Spring is on the way, and that means it’s time for the rumors to start flying again about the March SAT. I’ve heard all about how it’s more difficult than the others, and how it should be avoided. I hear it every year.
Of course everyone understands that the College Board works pretty hard to ensure the validity of all of the exams it administers. But everyone also understands that the College Board is not perfect. (Which is true. And don’t forget this time.) So I can understand why people might suspect that one version of the exam is harder than the others.
However, the rumor that the March SAT is more difficult has zero truth to it. That exam is the exact same difficulty level as every other SAT exam during the year. I have personally taken the March SAT 11 times, and I have taken the SAT during other months 64 times. Based on this vast experience, I can tell you very clearly: The March SAT is not harder.
Where, then, does this rumor come from, and why does it persist? The primary source is probably students themselves, who often will describe their experiences of the March SAT as being much more challenging. Sometimes, though not always, students end up with scores that seem to justify their sense of their own performance. The March exam felt much more difficult to those students, and they didn’t score as high as they did, say, in May.
Enough students have this experience that the myth of the difficult March exam gets perpetuated by not just students, but their parents, and perhaps even their guidance counselors as well, who sometimes encourage others to avoid the exam. They believe they are sharing a useful tip, but they’re wrong.
Here’s my theory on why this keeps happening, year after year: The SAT is deceptive by design. Even when they are very well prepared, students tend not to achieve their desired performance on their first try. And because it takes significant advanced planning to prepare for an SAT in the fall of junior year, the March exam is the first try for a large number of students. When students take the SAT for a first time in March and then follow it up with a second attempt in May, which exam do you think they are going to perform better on?
Exactly. The May SAT.
The May SAT is not actually easier, but for many students who struggled in March, it feels easier. Whether the experience of their first attempt inspired them to prepare more diligently or to be even more careful on test day, that first experience contributes to success on the second try. And the students taking the March and May SAT exams tell their friends, parents, and guidance counselors that the March SAT was so hard, and the May SAT was so much easier.
What’s really going on has nothing to do with the different exams. The majority of students simply experience their second SAT as easier than their first. So to those who have been recommending that students skip the March exam, I say no. The challenges many students face with that exam isn’t about the exam itself at all; it’s about the fact that March is the first time they’ve had a real test-day experience. And the fact is, you simply can’t avoid taking your first SAT.
I advise my students studying in our winter programs to take the March exam—with the understanding that their first SAT experience poses unique challenges. Coming into test day as prepared as possible, and with clear and reasonable expectations, can help mitigate some of those challenges, and many of my students outperform their own expectations on their first try. But regardless of those first scores, I make sure that all of my students understand where their first SAT fits into the full scope of their testing process.