Students Strategize Ahead of SAT Changes

As they look for a college admissions edge, soon-to-be high school juniors face a unique dilemma: Should they take the old SAT (search) in the fall, or wait for the new version, with a timed essay, in the spring of 2005?

It's a question that applies mainly to the high school of class of 2006, whose leap into the college admissions fray coincides with the transition to the new SAT. For some students, it's adding an extra dose of stress and strategizing to an already complex process.

And it isn't helping that the two major test prep companies are split on whether taking the old SAT next fall is a good idea.

"It's just raised the fear level tremendously," said Patrick Smith, director of communications and customer services for undergraduate admissions in the Penn State University (search) system.

Why bother to take the old test when most colleges are focused on the new one?

Some students think they might do better on the old version, which 1.4 million students took at least once last year. The new test replaces quantitative comparisons and verbal analogies (the old "clay is to potter as stone is to sculptor" questions) with more reading comprehension and advanced math, as well as the essay.

Some colleges, like those in the University of California (search) system, say they will look only at scores from the new SAT (or the ACT, which also has a new, optional writing component).

But others are handling the transition year differently. More than 80 percent of schools that responded to a recent survey by test-prep company Kaplan Inc. indicated they would consider, in varying ways, verbal and math scores from either test.

Duke, for instance, will require the new SAT or ACT so it can evaluate essay-writing. But if a student's highest scores on either the verbal or math portions came on the old test, they will count. Penn Sate would do the same, though it looks only at the highest combined score from a single sitting of the test.

"It's an enormously confusing and nuanced situation," said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admission at Boston College, which will also count scores from the old test if they prove highest. "I don't think, in many cases, colleges understand their new policies."

Christina Ng, a sophomore at Franklin High School about 25 miles southwest of Boston, plans to take the old test this fall. She hopes she'll do well enough to avoid having to take the new test at all. Several friends, she said, are doing the same — though that may prove tough, with the College Board reporting at least 280 school will require some kind of standardized writing test.

"It's difficult for people my age, because we've actually gone through a lot of changes with testing," she said. Hers was the first fourth grade class required to take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Exam. "It's kind of like, why is it always us?"

The College Board (search), which owns the SAT, is urging next year's juniors to contact each school they're considering and inquire about its policy, then decide whether taking the old test makes sense.

Kaplan, however, is advising '06ers to take the old one before taking the new one. This summer, it starts a "3-in-1" class to prepare students for the Preliminary SAT, the test students have traditionally taken junior fall, plus the old and new SATs. The class runs longer and will cost $100 more.

"Most students will find the current version of the test to be a little bit easier," said Jason Herel, director of SAT and ACT programs for Kaplan. "The test most perceive as easier is still around, most colleges still accept it, so there's no reason for them not to take it."

But Andy Lutz, vice president of research and development at rival Princeton Review, calls taking the old test a waste, since most colleges will demand a score from at least the writing portion of the new one.

Students "certainly have an option to torture themselves with three tests as opposed to one, but I hope they won't do that," said Lutz.

Another reason to wait: Princeton Review thinks the new test is more "coachable." The company is so confident, in fact, that it is promising to work with students until they add 200 points to their score — double the old guarantee.

Anya Powell, a counselor at Edina High School in suburban Minneapolis, is advising students not to worry about all the fuss and to stick to the traditional timing of simply taking the SATs in junior spring.

Still, she acknowledges that for some who are interested in a college that will consider the old and new versions of the SAT, it might make sense to take both.

"It seems like every year there's heightened strategy," Powell said. "I think this certainly feeds into that."