As if the college admission process didn't provoke enough anxiety, students in the high school graduating class of 2006 face a difficult choice: Which version of the high-stakes SAT test should they take?
Should they prepare for the old one with its dreaded verbal analogies? Or the new and longer one with its handwritten essay? Or both?
With the resulting stress and confusion, enrollments are spiking at test preparation classes.
"It's a little hard to know what to do," said Sasha Safarzadeh, 16, who will be a junior this fall at Villa Park High School in Orange County, Calif. "You feel like your whole future depends on this test."
The teenager, who is enrolled this summer in an intensive SAT prep course, said he had decided lately to concentrate on the new exam, since it is required by the University of California. He hopes to attend UC Berkeley.
The longer, reportedly tougher version of the college entrance test debuts in March, after the old is offered for the last time in January. In trying to decide which to choose, students in this transitional year are having to sort out different advice from colleges, guidance counselors and others.
"Kids are getting all stressed out," said Jon Zeitlin, general manager of SAT/ACT programs for Kaplan Test Prep, which, like its competitors, is seeing its business soar as a result of the new exam.
"The biggest thing I hear from the kids who are going to be juniors this year is, 'Why do we have to be the guinea pigs?' A lot of them are really nervous," he said.
The revamped SAT will feature tougher math, expanded grammar and reading comprehension sections and, for the first time, an essay for which students will receive 25 minutes to write replies to such questions as, "What is your view on the idea that it takes failure to achieve success?" No longer will the test include verbal analogies (clay is to potter as stone is to sculptor) or quantitative comparisons.
The total time of the test will jump 45 minutes, to three hours and 45 minutes. And the best possible score will rise to 2400 from 1600.
The revisions, announced in 2002, were largely propelled by the University of California system, which had threatened to scrap the test as an admissions requirement. Former UC President Richard C. Atkinson had criticized the exam as unfair to many students and said it tested ill-defined notions of college aptitude.
Now, UC will require its 2006 applicants to submit scores from the new SAT, or from the ACT, a rival test less widely used in California.
But many institutions of higher education nationwide say either SAT is all right for the 2006 freshman class, with some saying they will consider the higher score, if a student submits results from both.
For some of those schools, including the University of Southern California and Duke, students who submit scores from the old, essay-less SAT must also take a separate exam in writing. "We want the writing," said L. Katharine Harrington, USC's admissions director. "It gives us another tool with which to evaluate students."
Uneasy members of the class of 2006, meanwhile, are racing to get ready for the new test, signing up for free practice exams and filling preparation courses at a pace well ahead of the norm.
The Kaplan service won't release its own course figures but said the number of students nationwide who took its free practice tests and workshops in the spring was up 78 percent from last year.
In Southern California, the Princeton Review test preparation company said the number of students enrolling in its summer SAT prep classes was running almost double that of last year. Parents pay $1,000 or more for the courses, which range from six to 10 weeks.
The College Board is advising students not to get overly worried about the SAT writing test, and to take the test for the first time in the spring of their junior year. Then, if they don't do well, they can take it again in the fall of senior year. The SAT is given seven times an academic year, the first in October and the last in June.
"Take the test when you're best prepared and when you have the time to devote to preparation," said Wayne Camara, the College Board's vice president of research and development. He said that could range from taking prep courses to looking over the test booklet sent to students who register.
Many college counselors, too, are urging students to relax, saying too many are focusing on standardized tests at the expense of their coursework and other activities.
The best preparation for the SAT, new or old, is simply for students to do as well as possible in their classroom work, said Linda Conti, a high school guidance counselor and current president of the Western Association for College Admission Counseling.
"Just enjoy your high school experience and be passionate about it," Conti, of Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif., said she advises her students. "Whatever you do, don't miss out on some of the best parts of your lives because of an obsession with the SAT."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.