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Digital SAT: The biggest change in standardized testing this decade will take effect for international students in 2023

Niall Molloy weighs in on what to expect, what these changes mean for you, and how to plan for successful test prep.

What does this mean for international students?

The new, adaptive, digital SAT was announced in January 2022 and marks the biggest change in standardized testing for international students since the ACT switched to a computer-based test in Fall 2018. This month, College Board released four official practice tests via Bluebook (the testing application from College Board, which students will use to take the digital SAT), giving us our first opportunity to pore over the tests and note the changes that have occured.

While our team will follow up with further blog posts and webinars unpacking the minutiae of the test as students begin to adapt their preparations, we wanted to start by providing a high-level analysis of the test and how it might affect the testing plans of students testing in March 2023 and beyond.

The test changes seem promising, but we recommend students testing in 2023 sit the ACT, if possible, due to the relative uncertainties surrounding a new test format.

Impressions from the new digital SAT

In my opinion, it is a much smoother user experience compared to the digital ACT, and it’s clear College Board has learned from rolling out digital AP testing over the last two years! Reducing the overall number of questions and the length of the test will work better for some students, and perhaps not as well for others. With fewer questions—and the adaptive nature of the test—mistakes can be more costly. Strategies to reduce silly mistakes may become increasingly important. I’ve also written a blog post on how to reduce mistakes (which you can view here), and this will continue to be useful for digital SAT students in their preparations.

With continued review, we believe the test will likely be better than the paper SAT for students who are digitally native and can navigate the test in a calm manner, focusing on one question at a time. There have been no major surprises across the tests so far.

There are some exciting new features: for example, the graphing software Desmos is now available for the entire Math section. Desmos will prove to be an indispensable tool for the digital SAT due to its ease of use and versatility, and students who master it will find the Math section to be much easier.

There will be much that will change—and plenty that will not change—in students’ test prep plans should they choose to go with the digital SAT. Unsurprisingly, as is the case with any good prep plan, strong strategy and fundamentals will be necessary in all of the topics covered.

What changes have occurred?

For international students, the last paper-based SAT will be administered in December 2022. From March 2023 onward, the SAT will change to an adaptive, digital version administered on computers or tablets at designated test centers. For US-based students, the changes will not occur until 2024.

The content will broadly be the same with one major exception: the Reading passages have been shortened significantly from around 750 words to no longer than 150 words and only contain one question each.

Test timing:
The SAT will now be 2 hours 14 minutes, approximately 25% shorter than the current test length of 3 hours. The SAT will now have two sections—one Reading & Writing section and one Math section—each split into two modules.

Adaptive nature:
The digital SAT will be a section-adaptive test. It divides the Reading & Writing and Math sections into two modules each. You will see a variety of questions ranging from easy to difficult in the first module, and your accuracy in the first module determines whether you are given an easier or more difficult second module. Students who wish to score above 650 in a section must answer enough questions correctly in the first module to be given the more difficult second module.
The SAT will remain a 1600 point scale. This theoretically means that a 1500 on the digital SAT should represent the same score as a 1500 on the paper-based test. However, it is not currently known how universities will view the digital SAT, as validity studies to assess the digital test’s ability to predict success in college have yet to be completed. In addition, this consistency in scoring should maintain the concordance with the ACT and be comparable with scores on old, paper-based SAT tests.

What is our recommendation for students who are taking standardized tests in the coming months?

While the College Board will do its best to make sure that the adaptive digital SAT test runs smoothly in its first administration, students typically do not like being in the first cohort taking a new type of test. The ACT computer-based test has been around since Fall 2018, and the test has not changed meaningfully in a long time. This continuity has provided a higher level of certainty and peace-of-mind to students testing this academic year.

The recommendations depend on where you are in your test prep journey, but generally speaking, these principles will likely apply:

If you have started ACT prep:

Keep preparing for the test dates as planned. Also, if you have yet to register for your test dates, do so immediately here! Test slots fill up quickly.

If you have started SAT prep and do not achieve your desired official score by the December 3rd SAT:

Consider switching to the ACT in Spring 2023: register for the ACT tests ASAP here! We anticipate that demand will continue to increase for the international ACT, particularly after the December SAT scores are released. Better to guarantee yourself a slot now.

Then, the next steps would be a diagnostic ACT test by emailing here.

If you have taken a diagnostic ACT test and the ACT is definitely not your right-fit test, discuss a prep plan with a mentor in advance of the new digital SAT. After that conversation, you can view the dates and register for the digital SAT here.

If you have not started prep before the December 3rd SAT and are testing this year:

Take an ACT diagnostic test as soon as possible. Then, discuss with a mentor your result and the merits of the ACT to decide together which test is right for you.

If you have not started prep and are considering testing in later years:

You can wait and see how the first batch of adaptive digital SAT tests go, and your decision can be better informed with more data points when you speak with a mentor in the future.

ESM Prep is ready to help.

While we understand that many international students may feel overwhelmed with this change, rest assured that our team is here to dissipate any anxiety around the test prep experience, and it is our job to help you through this process. We have experience with similar transitional periods, having successfully created the digital infrastructure and resources for our international team and cohort of students for the computer-based ACT. We are looking forward to continuing to develop our best in-house resources for our international students who will be taking the digital SAT.

Reset assured, while the digital SAT is a new test, if it is the best option for you, we will ensure you have a successful prep journey with an ESM mentor.

Please reach out directly at or call directly at +44 20 3695 9255 if you would like to organize a diagnostic test, have any questions, or would like to chat. I’m always happy to discuss everything testing-related to help you come to a well-informed decision.