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.
What, exactly, will we look at in this post? Here’s a quick overview!
Table of Contents
- When Is the PSAT?
- What Does the PSAT Test?
- PSAT Practice by Section
- How Is the PSAT Different from the SAT?
- How Hard Is the PSAT?
- Preparing for the PSAT Exam?
- How Can I Cram for the PSAT?
- How Can I Practice for the PSAT Over the Summer?
- A Final Word
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 2018, the dates the PSAT is offered will include Wednesday, October 10; Saturday, October 13; and Wednesday, October 24. 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 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.
What Does the PSAT Test?
The PSAT has the exact same sections as the actual SAT, just with fewer questions. 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 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.
PSAT Practice by Section
The skills that the SAT tests are almost exactly the same that you’ll need to dominate 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.
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, minus a bit of the higher-level stuff, especially in math.
It has the same type of questions as the SAT, 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.
The Timing of the PSAT vs the 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)|
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.
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.
Preparing for the PSAT Exam
While you should definitely check out the College Board official resources for the PSAT, because the content is so similar, using SAT study material is also a perfectly good way to study for the PSAT.
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!
PSAT Practice In-Depth
Ideally, your practicewill consist of a mixture of fundamentals and practice questions. 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 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.
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. Here is a great SAT one-month study plan that you can use, tailoring it to your schedule.
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’s what I’d suggest to get the most out of your PSAT prep!
1. Practice Test(s)
Take one. 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.
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 kinda sucks 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.
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 bit lame 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.
4. 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.
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.
It’s easier to focus on test practiceif 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 practicewith 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 practicesessions. 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 practicecourse in the summer. Private tutoring centers and test practiceacademies keep longer hours in the summer. And you have more chances to go to these places for test practiceduring 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.
How has the PSAT changed?
If you 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.
A Final Word
A final note: 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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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!
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