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Best Tips & Strategies for the Adaptive SAT Testing

Best Tips & Strategies for the Adaptive SAT Testing

The adaptive SAT is part of the newly updated digital-only SAT. It is composed of two math modules and 2 combined reading and writing modules and is shorter than the former paper version.

Lisa Speransky
Lisa Speransky
Test Prep
Pre-Test Checklist
College Admissions
Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

The 2020s landscape of college admissions feels more competitive than past decades. The reality, however, is that admissions have only become more competitive in about twenty percent of schools. As more schools havemade standardized test scores optional, significantly more students have applied to colleges and universities that would otherwise have been a “reach school” for them. And while the standardized testing landscape is constantly changing, strong SAT and ACT scores remain a solid way that students can differentiate themselves from the applicant pack.

What is the SAT Adaptive Test?

The adaptive SAT is part of the newly updated digital-only SAT. The College Board, which administers the SAT, began rolling out its digital test in 2021; however as of March 9, 2024, the digital version is now the only version available.

The digital version is significantly shorter than the written version, taking 2 hours and 14 minutes (compared to 3+ hours in the past). It is composed of two math modules and 2 combined reading and writing modules. This new SAT adaptive test offers different second modules to students based on their performance in each of the first subject modules, meaning your second math section may be harder or easier than the module of the person next to you based on your personal performance on the first math section. Same for reading+writing.

Pros and Cons of Adaptive Testing

The adaptive SAT has several pros, or advantages, over its paper forebear:

  • Shorter length: Perhaps the biggest pro of the adaptive SAT is its length: it is significantly shorter than its paper counterpart, especially for students who took the optional essay section. The adaptive SAT is 2 hours and 14 minutes long compared to 3 hours and 50 minutes for the “original” SAT.
  • Less reading: English passages are shorter (one paragraph per question) and math questions have less text.
  • More time per question: The adaptive test averages 90 seconds per question, compared to less than a minute in the non-adaptive version. A huge bonus for those students whose biggest struggle is time management!
  • Tests more applicable skills: The previous version of the SAT was criticized for not being as predictive of college readiness as other standardized tests. The adaptive version has made changes that better test student skills that are more predictive of success.

There are two main cons to the adaptive SAT:

  • Test taker anxiety: If a student is overly concerned with predicting whether they got the easier or harder module for their second section of the test this could impact their performance and focus.
  • Flexibility: Many adaptive tests limit a student’s ability to go back and correct or change an answer on a previous question and often requires students to complete questions in stages, which could be a disadvantage for some test takers. Currently this is not true for the adaptive SAT which allows students to move in and out of sections within a module as they choose.

What Type of Adapting Testing is Digital SAT?

The digital SAT uses section adaptive testing. This means that digital SAT delivers complete modules to students, with the second module being decided by a test taker’s performance on the first module.

Here’s an easy chart to understand how it works:

SAT SectionModule 1Module 2
English (Reading + Writing)Students will receive a wide variety of questions considered easy, medium, and hard. Students will receive a targeted mix of questions whose difficulty will vary depending on their performance in module one.
MathStudents will receive a wide variety of questions considered easy, medium, and hard. Students will receive a targeted mix of questions whose difficulty will vary depending on their performance in module one.

How does SAT Adaptive Testing Affect Scoring?

The adaptive nature of the SAT is what allows it to test the same student abilities as the original test, but in a shorter time frame. How you do in the first module of each subject (math or reading + writing) affects the second module you are given for each subject, which ultimately affects your maximum score.

How does SAT Adaptive Testing Affect SAT Test Prep?

Test prep for the adaptive test is both the same and different: students will need to practice and prepare for the new format and ensure they are not practicing with paper tests as familiarity with the testing environment will be key. Students should also mentally prepare for the second module to be harder than the first and have plenty of anxiety management strategies in their pocket to be able to move through the test effectively.

That being said, material knowledge will not dramatically change. Students will still need to have a wide vocabulary knowledge, the ability to draw inferences from short passages, and strong algebra skills to do well on the test.

10 Tips for the Adaptive SAT Testing

  1. Do not overthink the adaptive test: the ultimate goal is still to answer as many questions correctly as possible
  2. Pace yourself: there is over a minute per question, so move on if something is taking too long and come back to it.
  3. Do not try to game the system: It’s in your best interest to answer all the questions. Do not try to “fix it” so that you get all easy or all hard questions in the second module. Trying to do so could dramatically impact your ability to get a high score.
  4. Use platform apps: The SAT platform has been well designed for optimal test taking and includes features such as flagging (for questions you want to come back to), annotation (for making notes to yourself), and clock (for keeping track of how quickly you are progressing). Making good use of these will help you test well.

    For Math
  5. Algebra is key: Interpreting graphs, linear equations, and exponential functions are common topics. Less common are geography questions.
  6. Start early: Math is a skill. The more familiarity and exposure you give yourself, the easier it is to learn new concepts. And if you're someone who struggles with math, start off with algebra. It's a key fundamental concept, but it'll help build up and make it feel easier to learn the new concepts.

    For English (Reading + Writing)
  7. Improve your Vocabulary: Read as much as you can from a variety of sources (literary fiction, science publications, historical sources, etc) and consider doing so on an e-reader which gives you the ability to easily look up the meaning of unfamiliar words as you’re reading.
  8. Skip hard questions in the middle: The adaptive SAT currently has a fixed order for type of questions with the most time consuming/challenging questions in the middle section. We recommend leaving this section for last so that students can answer the most possible questions correctly during the time period.
  9. Do “Rhetorical Synthesis” questions first: This is technically the last “chunk” of questions in the module, but we recommend starting with it as it is the easiest section for most students.
  10. Read questions before reading the paragraph: If time allows, a great strategy for the critical thinking and inferences section (the middle section) is to read the questions first, then go read the paragraph they relate to. This will help you read for the right information.

The new digital-only, adaptive SAT offers many advantages to students over its paper counterpart. But it is still a high stakes test for many students and additional SAT prep can go a long way in seeing the scores you desire. If you’re nervous about the test, need subject specific support, or just want to ensure you’re as prepared as possible, reach out to Ivy Tutors Network and get matched with a highly qualified tutor.


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