Teens across the country are entering the autumn of their discontent, haunted by daunting questions about the most important test of young lives. Should they take the old version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, offered this Saturday? Or should they wait for the revamped version - which will include an essay section - coming this spring?
For some students, the new test might be easier, considering that the famous "analogy" questions will disappear along with some tricky math equations. But others may assume they'll do better on the old test, which doesn't require any writing.
The answer to this dilemma won't be found in an SAT prep course. While plenty of experts advise high school juniors to hold tight and wait for the new exam, many students plan to cover all bases by taking both tests. Colleges, however, have thrown a wild card into the mix by disagreeing about which test scores they want and when they want them.
An estimated 1.4 million students in the class of 2004 took the SAT. Another 1.2 million students took the lesser-known ACT Assessment test, which will add an optional writing section in January.
The new SATs, due in March, will eliminate some multiple-choice questions - including analogies and "quantitative comparisons" - that critics have long knocked as rewarding test-taking skills instead of measuring what students learn in school.
In place of the missing sections will be a written essay, a multiple-choice proofreading section, and some advanced algebra. Students will also get a new, separate score for the writing, which will be graded by judges. The College Board, which offers the SAT, says the old and new tests will be roughly equivalent in terms of difficulty.
High school students traditionally take the SAT in the spring of their junior years and then again in the fall, when they're seniors, if they want to boost their scores. Some get a head start by taking the test in the fall or winter of their junior years, and that is an especially appealing option to some this time around.
"I'm planning to take the old SAT and the new SAT because Harvard accepts both. [I'll] see which one I score higher in," said Gordon Siu, a junior at Bonita Vista High near San Diego. Jake Rachels, a junior at Brentwood School in the central Georgia town of Sandersville, says he'll take the January test along with a secondary SAT writing test (soon to be discontinued) to meet the needs of colleges who want writing scores. "That will probably work in my favor, hopefully," he says.
He might - or might not - be on the right track. While some colleges are still figuring out what to do with the new SAT, many are already requiring applicants from the Class of 2006 to take it or to at least provide writing scores.
The College Board urges juniors to wait until the spring to take the new test when they will have had extra months of schooling. The Princeton Review test-preparation company agrees. Focusing on the old test "is a lot of wasted effort," says spokeswoman Harriet Brand.
Also, taking the SAT too often can be a mistake, warns Richard Shaw, dean of admissions and financial aid at Yale University. While some colleges look only at a student's highest scores, Yale flags those who pick up a No. 2 pencil several times.
"Taking it more than twice is starting to push the envelope," Shaw says. "We think they're strange, frankly."