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Insights from the March SAT

Insights from the March SAT


Despite the availability of four official practice tests, the March administration of the digital SAT caught many students off guard with its unexpected differences. From the complexity of math questions to the vocabulary breadth and pacing challenges, the discrepancies between practice and reality became glaringly evident to test-takers.  As an experienced SAT tutor with over two decades of teaching experience, I was in a unique position to know the practice material well and to have follow up conversations with several students who took the March test. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll delve into the what we learned from the March SAT, shedding light on the disparities between practice and reality while offering valuable insights and strategies to help students navigate this challenging exam.


Format of the New SAT:

The digital SAT introduces a dynamic testing environment, with computer-adaptive features designed to modify the test based on the student’s skill level. Unlike its paper-and-pencil predecessor, the digital SAT comprises two main sections: Reading and Writing (RW) and Math, each divided into two modules.  The computer adaptive nature of the test comes into play after each Module 1, when either an easier or harder version of Module 2 is selected, depending on the student’s performance.  The SAT administered this past March was the first chance US students had to take the official test in this new digital format.


Math Got Harder:

One of the most notable discrepancies students encountered on the March SAT was the increased difficulty of math questions in the harder version of Module 2.  The official practice tests provided by the CollegeBoard failed to accurately reflect the level of complexity and depth of mathematical concepts tested by the digital SAT. Students were unprepared for the challenging nature of math questions, particularly in the second module, and especially on the topic of nonlinear functions with multiple unknown constants. Be ready for these questions by developing a deep understanding of the different ways to write the same quadratic function (standard form, vertex form, and factored form) and by understanding all the parts of an exponential equation (A=P(1+r)^t).  Students should also be ready for word problems that incorporate formulas from physics they may be unfamiliar with.

Handy Resource: Ultimate Formula Sheet


Pumped-Up Vocabulary:

Similarly, the vocabulary breadth tested on the March SAT surpassed the expectations set by the official practice tests. Words such as liminal, proselytizing, and undulation were likely to trip up my students. The discrepancy between practice and reality underscored the importance of developing a robust vocabulary through extensive reading and supplementary resources.

Free Practice: digital SAT quizlet


More Science, Less Poetry:

Additionally, the emphasis on science passages in the March SAT was even more pronounced than in the practice tests.  While traditional literature and poetry still make appearances on the SAT, science passages emerged as a dominant feature of the digital test. These passages delve into a wide array of scientific topics, ranging from biology to physics, and often include technical terminology and specialized language. To excel in this section, students are encouraged to immerse themselves in scientific literature and stay abreast of current scientific developments

Good place to get started:


Pacing Challenges in Module 2:

The discrepancies between practice and reality were further magnified by the pacing challenges encountered during the second module of both sections. On the digital SAT’s RW Module 1, you have 32 minutes to answer 27 questions, and most students find this is enough time to finish without rushing.  For Module 2, you also have 32 minutes to answer 27 questions, so you might imagine that if you had enough time to complete Module 1 comfortably, it will be the same for Module 2.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the way it worked on the March test.  If you did well enough on Module 1 to earn the hard version of Module 2, you encountered 27 questions that were more challenging and had a significantly higher word count.  So, each question took you longer.  This same pattern was repeated in the Math section.  What this means is that most students who earned the harder version of Module 2 were caught off guard by the need to work more quickly than they did on the the first Module.  Furthermore, this effect was much more pronounced on the March SAT than on the official practice material.


Strategic Pacing Strategies:

To address the pacing challenges in RW Module 2 effectively, I recommend skipping the questions in the middle that take the longest and saving them for the end.

  • Begin by answering the first 2-6 questions right away, which are the sentence completion questions. These have tricky vocabulary, but don’t usually take a lot of time.
  • Skip the next 10 or so questions, which are in the Information and Ideas domain. They will have a high word count and require significantly more time to read and analyze.  Make sure to “flag” each of these questions to make the easy to come back to later.
  • The remainder of the module includes questions in the categories of Standard English Conventions, Transitions, and Rhetorical Synthesis, all of which can be answered relatively quickly. Make sure to answer all of these questions before going back to tackle the questions you skipped in the middle.

In the Math Section, take the questions in order because they are generally organized from easiest to most difficult.  However, do not waste time triple checking questions you know how to do.  You should also not take the time to use demos as a double-checking strategy unless you’ve completed all the questions and have time left over. If you are working on the harder version of Module 2, there will be several “super hard” questions at the end of the Module that may take several minutes each.  Working quickly on the easier questions is the only way you’ll have enough time to get a top score.


Test Day Hiccups during the March SAT:

The saying “People plan, God laughs” is true for SATs just like all other carefully choreographed procedures.  While none of my students experienced problems while taking the March SAT that invalidated their scores, three did experience proctoring hiccups that probably brought them down a few points.

One student had wi-fi connectivity issues that prompted the proctors to interrupt her during the test and restart her computer, costing her at least 5 minutes of precious testing time.  Another student reported that most of the students in her room couldn’t get their test to load.  Those whose test did load on schedule had to work with the distraction of the proctors trying to fix the problem for all the other students.  It took about an hour for half of the students in attendance to get their tests started, and the other half had to go home and take the test another day.  A third student had everything go smoothly on test day but received an email about a week later from the CollegeBoard inviting him to cancel his test scores due to “issues during the test.”  The catch was he had to make the decision before he saw the scores.  I encouraged him not to cancel his scores, and we were glad he didn’t!

The takeaway for you is that you shouldn’t be surprised if things go a little sideways during your big test day.  Rather than overreacting and making the problem even worse, keep on working and doing your best.  The worst case scenario is that you’ll need to take the test again, but even in that situation, you came away with a great practice experience.  More likely, you’ll end  up with a strong score on at least one of the two sections, improving the “superscore” that most colleges use for their decision making.


Don’t Try to Predict Your Score:

The two weeks between taking the SAT and getting your scores can be rough.  The adaptive nature of the test means the harder it felt, the better you did, but only to an extent.  Plus, the test includes 8 unscored questions that the CollegeBoard uses to collect data for future test days.  If these questions tended toward the easier side of the spectrum, the test will feel easier than it really was, and vice versa.  So my advice for those two stressful weeks while you wait for your scores is to try not to think about it too much.  I know it’s easier said than done but remind yourself that the scores are very difficult to predict, and you just have to wait and see.


New Developments:

Shortly after the March SAT, the CollegeBaord released two brand new practice tests on their BlueBook app: Tests 5 and 6. These two new tests are definitely more reflective of the actual test than the first four, making them the most valuable prep materials available. Even with these two new tests, my most motivated students run out of official practice materials quickly, so make sure you use them to their fullest potential. Set aside 2 hours when you can work uninterrupted, practice your time management strategies, use the same handheld calculator you will have on test day, use the integrated desmos calculator strategically, and give yourself exactly two sheets of scratch paper. When you’re done with the test, scrutinize every question you missed, and try to learn something from each mistake. If you have one, make sure to share your results with your tutor, so they can select further practice for you based on what you need to work on the most.

Download this app: Bluebook


Recommendations based on the March SAT:

Drawing from the experiences of my students who took the March test, here are some actionable recommendations:

  • Prioritize mastering advanced mathematical concepts, especially nonlinear functions.
  • Pay attention to when Desmos makes you faster, and when it slows you down.
  • Continuously work on building your vocabulary. (This is my favorite recommendation because not only will it help your test score, it will give you more words to say and write for the rest of your life.)
  • Dedicate time to developing your scientific knowledge and reading comprehension skills to tackle the increased emphasis on science passages.
  • Practice strategic pacing strategies to effectively manage your time during the exam, focusing on adapting to the more challenging Module 2.
  • Download the BlueBook app, and start your practice with Tests 5 and 6.
  • Don’t be surprised if there are hiccups when you’re taking the real test, and just do the very best you can with the situation you’re in.



Although the SAT is no longer required by most colleges, many ambitious students find it’s a great way to make their applications stand out from the crowd. If this sounds like you, then attack this test with everything you’ve got. This includes using the best practice materials and following the advice of test prep professionals rather than something you heard in the high school cafeteria. It means learning everything you can about the format and content of the test. This includes how you can expect the official test to differ from the practice materials, and leveraging that information on test day to make strategic decisions. It means that even though these test taking strategies are important, understanding there is no substitute for building your skills in reading comprehension, vocabulary, and advanced math.

Practicing for the SAT until your score reaches its maximum potential is no easy task.  You should plan to spend about 65 hours actively studying. This includes taking and carefully reviewing practice tests, attending classes, and maybe even hiring a tutor. However, the enormous payout from all this effort makes it more than worthwhile. Not only can you boost your chances of getting into a competitive college, you will be building the exact skills that can make you more successful when you get there. You might even earn more scholarships, making  your future college significantly more affordable. So what are you waiting for? Time to hit the books and get to work making your dreams a reality.


Share Your Experience:

Have you recently taken the digital SAT? I’d love to hear about your insights and experiences. Feel free to share your thoughts with us at World Class Tutoring.

Photo Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash