The PSAT is coming up—fast.
Test day will be here whether you've been studying or not. For the SAT, I would recommend delaying for a later test date, but that's not really possible with the PSAT.
If you have less than three weeks left, you're going to have to cram.
So? How are you best going to prepare for the exam?
In this article, I'll guide you through how to prepare quickly, including what to focus on for each section of the test and the best test-day techniques.
Cramming for the PSAT: General Guidance
There are a few over-arching principles that are crucial to the cramming process.
Commit to Putting in the Time, but Don't Overstress the Test
Time is of the essence, and you'll need to spend a lot of it preparing for the test. Don't give up on your homework, though—grades are hugely important in the bigger picture of college admissions, far more so than the PSAT.
The PSAT is not going to determine your fate. Its primary role is to help you understand where you stand as you start thinking about the SAT. No matter how good or bad your scores, colleges won't see them.
Regardless, don't blow the PSAT's importance out of proportion — if you do poorly, just make sure you start studying for the SAT earlier!
Cramming for the PSAT is hard work. It will not, however, build muscles.
Listen to Your Own Needs
As you're preparing for the test, make sure to take care of yourself.
Rest is beyond important. Practice good sleep hygiene and enact a decently early bedtime starting a good week before the test. Your body starts storing sleep not just the night before an event, but the night before that. Plus, if your sleep is usually limited (or simply not great), getting enough sleep can make you experience some extra fatigue, initially—so give your body time to adjust to getting rest.
Temper healthy nerves by way of a reality check. As we said above, it's not the be-all, end-all of your life, your schooling, or even your high school career. Keep your confidence, and your calm.
Limit stress, fatigue, and pessimism (in other words, the effects of overwork). Monitor your mindset: this is an opportunity to shine, not just a chance to get stomped on.
How to Cram for the PSAT
You may not have much time, but you do have some. Put those last few days or weeks to good use!
Cooking, like the taking the PSAT, requires lots of preparation.
#1: Take a Practice Test
The first thing to do is take a full-length practice test. It's best to take it under test-day conditions if you can, but, if that's not possible, just make sure you get through the thing.
If nothing else, this will serve as an opportunity to get thoroughly acquainted with the instructions and what they mean in practice. This will boost your confidence and decrease the time you waste on test day trying to figure out what you're expected to do.
This is also a chance to acclimate to the types of questions on the test. Take note of the style and wording of the questions. Especially note that not all questions are technically questions—some include a command term and end in a period. (This is the difference between, "What is the solution?" and "Identify the solution.")
See if you can find any patterns. Certain types of questions and formats of possible answers show up disproportionately.
Perhaps most importantly, a practice test will show you which areas need some extra attention. Ideally you should review every section of the test as you prepare, but give documented weaknesses additional care.
#2: Drill Official Questions
This tip applies to all sections: drill real PSAT questions. There's nothing like practicing with official questions to show you where your potential difficulties lie.
Both quality and quantity matter. You want to work as many problems as you can, but you also want to dissect what's going wrong when you make mistakes and work through the same (tricky) problems multiple times to get the hang of those routines.
The more you go through the process, the more comfortable that process will become.
#3: Read a Lot
You don't have a lot of time, but spend your spare minutes immersed in literature. You're going to be doing a lot of reading on both the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test, so getting comfortable understanding different types of texts is extermely important to excelling on the PSAT.
However, not all reading is created equal. Reading for pleasure and entertainment is amazing. Right now, though, our focus is this test. Reading what's uncomfortable and unfamiliar builds new connections in your brain—not to mention that there's just more meat to dissect, and dissecting text is exactly what the test wants from you. The PSAT is going to present some pretty dense text, and you need to be at least somewhat used to looking at non-contemporary, formal, and/or academic literature. Read attentively and read critically, and get in as much as you can.
Granted, this would work better if you were starting the process sooner, but even just acclimating to reading unfamiliar texts quickly will be helpful. If you dive right in now, it'll seem less stressful by test day.
This cactus didn't prepare before test day, and now see how overwhelmed he is?
#4: Review Basic Grammar
For the Writing and Language section, you absolutely must know the basic grammar rules covered on the tests. You can't just follow your ear — there are many common errors that sound completely correct, and these will be on the test.
Happily, there are relatively few concepts tested on this section, so you can cover the main ones very quickly. Even a few hours of review can make a big difference in your score.
#5: Get Comfortable With Your Tools for Math
Review the formulas that will be given to you on the test, as well as those you'll need to have memorized. As for the ones in your test booklet, they're no good to you if you barely recognize them; get familiar with them. As for the rest, you'll be on your own on test day when you find you need them.
Practice rearranging equations; there's a lot of algebra on this test, and mathematical manipulation is one of the primary skills that the test-makers look at.
Finally, ake sure you're comfortable with your calculator. Even if you've been using it in math class, try it out on some of the math problems that you're drilling (you are dirlling, right?). There are a few odd functions that'll come in handy, and you may or may not be familiar with them now. Also make sure your calculator is approved.
Don't bring an abacus to the PSAT.
PSAT Test-Day Tips
No matter how much studying you've done (or haven't done), there are a few solid principles that can make test day run much more smoothly.
Warm Up the Morning Of
Wake up, stretch, do your thing—and then do a bit of a warm-up. Review tricky practice problems that you've persevered in mastering, and try a fresh, new problem or two.
Don't go beyond a simple warm-up, though: don't try to cram new material into your head. At best, it won't stick; at worst, it will muddle you up and stress you out.
Feeling Panicky? Work It Out
Self-talk is huge. How are you treating yourself? Kindly? Gently? Compassionately? Avoid being harsh or judgmental. Instead, affirm your assets: you've prepared, and you're ready.
Put your game face on. Visualize the specifics of what's going to happen—and how you're going to handle it all like a champ.
Let's try not to end up like this guy—he's not even inside the test center yet.
Answer Every Question
There's no guessing penalty, so you can't lose anything by bubbling in a choice. Do what you know how to do first. Next, eliminate answers where you can. Then, guess away! Guess on everything that's left. Leave nothing blank.
To use this technique to your especial advantage, take a moment to read about how to guess strategically.
It's always best to start any study program with plenty of time before an exam. When that doesn't happen, though, or when it's just not possible, some types of cramming are smarter than other types of cramming.
When it comes to the PSAT, taking a practice test and drilling extra practice questions can give enormous benefits. Beyond that, a lot of it is reading and reviewing basic rules.
Also, remember: you're going to be working hard, so it's especially important to take intentional care of yourself.
Learn about the score range associated with the PSAT, so you know what general kinds of numbers you might expect to see when scores come out.
Wondering exactly when scores will come out? It's a great idea to check out the dates to look for.
If you're not sure what a good score might look like, though, take a moment to read about why that's a more complicated question than it seems. Get a sense of what an appropriate goal would be for you, while you're at it.
Don't repeat the procrastinate-and-cram cycle for the SAT or ACT; start preparing earlier next time around. Take practice tests, and consider a prep program: PrepScholar has a great, customized program developed by experts, complete with a score-improvement guarantee.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.