PSAT Practice: How to Prepare and Why You Should

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Maybe you’ve realized that you’re taking the PSAT next week, or maybe the exam’s still a few months away and you’re hoping to score a National Merit Scholarship. In either case, welcome! Whether you need PSAT practice stat (AKA cramming for the PSAT) or want to set up a PSAT study plan, we’ll take a look at all the info you need to make sure you get the score you want on test day, from PSAT questions to PSAT tips.

What, exactly, will we look at in this post? First, we’ll start out with some PSAT basics: what, when, why. Then, we’ll take a deep dive into PSAT tips for prep: what you’ll see on the test and how to set yourself up for a great score. We’ll finish up with some PSAT questions and PSAT tips.

Ready? Let’s go!

Table of Contents


 

PSAT Tips: Mastering the Basics


 

What Is the PSAT?

The Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, is a test administered by the College Board, creator of the SAT, that most students take in October or November during their junior year of high school, and possibly during freshmen or sophomore year.
 
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When Do I Take the PSAT?

If you have siblings or friends who have taken the SAT, you might be surprised to learn that, unlike that test, the PSAT/NMSQT, which is commonly taken the year before the SAT, is given only on one date, as determined by the school administering the test in combination with the College Board.

Usually, the PSAT is offered on a Wednesday in October or November. In 2020, the dates the PSAT was offered included Wednesday, October 14; Saturday, October 17; and Wednesday, October 29. Be careful, though: your school will pick one of these dates and have the other as a backup, so make sure you know which day the main test administration will take place by talking to your guidance counselor or the person in charge of the PSAT at your school.

The PSAT is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, one of the more prestigious scholarships in the United States. (For this reason, the PSAT is also sometimes called The National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.) This exam is offered every October and can only be taken once per year.

For aspiring national Merit Scholarship winners, qualifying PSAT scores are only taken from third-year high school PSAT scores. So PSATs must be taken during junior year of high school for the purposes of the scholarship. If you’re planning to apply for the National Merit Scholarship, it can still be helpful to do a practice run in your sophomore year (and maybe freshman year as well) to see how close you’re getting to the score you’ll need when you apply for Merit as a junior.
 
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What Does the PSAT Test?

The PSAT has the exact same sections as the actual SAT. This means that PSAT questions are really similar to SAT questions—there are just fewer of them. There is a math component and a verbal component. The latter consists of both grammar exercises and reading passages. This is a change from the previous version of the PSAT, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

It’s also important to note that the PSAT is not made up of facts that you simply have to cram into your brain and then retrieve test day. It’s about applying rules and concepts to questions that are designed not to be straightforward.

Essentially, you’ll have to use a lot of critical thinking for PSAT questions. For instance, a math word problem won’t be a case of plugging the numbers into a predetermined formula. The information is always different and you’ll have to devise an equation to fit the specific circumstances. Unlike the bread-and-butter three-line word problems you might be used to seeing in math class, some of the math word problems can run close to 15 lines.

Here’s a deeper dive into the subjects you’ll see on the PSAT!

The Reading Test

There are two things to consider when examining the Reading Test: what kinds of passages the test includes and which skills it measures.

As for the first category, you can expect to see at least one literature passage—this can come from anywhere in the world and from any time period. You’ll also see a passage, or a passage pair, from a U.S. founding document (like the Constitution) or a text from the Great Global Conversation (like a speech by a world leader). Two science passages will appear, but they’ll test your reading ability, rather than your science knowledge. Finally, there’ll be a social science text.

In terms of the types of questions you’ll see, be prepared to show your ability to find evidence in the passage and show how authors use it. The test will also ask you to define vocabulary words based on their contexts. Finally, some of the passages will ask you to analyze data and charts from science or social science passages.

The Writing and Language Test

For the Writing and Language Test, you only have one goal for your PSAT questions: find the mistakes in the sentences you’re reading and select the answer that fixes them. Basically, the test looks at your command of grammar and usage, but it also measures those same categories from the Reading Test: command of evidence, words in context, and analysis of additional materials.

The Math Test

The Math Test examines three big categories of PSAT questions: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math (all of which will be mixed together, and none of which will be labeled). Let’s look at what each of those areas covers.

In the Heart of Algebra questions, expect to see a linear expression or an equation with one variable. You will also be asked to work with linear inequalities with one variable. You’ll build a linear function to show the relationship between two quantities. You’ll do similar work then with a variety of other equations, some of which may have two variables or include two linear variables.

Problem Solving and Data Analysis will include an entirely different set of topics. These include: ratios, rates, proportions, percentages, measurements, units, unit conversions, scatterplots, relationships between two variables linear versus exponential growth, two-way tables, making inferences from data and statistics (this might include mean, media, mode, range, and/or standard deviation), and evaluating data collection methods. Whew!

Finally, Passport to Advanced Math will have questions about quadratic/exponential functions, equivalent expressions with rational exponents and radicals, showing algebraic equivalencies, quadratic equations, working with polynomial expressions, one-variable equations with radicals, systems of equations, simple rational expressions, parts of nonlinear expressions, the relationship between zeros and factors of polynomials, nonlinear relationships, function notation, and isolating a quantity of interest in an equation.
 
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How Is the PSAT Different from the SAT?

The PSAT is basically an SAT with smaller teeth and a less overwhelming purpose (it can get you scholarships, but it doesn’t get you acceptance into college). All of the same basic SAT topics show up in PSAT questions, minus a bit of the higher-level stuff, especially in math.

PSAT questions are the same types as SAT questions, the instructions are all the same, and even the timing on each section is very similar. There are a few important differences in length, scoring, and content between them, though. Take a look at the chart below to get an idea.
 
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How Hard Is the PSAT?

The PSAT is a tad easier than its big brother, but the difference is pretty minimal. It’s all toned down slightly, though. Questions that would be on the easy end of SAT math show up more frequently on the PSAT. You might get 5 questions on PSAT math that are as easy as the first 2 questions of an SAT math test, for example. And the most difficult PSAT questions don’t quite reach the difficulty of the hardest SAT math questions.

The higher end of SAT math topics might still show up on the PSAT, but they’ll be more straightforward. You’ll see easier “Passport to Advanced Math” questions, for example, and you may see only one very basic trig question. Or you might get a graph of a parabola that simply asks for an intercept and requires no algebra.

So don’t freak out if you’re going to take the PSAT and are just taking Geometry 1: the test mostly asks for basic number skills, algebra, and basic geometry, nothing more.
 
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PSAT Tips for Prep

PSAT Tips for Prep 1: Evaluate Whether You Need to Prep

The PSAT is a preliminary SAT—it isn’t used in college admission—so you might be wondering: is it even worth prepping for the test? What’s the point of studying for a test that colleges won’t even look at?

There are actually two really important reasons to study for the PSAT! First of all, remember that it’s not just the PSAT—it’s also the NMSQT, or the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. If you’re a junior, prepping for the test can set up you for a far higher score, putting you in the running for more money for college.

If you’re a sophomore, that’s still a great reason to prepare! Think about it this way: your scores on the PSAT this year will help you get a better idea of what prep you’ll need to do within the next year to reach that qualifying range. If you prep beforehand, it’ll not only set you up for greater success as a junior, but you can also tailor your study this coming year to really focus on your weaker areas, now that you’ve mastered PSAT tips.

Even if you’re not aiming for a National Merit Scholarship, studying for the PSAT will give you an incredible baseline for your SAT prep. By reviewing the more basic concepts you’ll find on the SAT and picking up PSAT tips and tricks, you can then focus your SAT prep on the higher-level areas you’ll see on the real SAT. Win-win!
 
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PSAT Tips for Prep 2: Set Up Your Practice Schedule

Ideally, your practice will consist of a mixture of fundamentals and practice questions, with some test strategy (PSAT tips and tricks) thrown in. For instance, you’ll want to revisit algebra concepts you learned a year back, or are maybe learning right now before you tackle actual test questions.

You don’t want to spend too much time on fundamentals, however. Throw yourself into practice questions to get a feel for the way the test works. Often a good idea is when you miss a PSAT question to review the fundamentals at work, assuming you didn’t make a careless error. That’s better than trying to memorize a bunch of fundamentals but then waiting an indefinite period before actually reviewing them.

Here is a great SAT one-month study plan that you can use, tailoring it to your schedule.
 
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PSAT Tips for Prep 3: Master Content from Each Section

The skills that the SAT tests are almost exactly the same that you’ll need to practice on the PSAT. Even the types of questions are the same. In both tests, you’ll see Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.

Math PSAT Prep

  • Multiple choice
  • Grid-in (Write your own answer)
  • A no-calculator section

 

Reading PSAT Practice

  • Reading comprehension of both fiction and non-fiction (including one text from “U.S. Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation”)
  • Long-ish passages of 500-750 words (including one paired set of passages)
  • Informational graphics questions
  • Words in context questions
  • Command of evidence questions

 

Writing and Language PSAT Prep

  • Expression of ideas (rhetorical) questions
  • Standard English conventions (grammar) questions
  • Informational graphics questions
  • Words in context questions
  • Command of evidence questions

 
That means that studying for the PSAT is a good way to get ready for the SAT while you are a junior (and the PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10 for younger grades can help you get ready even earlier). The scores and subscores you receive can help you determine what you need to study and how long you need to study for the real deal.

So don’t brush it off as a test that doesn’t matter! It’s important practice that will save you valuable study time later on.
 
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PSAT Tips for Prep 4: Work with the Correct Timing

Our biggest PSAT tip if you’re studying with SAT materials? Make sure you get the timing right!

How long is the PSAT? 2 hours and 45 minutes overall. This means that the PSAT is only just a little bit shorter than the SAT (without the essay anyway), so you’ll need to bring the same level of stamina to the PSAT as you will to the SAT. Pacing on both tests (in terms of the amount of time you have to answer each question) is comparable as well, so you aren’t going to get more time to answer questions on the PSAT.
 

PSAT SAT
Total Length 2 hours 45 minutes 3 hours (or 3 hours 50 minutes with the optional essay)
Reading 60 minutes 65 minutes
Writing & Language 35 minutes 35 minutes
Math 70 minutes (including a calculator and a no calculator section) 80 minutes (including a calculator and a no calculator section)
Essay None 50 minute analytical essay (optional)

 
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PSAT Tips for Prep 5: Use Great Materials

Make sure to do your research on practice materials. The best bet is to use SAT practice materials since the questions that pop up on each test are indistinguishable. It is the ordering of the difficulty of the questions that differs between the two tests.

While you should definitely check out the College Board official resources for the PSAT, because the content is so similar, using SAT study materials is also a perfectly good way to study for the PSAT. Just make sure to follow the PSAT tips above and adapt the SAT materials to PSAT timing.

The PSAT will give you a leg-up on test day (and probably a Wednesday morning you don’t have to spend in class). And if you think you can score in the top range, you can also benefit from the Student Search Service (colleges will come looking for you and your awesome test scores) and the National Merit and other scholarship programs, which can earn you some scholarship money along with a pretty sweet feather in your cap. So give it your all!
 

 

How Can I Cram for the PSAT?

First of all, it’s almost impossible to “cram” for the PSAT…but if you have limited practice time, here are our top PSAT tips to get the most out of your prep!

PSAT Cramming Tip #1: Take Practice Test(s)

Take a PSAT practice test. Take two, if you can. Heck, why stop at the PSAT? Take a full-length SAT. It’s an hour and a half longer than the PSAT, sure, but that’s basically the same as putting weights on your bat when practicing your swing.

That’s not groundbreaking advice by itself, though. The important part (the part you might be tempted to skip, too) is reviewing the answers. Take the time to figure out what you did wrong, and how you can avoid it. Even if you’ve only got a few days, that’s enough time to learn from your mistakes.

PSAT Cramming Tip #2: Study Vocabulary

Who knows why the College Board ever thought it was appropriate to put words like “clandestine” and “truculent” on their tests, but they did. The good news is that learning vocab by rote memorization is pretty effective in the short term.

That strategy alone is not ideal for long-term growth, and if you want to really bring up your scores significantly, building your vocabulary more organically (by reading a ton) is a better choice, but if your test is in a week, it’s time to break out those vocabulary flashcards.

PSAT Cramming Tip #3: Know Your Grammar Rules

This is pretty much the same idea as memorizing vocabulary. Most high-school teachers don’t spend much time on grammar, which is a shame because A) it will affect everything you ever write (seriously) and B) standardized tests like the PSAT love grammar.

You don’t have to diagram sentences, but you do have to know the common errors. There’s a limited number of them, so it’s pretty manageable to just read up on them and come away with an improved test score—provided you do a bit of practice along the way.
 

PSAT Cramming Tip #4: Review Math Formulas

I would never suggest that a student with ample time to study and practice instead memorize a bunch of formulas. Actually getting better at PSAT math means training and learning from mistakes (as I mentioned in #1, above). But if you’re running on a tight schedule, this is the fastest way to review what’s in the PSAT math sections.

So take this with a grain of salt, but here’s even more stuff to memorize. Pair this with at least one practice test, please! Just reading a bunch of formulas and not learning to apply them is pretty much useless.
 
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How Can I Practice for the PSAT Over the Summer?

School’s out for summer! And by now, you’re several weeks into your summer break. If you haven’t started some summer PSAT studying, you should. Here are a few reasons summer is a great time for both fun and a little bit of test prep.

Why is the PSAT’s Fall date a good reason for PSAT summer study? Because summer leads into fall! If you start studying for the PSAT at some point in the summer, you’ll have weeks or months of study time before Fall arrives and it’s time to take the PSAT.

And yes, I did say weeks or months. The best part about summer PSAT studying is that you don’t have to study all summer. You could choose to really focus on your PSAT study in the month of August. Or you start your PSAT study earlier in June or July, if stretching your studies over the whole summer works better for you.

Here’s one of our key PSAT tips: it’s easier to focus on test practice if you don’t have other homework. Summer is a time of minimal academic stress. And when you’re less stressed out, it’s easier to focus on mastering an exam.

During the school year, anytime you’re studying for a test, you have to balance your test practice with homework from other classes. But in the summer, you don’t even have to attend other classes, much less do other homework. This gives you a unique opportunity to just focus on the PSAT, with no other stressful distractions.

And bear in mind that preparing for the PSAT is not as time-consuming as regular high school studies. You’ll still have plenty of time for summer fun between your PSAT practice sessions. And that summer fun can keep you energized and focused when you study.

Unique PSAT study opportunities are available in the summer. Speaking of classes, it’s much easier to enroll in a PSAT practice course in the summer. Private tutoring centers and test practice academies keep longer hours in the summer. And you have more chances to go to these places for test practice during the day, instead of later in the evening when you’re more tired and less able to concentrate on your studies. Not only that, but there are also a lot of summer camps for PSAT and SAT prep.

And speaking of studying the PSAT and SAT together…

In the summer, you have enough time to study for both the PSAT and SAT. A high PSAT score certainly has its own distinct benefits, separate from the SAT. Most importantly, your PSAT score can make you eligible for a National Merit Scholarship. But in the long run, the SAT is the most important exam; it’s the test that can actually get you accepted into college.
 
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FAQ: Answers to Your PSAT Questions

Can I Skip the PSAT?

The short answer to that question is yes—if all you want to do is take the SAT, you don’t have to take the PSAT first. But don’t get ready to pass PSAT and go straight to SAT just yet– there are a lot of advantages to taking the PSAT, even though it’s not strictly mandatory.

You shouldn’t skip the PSAT if you want to enter into the National Merit Scholarship contest. This is because the PSAT actually is a requirement for entry into this prestigious competition. To be a National Merit contender, you must take the PSAT in your junior year. This stage cannot be skipped.

You should also consider the PSAT as part of your journey to college acceptance if you want to practice for the SAT under very real test conditions. The PSAT is very comparable to the SAT in terms of difficulty. There are also conversion tables that translate PSAT scores into SAT equivalents, so you can measure your progress toward SAT success.

Moreover, the PSAT costs just $16 to register, about a third of the SAT fee. So it’s a very affordable way to warm up for the SAT itself.

With that said, there are cases where the PSAT may be an unnecessary extra step that you can and should skip.

If you aren’t interested in applying for the Merit Scholarship, the PSAT will be a lot less important to you, and maybe not worth your time. (Although I always encourage people to consider the Merit Scholarship– just being a runner-up can impress many admissions offices.) If you’ve just realized you are interested in the Merit Scholarship, but your junior year of high school has ended, you can also skip the PSAT.

And of course, skipping the PSAT is a good move if you decide it simply isn’t the right type of SAT warmup for you. While there are students that do benefit from taking the PSAT as a practice run for the SAT in their first or second year of high school, the real SAT can also be a truly authentic form of early practice, with a retake for admissions purposes during junior or senior year.

You don’t have to take the PSAT, but I still strongly recommend it. It’s a low-cost way to practice for the SAT and possibly apply for a National Merit Scholarship. Still, your mileage may vary. Many students skip the PSAT and go on to have top SAT scores and wonderful academic careers.

How has the PSAT changed?

 
If you know someone who took the PSAT before March 2016, you took a very different test than the current SAT. That test was vocabulary heavy, including the likes of lugubrious, punctilious, and meretricious. Basically words nobody outside of a literary circle would know, let alone have the audacity to utter. The math questions were often more like logic puzzles, carefully engineered so that they would have devious trap answers. The reading passages had lots of big words, abstract ideas, and answer choices so devious they made the math questions blush.

In other words, the test has become a lot friendlier and less likely to induce a full-blown panic attack. Did I mention that the old test actually had a guessing penalty? The reading questions are relatively straightforward, though the passages are longer and (in some cases) denser. Math questions better reflect the fundamentals you likely learned in class. Whereas the trap answers on the old test were as ferocious as mountain lions, on the new PSAT they are, at worst, fussy housecats.

Can I take the PSAT if I’m not in the United States?

If you’re living outside of the United States, you may still be able to find a nearby school that offers the test. The school search on the College Board website can help you figure out where to go and who to contact. Many countries have several schools in different cities offer the exam.

Do it early, though: the College Board recommends making preparations at least four months in advance of the exam—that’s July (although there’s no harm in asking later if you didn’t know you could take the exam as an international student)!

Can I take the PSAT if I’m home-schooled?

Yes! Like international students, students who have been home schooled should identify a local school through the College Board school search. Similarly, the College Board recommends getting in touch with the school at least four months in advance—this way, the school can be sure to have materials, like a test booklet, ready for you.

I need special accommodations to take the test. How should I set those up?

If you have a disability that requires special accommodation, make sure you get approval from the College Board at least seven weeks before the test date. You should make sure that you talk to a guidance counselor or the person in charge of the test at your school, as well, around this date, to ensure that the requirements are met on test day.
 

I’m planning on taking the ACT. Does the ACT have a similar test like the PSAT?

It does, actually! It’s called the PreACT—check out our complete guide to the PreACT to learn more.

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A Final Word

After all of the PSAT tips in this post, here’s one final tip: because the PSAT is not offered as often as the SAT, it’s important to create your study plan with the October test date in mind. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT tends to be an exam that students take just once.

It’s a significant test—after all, National Merit Scholarships ride on it—so make sure that you start preparing early! The preparation that you do now will definitely help you in the future, as you prepare for the SAT and finish your high school career.
 
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Author

  • Rachel Kapelke-Dale

    Rachel is a Magoosh Content Creator. She writes and updates content on our High School and GRE Blogs to ensure students are equipped with the best information during their test prep journey. As a test-prep instructor for more than five years in there different countries, Rachel has helped students around the world prepare for various standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT, and she is one of the authors of our Magoosh ACT Prep Book. Rachel has a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an MA in Cinematography from the Université de Paris VII, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from University College London. For over a decade, Rachel has honed her craft as a fiction and memoir writer and public speaker. Her novel, THE BALLERINAS, is forthcoming in December 2021 from St. Martin's Press, while her memoir, GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND, co-written with Jessica Pan, was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Her work has appeared in over a dozen online and print publications, including Vanity Fair Hollywood. When she isn't strategically stringing words together at Magoosh, you can find Rachel riding horses or with her nose in a book. Join her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!