SAT Changes, and Advice for Ninth Graders

03/14/2014 10:28 am ET Updated May 14, 2014

There's been a good deal of news about the changes to the SAT--so much news that it seems to be causing confusion among students and their parents. To help you keep things clear, we'll begin with some of the basics:

-- First, these changes will take place in 2016, so they will only impact current ninth graders. All other high school students can count on using the current format of the SAT; if you're a tenth grader, you'll want to make sure the information you discover is about the current format, since there will be more information on the new format as you move towards senior year.

This means anyone in a higher grade can stop reading now and get on with Spring Break.

--The writing sample that is now required will be optional. It's likely most colleges will require you to take it, but we don't know that just yet.

--You'll also have to back up your writing sample with facts. The current test allows you to make claims like "Justin Bieber was born in Argentina", but the new test won't let you do that.

--Students won't be able to use calculators on all of the math questions anymore. Some parts of the test will allow calculator use, but some won't.

--You'll be seeing fewer of the famous "SAT" words that, according to College Board, aren't used in everyday life--so you won't have to memorize the meaning of words like "euphoric" (aren't you thrilled?)

--The reading section will ask you to do more analysis, and at least one of the passages will focus on an historic document, like the Declaration of Independence.

--The penalty for guessing is eliminated (now that's euphoric!)

Two other changes relate to before and after taking the test:

--College Board (the maker of the SAT) is working with Khan Academy to develop free SAT tutoring for everyone.

--Students who qualify for a fee waiver for the SAT will also receive four college application fee waivers.

It's understandable if you have questions about the new SAT, and College Board will roll out the answers for you soon. For now, there are three things you'll want to count on:

Continue to improve your study skills. The new SAT will be designed to measure more of what you learn in the classroom, so the best way to prepare for the test now is to get all you can out of the classes you're taking. As a previous column pointed out, there's a big difference between getting good grades and being a good student. Make sure you are developing your study skills to make the most out of each learning opportunity; pushing yourself now will serve you well for the SAT, for college, and for life.

Plan on taking both the ACT and SAT in junior year. The new SAT will be scored differently than the old one--after all, it's a different test that measures different things. Since colleges will need to get used to that, it's a good idea to also take the ACT, which isn't changing. This way, colleges can compare your ACT scores to past classes (that's important to many colleges), while using your SAT scores if these scores turn out to be higher than your ACT scores. Taking both tests gives you the benefit of the doubt, and that's good.

Relax. These tests are two years away, and you have a lot of learning and living to do before then that will help you with the exam, if you give these experiences everything you've got. Do that, and all will be well.