 2023, this section will no longer be part of the SAT.

  • Length of reading passages: Reading passages will be shorter.

  • Availability of scores: Scores will be available within days, as opposed to the weeks currently required to turn around score reports.

The SAT will continue to be scored on a 1600-point scale. There will be no essay and no SAT II Subject Tests. Students will still be required to take the SAT either at their high school or at a testing center. Specific deadlines and fees related to registering for the exam, canceling a registration, changing the testing center location, or canceling SAT scores will still be in effect, and students are encouraged to identify important deadlines through the College Board website based on when they will be taking the SAT. The SAT will continue to be offered seven times in 2023 and beyond (March, May, June, August, October, November, and December).

SAT Preparation Resources

A number of SAT preparation options are available, including books, online video instruction, practice tests, SAT prep classes, and private tutoring. The College Board has published an official 2022-2023 SAT study guide, and several private companies have released study guides of their own. The College Board has also partnered with Khan Academy in offering video-recorded online SAT instruction free of charge. Practice SAT tests can be acquired either inexpensively or at no cost, and these are crucial to the process of test preparation.

Many students enjoy learning in groups with their peers and some high schools offer group prep classes, although these are most frequently offered through private test prep companies. Other students, however, know they learn best when they are able to tailor their learning to their own unique academic strengths and weaknesses, and these students are likely to demonstrate greater gains by working one-on-one with an individual tutor, most often found through a private test prep company in their local area. Regardless of whether a student prepares with a group or a private tutor, taking the preparation process seriously is an important aspect of ultimately doing well on the SAT. Those students willing to devote time and effort to mastering test-taking strategies and improving their understanding of the types of questions they will encounter have a much better chance of obtaining a desired score than students who do little more than skim a study outline the night before the exam.

Increasing Competition in Testing and College Admissions

Though average SAT scores for all test-takers have risen and fallen over the past decade, most recently SAT scores rose in 2021 and then fell again in 2022. Beginning in 2020 with the onset of a worldwide pandemic, the majority of four-year colleges and universities made reporting SAT scores optional, given the challenges associated with taking the test during a global health catastrophe. According to the College Board, more than one million SAT registrations were cancelled between 2020 and 2021 due to disruptions such as mandated school and testing center closures, as well as reduced capacities of testing centers due to the need for social distancing. SAT testing was paused during March, May, and June 2020 and due to this, many colleges and universities stopped requiring SAT scores as part of a complete application, choosing to be test-optional rather than test-required.

It is important to examine the data from this particular time period, since many colleges and universities have pledged to remain test-optional into 2023, with some remaining test-optional until 2025. Even with colleges not requiring SAT scores, the vast majority of students applying between 2020 and 2022 still submitted SAT scores (taking the test once it was regularly offered again), and the SAT scores of those students admitted to the most selective universities were still far above average, suggesting that even when colleges are test-optional, SAT scores still matter.

Based on the most recently available data, the following are 2021 SAT score ranges for some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, with the first score representing the 25th percentile and the second score representing the 75th percentile:

  • Brown University: 1480-1560

  • Columbia University: 1510-1560

  • Cornell University: 1450-1540

  • Dartmouth College: 1440-1560

  • Harvard University: 1460-1580

  • Princeton University: 1450-1570

  • University of Pennsylvania: 1490-1560

  • Yale University: 1460-1580

The average middle 50% of SAT scores across the Ivy League universities fell in the range of 1468-1564 at a time when taking the SAT and reporting scores was not required. More than anything, this speaks to the continued importance of a student’s SAT score when applying to college in a post-pandemic world, and students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the average SAT scores obtained by incoming freshman at the colleges or universities they plan to apply to.

SAT Instruction and Supporting Data

Independent experts generally agree that SAT prep courses and private tutoring are the most effective available options when it comes to preparing for the SAT, primarily because they offer interaction with an experienced teacher. This viewpoint is supported by independent research. Some studies have shown average score gains of nearly 30 points per section for students who received professional SAT instruction, and these score gains can substantially improve a student's chances of acceptance to their preferred institutions. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 690 SAT Math score recently correlated to an acceptance rate of only 3%, but a 30-point increase to 720 more than doubled the chances of acceptance to 7%. A 30-point increase can also be the difference between a student's section scores falling in the lower half of score ranges and the upper half. At Columbia University, 49% of accepted students received SAT Math scores of 750 or below. An SAT Math score increase of 730 to 760, for example, would move a student into the upper range of admitted applicants.

Over the years, there has been great debate on whether or not preparation courses or SAT coaching can significantly improve scores. According to work by Derek Briggs at the University of Colorado and Ben Domingue at Stanford University, other factors that can affect SAT scores must be considered, including but not limited to student background, socioeconomic factors, and individual student aptitude and motivation. When researchers controlled for these factors, SAT coaching was still found to have a small but positive effect of approximately 10-20 points on the overall SAT score, with most gains being observed in the Math section.

A study in 2010 from Claudia Buchmann at The Ohio State University based on the National Education Longitudinal Study found larger score increases: those students who used books, videos, and computer software to prepare for the SAT increased their total score by 30 points, while those students who participated in private tutoring increased their total SAT score by 37 points.

In 2017, the College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer a free online SAT toolkit for students preparing to take the exam. The College Board reported that students who used this toolkit for 6-8 hours improved their total SAT score by 90 points, with those students who spent more than 20 hours using the toolkit increasing their total SAT score by 115 points. It should be noted that this study was not published in a scientific or peer-reviewed journal and is considered quasi-experimental, suggesting that while results are promising, more studies are needed, and students should not automatically expect to obtain the same results.

One thing that the vast majority of educational researchers do agree on is that even a small increase in SAT total or section scores (20-30 points) can make a real difference when applying to the most competitive colleges. Students should be aware of the average, upper, and lower SAT scores obtained by incoming freshman admitted to their college or university of choice, and as higher scores clearly make for a stronger application, it is important to consider all options when deciding how best to prepare for this exam. For some students, that might mean studying with a group led by an experienced instructor familiar with the SAT and test-taking strategies, while other students will experience the greatest gains through private tutoring guided by their individual academic strengths and weaknesses.

Professional SAT Instruction and College Readiness

The SAT Suite of Assessments College and Readiness Benchmarks are a way to help students and educators assess a student’s progress towards college readiness over time. According to the College Board, these benchmarks are useful for:

  • Identifying students who are thriving and in need of greater challenges

  • Identifying students who require additional academic support

  • Informing instructional and curricular enhancements at a given institution

Based on College Board specifications, students are considered college ready when their SAT section scores meet both the Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing benchmarks. The College Board is quick to note that college readiness is a continuum, and that even students who score below the SAT benchmarks may still be successful in college with additional preparation and perseverance. Students with an SAT Math section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75% chance of earning at least a "C" in first-semester, credit-granting college classes in algebra, statistics, precalculus, or calculus. Students with an SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75% chance of earning at least a "C" in first-semester, credit-granting college classes in history, literature, social sciences, or writing.

Scores that are considered to meet the College Board college readiness benchmarks are as follows:

  • Math: scores in the range of 530-800

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: scores in the range of 480-800

Choosing the Right SAT Prep

Students preparing for the 2023 SAT are faced with information overload when it comes to deciding which SAT prep resources are best for them. Many test prep companies make highly dubious promises of unrealistic average test score gains. Some of them will even "guarantee" these results. These "guarantees" should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism, as they usually involve course repetition at lower cost rather than any sort of refund. Reputable test prep companies are characterized by tutors and instructors with broad credentials as educators (beyond merely obtaining impressive SAT test scores), years of experience in the test prep industry, and plausible assertions of test-score results that account for the role of student effort in the learning process.

The primary goal of private SAT prep courses or individual tutoring is, obviously, higher test scores, but the development of broad academic skills that occurs as a result of SAT instruction will also reward students with better performance in their high school (and later college) coursework. Professional SAT instruction provides a coherent framework for learning that can be applied to almost any academic challenge. Whether students prefer to attend prep courses offered through their high school, learn in groups led by professional test prep instructors, or work one-on-one with a private tutor, the importance of dedication and mastering test-taking strategies cannot be overstated, and as with most academic endeavors, students tend to get out of SAT prep what they are able and willing to put into such an undertaking.

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