SAT/ACT

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Our Expertise

Northwest Educational Services has worked hard to prepare for the SAT and the ACT. Our test prep coaches have all taken the time to master these two exams. We know the content deeply and teach it efficiently. We also emphasize strategy, coaching students on the most effective techniques for each section of the exam and each style of question.

Furthermore, we specialize in coaching students on how to learn. So, in addition to being experts on the SAT and the ACT, we are also experts on the neuroscience of learning and successful student psychology. We offer advice on everything from how to practice consistently to how to maximize brain health on the day of the exam.

Also, here’s Greg being interviewed on King 5’s New Day Northwest about how parents and students can deal with the stress of these exams. 

Testimonials

“Greg and the team at Northwest Educational Services helped our daughter raise her SAT scores from 1150 on the PSAT to 1450 the most recent time she took it. Her ACT performance took similar leaps. As important as the increased scores, Greg helped her reframe how she thinks about the tests themselves. She just took her final SAT today and came out saying she’s actually going to miss the test, has come to think of it as a game. We highly recommend Greg and his team for their practical advice, encouragement, and wise counsel.” -Anne T

“I just wanted to say thank you for all your help preparing for the SAT. My new score was over 200 points higher than last time! I’m really happy with it and couldn’t have done it without your help. Thanks so much.” -Lily

“I got my SAT score back and I did really well! I am very proud of my score and I know I couldn’t have done it without you so thank you again.” -Elaine

The New Digital SAT

The SAT is undergoing a massive change this year, so here’s a detailed run-down on what’s changing and who will be affected.

Who Will Be Affected?

Starting in 2024, digital will be the only option.*

*According to the College Board, some students who require special accommodations may qualify to take a pencil and paper SAT if that suits their needs. It is currently unclear whether that will be the old exam or some version of the new exam. If you qualify for this accommodation, make sure to find out, so you can prepare for the correct exam.

How Does the Digital SAT Work?

The digital SAT will be taken on a computer or tablet using the Bluebook app from the College Board. If you do not have a device, the College Board will provide one on test day, but you’re on your own to find a device to use for practice.

You’ll get your score much faster – in a few days rather than in a few weeks.

You will be provided with scratch paper, but you’ll need to bring your own pens/pencils.

The Bluebook app has a built-in elimination tool that allows you to cross out answers on multiple-choice questions. It’s not turned on by default, so make sure to turn that on immediately and just leave it on the whole time. Process of elimination will remain one of the primary strategies for doing well on the test.

Since you won’t have a test booklet to write in, you’ll be able to highlight and annotate questions/passages to help you in the moment and to help you if you revisit a question later. However, the annotation tool is not very easy to use, so becoming skilled with it will take some practice.

There is a “mark for review” button that lets you flag questions you’d like to come back to (if you have time). This will take the place of the current practice of circling questions you want to return to.

The Bluebook app has a built-in timer that shows you how much time you have left in each section, which will give you a five-minute warning before time runs out. If you find the timer distracting, you can hide it.

Where Will You Take the Digital SAT?

The exam will still be administered at a testing center or at your school. There will be someone (possibly multiple people) in the room to help students who experience technical difficulties during the test.

If you lose internet connection during the exam, you can keep going and finish as normal, but you’ll have a limited amount of time afterward to get back online and submit your test. If your computer dies or runs out of battery, you can reboot or plug it in and pick up right where you left off.

Students are expected to arrive with a fully charged device, but testing centers “may provide access to power for students if it can be done fairly and without disrupting other students” and “must provide students with extended time accommodations access to power though it does not need to be continuous.” (See Digital SAT Suite: Frequently Asked Questions for more details.)

What Else is Different?

Compared to the pencil-and-paper SAT, the test is shorter: about two hours instead of about three hours. You also have more time per question, so the pace of the exam doesn’t feel as rushed as the old SAT.

The old SAT has four sections: Reading Comprehension, Writing and Language, Math (No Calculator), and Math (Calculator Allowed). The new SAT still has two verbal sections, but reading comprehension is mixed in with writing and language, along with a few other question types (details below). It still has two math sections, but you get a calculator for both.

One of the biggest changes is that the digital SAT is going to use “adaptive testing.” You’ll take the two verbal sections back-to-back, and the difficulty of the second section will be based on how well you performed on the first section. Both sections will contain a mix of easy, medium, and hard questions, but if you do very well in the first section, your second section will have generally harder questions. Then, after a ten-minute break, you’ll repeat this process with the two math sections.

As is standard practice with adaptive testing, the questions are weighted based on difficulty: harder questions are worth more points than easier questions. This is a radical departure from the old SAT and most other standardized tests students are familiar with, where all questions have the same weight.

The old SAT used to include an experimental section, which was an extra, unscored section of the test. Basically, the College Board used test-takers as a captive audience to try out new question styles. The new SAT will instead have experimental questions sprinkled throughout the test as scored questions.

Is the Digital SAT Easier?

Yes. The digital SAT appears to be easier than the old SAT and easier than the ACT.

Not only do you get more time per question, the test is shorter overall, so less mental endurance is required.

And perhaps more importantly, the questions are generally easier. There is a mix of easy, medium, and hard questions, but on the whole, it feels less difficult.

There are some specific reasons why each section is easier than its counterpart on the old SAT, which will be covered below.

What’s the Same?

The new digital SAT still tests math, reading, and writing, and there is still no essay. The content areas covered in the math and verbal sections are very similar to the old SAT. The exam still claims to be a test of “college readiness.”

It is still scored out of 1600 (400-1600), and the score is broken into two separate scores out of 800 (math and verbal).

Academic accommodations will still be available, and the process for requesting and qualifying for them will be unchanged. If you’re practicing with the Bluebook app, you can tell it what accommodations you have and it will adjust accordingly.

Now let’s take a closer look at what the questions are like on the new SAT.

The Digital SAT Verbal Sections

In the verbal sections, you’ll be tested on the following things:

  •         Vocabulary (presented as fill-in-the-blank sentence-completion questions)
  •         Reading Comprehension (questions that require understanding the author’s purpose, the structure of their writing, and the logic of their statements)
  •         Reading Charts and Graphs (questions that test your ability to analyze various presentations of data)
  •         Punctuation and Grammar (using the correct form of a word; structuring a sentence correctly; using commas, semicolons, etc.)
  •         Logical Transitions (correctly using words and phrases like however, in addition, therefore, and for example)
  •         Summarizing Notes (summarizing a student’s bullet-point notes into a sentence)

These question styles are not randomized throughout the section. Instead, they are clustered, so you’ll get a handful of vocabulary questions, followed by a handful of reading comprehension questions, and so on.

The instructions for each question type are consistent, so you should become familiar with the instructions. With practice, you’ll know at a glance what your task is for each question. Most students will want to preview each question before reading the associated passage. Some questions will have key words or phrases that you’ll want to highlight with the annotation tool.

For all of the verbal questions, the reading passages are shorter – just one or two paragraphs (usually one). And each reading is associated with just one question. This is a huge change that makes the test much easier. On both the old SAT and the current ACT, you have to answer ten or more questions for each reading passage, and the passages are about a page long. Comprehending a page-long article or short story and holding that in your head as you answer questions is far more difficult than what the digital SAT asks you to do.

The Digital SAT Math Sections

The math sections still focus on topics from Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2, but overall it is less rigorous. The exam’s favorite topics are still linear equations, systems of equations, and quadratics, but the questions don’t go as deep into these topics as they do on the old SAT.

Word problems are shorter on the digital SAT, which is a change the College Board implemented to reduce a barrier faced by ESL/ELL students. The many paragraph-long word problems of the old SAT were notorious for confusing students, so this is another way the new SAT is easier.

You get a calculator the whole time, either your own College-Board-approved calculator or the built-in graphing calculator provided with the test (Desmos). Students will want to become adept at Desmos in order to be faster with it. Students may want to use a mix of Desmos and a hand-held calculator on the test because Desmos is largely easier for graphing, while a hand-held calculator is faster for computation.

The Desmos graphing calculator makes solving certain problems far, far easier. On a graphing calculator, you have to transform all functions into y= whatever, but with Desmos, you don’t. So you can enter something like 4x-7=2y+3 and it will just graph it for you. This is a huge time saver. Many questions on the test can be solved using the graphing calculator tool, and you don’t have to do any algebraic manipulation first.

On the old SAT, difficulty increased as you went through a section, but now difficulty within a section is randomized, though the second section’s average difficulty is based on your performance in the first section.

There are still student-generated responses (non-multiple-choice questions) but they are now sprinkled throughout the math sections rather than lumped at the end.  Negative answers are now possible for this question style.

You are still provided with a math reference sheet with common geometry formulas, but it is now easier to access since it’s always just a click away. The old SAT provides this at the start of each math section, so you have to flip back and forth to use it.

How Do I Prepare for the Digital SAT?

Anyone with a College Board account (free) can download the Bluebook app and take four full-length, timed practice tests. It is designed for you to do an entire practice test in one sitting with a 10-minute break halfway through, but you can actually pause whenever you want and resume later. So you can use this tool for small doses of daily practice BUT you won’t be able to check your answers until the end. So for daily practice, you’ll likely want something else.

The College Board has created an Official Digital SAT Prep Book, which will have a pencil-and-paper version of four practice tests. It’s unclear whether or not those will be different from the exams currently available through the Bluebook app, but we can be sure that the paper version won’t be adaptive.

Other test-prep companies like Princeton Review and Barron’s have created their own digital SAT prep books. As always, start with the official materials and switch to these alternatives after you’ve run out of tests made by the College Board. Some test-prep companies, such as TestInnovators, are also offering online, adaptive practice tests that you can buy access to. This might prove to be good for practicing with the digital style of the new SAT, but these tools are all very new, and we don’t have enough experience with them to recommend any particular brand.

Khan Academy doesn’t have full-length practice tests for the digital SAT, but it does have information about each question type and practice questions. This might become more well-developed over time as Khan is working directly with the College Board. And, as always, Khan is completely free.

Lastly, we’re happy to support you with preparing for the digital SAT. Test-taking strategies are still highly applicable, so learning these with a test-prep coach is a good move if you’re serious about getting the best score you can. Email greg@nwtutoring.com today to schedule digital SAT tutoring.       

What’s on the ACT?

For full information and registration, please visit the official ACT website.

Section-By-Section Breakdown

  • English:
    • This section tests grammar, punctuation, contextual clarity, and style using reading passages.
    • There are no charts and graphs.
  • Math:
    • There is one math section with 60 questions, all multiple-choice.
    • A graphing calculator is allowed throughout.
    • The content covers Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and a bit of Pre-Calculus.
    • No formulas are provided.
  • Reading:
    • This section consists of four readings with comprehension questions.
    • One of the readings will be a set of two passages that includes compare/contrast questions.
    • There are no charts and graphs.
    • The subject matter of the four readings will be prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science, and they will be drawn from a range of time periods.
  • Science:
    • This section is a test of science reading, not science knowledge.
    • Students will be expected to comprehend a series of descriptions that are usually accompanied by diagrams, charts, and graphs.
  • Essay (optional):
    • The ACT essay addresses a current educational, political, scientific, or philosophical topic, and offers three perspectives on the topic.
    • Students are asked to simultaneously analyze the given perspectives while offering their own opinions, defending their ideas with logic and evidence, and connecting their point of view to the three that are provided.
    • It is a large task to accomplish in 40 minutes, and no student should walk into the exam without having practiced outlining several prompts and developing a strategy.
    • Our students have not suffered the frustration described here.
    • The essay is optional, but we highly recommend signing up for it.
    • An example of a prompt can be viewed and downloaded here.

Which Book To Get

We recommend the official ACT Prep Guide

Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

Students often wonder whether they should take the SAT or the ACT. Our answer is simple: take both. The two exams have enough differences that most students will score higher on one than the other. Which exam will prove better for any given student is difficult to predict. The best way to find out is to simply take both (which could be done via self-timed practice exams). Students might then choose to retake just one of the exams and focus their preparation accordingly.

With all of the changes brought by the digital SAT, these two exams are more different than ever. While the ACT is going to start offering a digital version of their test, they’re not changing anything else, and pencil-and-paper will still be the primary option. The ACT still has long passages for both the Writing & Language section and the Reading Comprehension section. It has a Science section. It has an optional essay. The questions are, on average, more difficult than the new SAT’s questions. And there are far more questions overall and far less time per question.

Since the digital SAT is quite a bit easier than the ACT, it will be a better fit for some students. However, we don’t know how colleges are going to view the new SAT. In the past, very few schools had a preference for one test over the other, but as the SAT is now easier than the ACT, some schools might decide they prefer the ACT. Also, keep in mind that, coming out of COVID, many schools have become test-blind (they don’t look at SAT or ACT scores) or test-optional (they don’t require a test but will look at your scores). As always, the best way to find out what a school wants is to reach out to the admissions office to ask.

If the schools you’re applying for don’t have a preference, we still recommend taking both exams and seeing which one goes better. The scores aren’t numerically comparable, but the percentiles are. And don’t let how the exam feels determine which one is better. The ACT might feel harder, but if your score is a much higher percentile than on the SAT, you’re better (relative to your peers) at the ACT.

Timing and Retakes

Ideally, a student will take both exams during the spring of Junior year. After getting their scores back, the student can then decide whether or not to retake the exams. Depending on the school being applied to, these exams can be taken through the winter of Senior year. Most schools will want results by December of Senior year.

Many students discover that they are stronger with the ACT than the SAT, or vice-versa, so they decide to just focus on their stronger exam for the retake. For example, a student who scored 1300 on the SAT and 24 on the ACT will probably choose to focus on the SAT for a retake because a 1300 corresponds to a higher percentile than a 24.

The summer between Junior and Senior year is an excellent time to prep for a retake of either exam. We recommend one-on-one coaching here at Northwest Educational Services, normally done once or twice per week, supplemented by regular home practice.

We recommend signing up early for any test you’re taking, well before the deadline. If you wait until the last minute, you might wind up driving to Olympia at 6am the morning of your exam. 

How We Do Standardized Test Prep:

At Northwest Educational Services, nearly all of our test prep is one-to-one coaching. Occasionally, we offer test prep to small groups upon request. This works best when the students are at approximately the same level of ability and engagement.

There are three main areas we focus on with students: content, strategies, and practice.

Content

Both the ACT and SAT test students on academic content, such as grammar, vocabulary, arithmetic, and algebra. As much as we’d like to, we cannot teach three years’ worth of math content in a handful of test prep sessions and have it stick. That said, we do our best to fill in the gaps in students’ knowledge whenever we find them, and we provide lots of resources for students to independently address content gaps when they are away from the office.  

Strategies

We teach students how to use the knowledge they have effectively. This is the primary focus of our test prep. We begin by coaching the basic, essential strategies that every test-taker ought to know, and we build from there, adding complexity and depth to the techniques as appropriate, based on the individual student and the time provided for practice prior to the exam date.

Practice

To remember the content we teach and to become proficient at the strategies we coach, students should engage in regular, small doses of practice at home. We advise 5-25 minutes per day, every day. This method taps into the power of spaced repetition, which greatly improves retention and skills.

Full-Length Practice Exams

We encourage students to take at least one full-length practice exam as part of their preparation.

We offer in-office practice tests, in a private room, timed like a standard exam. These are typically done on a Saturday morning or a weekday morning during the summer. There is no charge for the test, and you can take it home and grade it yourself, or we will grade it for you and charge one session’s fee for the time it takes to grade it. Either way, we will follow up with students on the results and help them make a plan for continued growth. (Note: If you’re taking a practice digital SAT using the Bluebook app, it will be automatically graded for you.)