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New-look SAT gets students worked up

March 18, 2005
Salt Lake Tribune

Time crunch: Some Utah high schoolers get a bit flustered by the inaugural essay version of the test

The new SAT lasts four hours, but for some Utah students, that still wasn't long enough to ...Exactly. They couldn't complete their thoughts Saturday as the 25-minute clock expired on the test's inaugural essay section. Chris Adamson even went in with a plan. The 17-year-old West High School junior gave himself five minutes to gather his thoughts and prepare an outline on the essay topic - creativity - and 20 minutes to write. "It was enough time to develop a one-sided argument, but not enough time to go into depth," he said. "I ran out of time and didn't get a conclusion done. I was like, 'Oh, crap. Well, too bad.' " Other students stumbled on the critical-reading section, which, they said, seemed to have several correct answers. Math and writing join critical reading as the three sections that comprise the new SAT. Each section is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 for a maximum score of 2,400, up from the previous maximum of 1,600.

Adamson and a handful of the other 200 or so area students who braved the first administration of the exam have a few words of advice for future test-takers:

First of all, chill," said Daniel Choi, a junior at Skyline High School. "I was really freaking out the night before, and that didn't help."

Watch the clock. "A lot of kids weren't done when the time was up, so it's good to watch the time, make sure you say what you need to say and wrap it up," said Brooke Barker, a 17-year-old junior at East High School.

Be prepared for a long, long day. You get two brief bathroom breaks and one or two "stretch" breaks. "I can't even articulate how long it felt," said Dory Trimble, a junior at West. "By the third section, I wanted to fall over and die."

Bring plenty of sharpened pencils. "I only brought two, and they ran dull, which was a serious problem," Trimble said.

Get a good night's sleep - it will help with your test-taking endurance. "I went to bed really early the night before, and it was still hard to concentrate during the test," Barker said.

Get familiar with the test's structure and time limits by joining a study group or reading an SAT-prep book. "I found that really helpful in building my confidence," Choi said.

Booming business: This is where the test-preparation industry has cashed in.

When the SAT was last revised in 1994, Kaplan Test Prep and Admission's SAT-preparation business jumped by 20 percent, said Jennifer Karan, the national director of the company's SAT and ACT programs."This time we are well north of that," she said. Last year was a "record-breaking year for our company." Choi enrolled in one of Kaplan's courses leading up to Saturday's exam and found that the test-taking strategies and practice tests gave him an edge by eliminating the element of surprise come game time. "The course enhances the skills you have, but to acquire more skills, you have to go into a cave, chant or do whatever else it takes," said Choi, who is eyeing a double major in chemistry and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania or the University of California, Berkeley.Utah Kim signed up for Kaplan's current 12-week SAT-prep class even though she is only a sophomore. The 16-year-old Judge Memorial student was born in Utah but raised in Korea until her freshman year in high school.She speaks Korean at home, and even though she speaks English fluently, she worries about her reading and writing fluency on the test itself.I'm not that confident in my vocabulary," she said. "I'm taking the class so I don't freak out" on test day. She, too, has lofty college ambitions: a double major in Chinese and communications, possibly at Berkeley.

The Utah scene: Far more Utah students take the ACT entrance exam because that is what colleges and universities in the Beehive State and Intermountain West favor.

Last year, nearly 20,900 Utah students took the ACT, compared with 2,400 SAT test-takers.This year, ACT introduced an optional writing section that students can take for an extra $15, depending on their prospective colleges' admission requirements. Utah's SAT test-takers tend to pursue Ivy League and other upper-echelon schools out of state. In Utah, colleges aren't biting, leading many high school counselors to discourage students from taking the ACT writing section. "If colleges and universities are questioning it, that tells us something," said Cheryl Groot, the lead counselor at Jordan High School in Sandy. "There's no use taking it if it's not required."So far, Westminster College is the only Utah school to require students - those entering as freshmen in fall 2006 - to take ACT's writing section. The addition will augment the essay students already submit upon application to the private college in east Salt Lake City, said Joel Bauman, Westminster's vice president of enrollment. "Being able to communicate - especially through writing - is a significant component of students' ability to succeed in college and beyond," he said.Utah Valley State College is considering requiring the ACT writing test, but officials said no decision has been made even though ACT's Web site indicates the school requires the writing section.

Other schools in the state are taking a wait-and-see approach to the writing tests.
"We're not excited about this writing sample because our application process focuses on college-prep courses, a score from the ACT or SAT and [high school] grade point average," said Suzanne Espinoza, the U.'s director of student recruitment and high school services.