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How to Prepare for the PSAT: 5-Step Guide to PSAT Prep

Posted by Hannah Muniz | Sep 1, 2017 12:00:00 PM

PSAT Info and Strategies

 

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Many juniors and even sophomores take the PSAT every fall to prepare for the SAT. But the PSAT isn’t a college admission test, so do you actually need to prep for it? The reality is, PSAT prep can strongly benefit you, especially if you're hoping to nab a National Merit scholarship or get a high score on the SAT. 

In this article, we explain why PSAT prep is important and go over how to prepare for the PSAT using five simple steps. In addition, we discuss what kinds of resources are ultimately unnecessary for quality PSAT preparation as well as how PSAT prep differs from SAT prep.

 

Why You Should Prep for the PSAT

Most juniors take the PSAT, but in truth PSAT scores aren't nearly as important as SAT (or ACT) scores. Why? You see, because the PSAT isn't used for college admission, schools won't even so much as glance at your PSAT score.

But if that’s the case, then, why bother prepping for the PSAT at all? As it turns out, there are a few reasons PSAT test prep may be worth the effort.

For one, the PSAT is essentially a gateway to doing well on the SAT. Because the primary aim of the PSAT is to prepare you for the SAT (hence its name, "Preliminary SAT"), the two tests share several similarities. As a result, prepping for the PSAT can give you an early sense of what SAT content areas you'll need to strengthen and what strategies and approaches work well for you. 

Even if you're planning on taking the ACT instead of the SAT, the PSAT can still help you get used to the kinds of questions and content you'll need to know since there are so many similarities between the redesigned SAT and ACT.

What's more, your PSAT score can predict your SAT score. Though the PSAT and SAT scoring scales differ (the maximum score is 1520 on the PSAT and 1600 on the SAT), each PSAT score directly corresponds to the same score on the SAT. So a 1300 on the PSAT indicates the same level of ability as a 1300 on the SAT does.

The PSAT essentially shows you how well you’d perform on the SAT if you were to take it at that exact moment in time. Without any PSAT prep, however, you’re glimpsing what your SAT score would be without any SAT prep as well. Such a score isn’t particularly helpful, as you’ll most likely want to study for the SAT, so to get a more accurate SAT prediction, you'll definitely want to engage in some PSAT prep.

Lastly, PSAT test prep is essential if you’re hoping to qualify for National Merit. All juniors who take the PSAT are automatically entered into the National Merit Scholarship Program, which awards annual $2,500 scholarships to top scorers. To qualify as a Semifinalist, you must reach or exceed your state’s PSAT cutoff score. So those aiming to win scholarship money should study for the PSAT as diligently as they would for the SAT or ACT.

Nonetheless, not everyone needs to prep for the PSAT or even take it. If you're not trying to hit National Merit, don't bother committing to lengthy prep sessions or long-term study plans. Likewise, if you're set on taking the ACT instead of the SAT, the PSAT won't be as helpful or as relevant to your studies, so feel free to forgo PSAT prep (and even the PSAT itself, if not required by your school).

 

How to Prepare for the PSAT: 5-Step Plan

Now that we’ve gone over why you should study, let’s look closely at how to prepare for the PSAT. Below are the five major steps you'll need to take in order to get the most out of your PSAT test prep.

 

Step 1: Learn the PSAT Format

The easiest and most fundamental way to prepare for the PSAT is to learn the format of the test. This is a great place to start, even for those who aren’t intending to aim for National Merit.

As you may remember, the PSAT is very similar to the SAT, so if you’re at all familiar with the SAT format, know that the PSAT is strongly tied to it. The only major differences between the PSAT and SAT are that the PSAT:

Here is an overview of the PSAT format:

 

Reading

Writing and Language

Math No Calculator

Math Calculator

Order

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

Time

60 mins

35 mins

25 mins

45 mins

# of Questions

47

44

17

31

Question Types

Multiple choice

Multiple choice

Multiple choice, grid-ins

Multiple choice, grid-ins

Topics/Skills Tested

  • Vocabulary
  • Ability to find evidence for answers in passages
  • Data interpretation
  • Ability to improve flow and style of passages (Writing only)
  • English grammar and punctuation (Writing only)
  • Algebra (linear equations, functions, inequalities, etc.)
  • Nonlinear expressions
  • Data analysis (rates, ratios, percentages, graphs, etc.)
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Complex numbers

Scoring

One Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score on a scale of 160-760

One Math score on a scale of 160-760

 

In addition, I suggest reading our basic guide to the PSAT for answers to any general questions you might have about the PSAT, such as what it tests, how it’s scored, how much it costs, and how to register for it.

 

body_dartboard_numbers.jpgNext up, set a goal score! Ideally, one higher than 17.

 

Step 2: Set a PSAT (or SAT) Goal Score

A PSAT or SAT goal score can help you determine what PSAT score to aim for on test day.

If you want to qualify for National Merit, your PSAT goal score should be equal to or higher than your state’s cutoff score. (Note that cutoff scores are usually reported as Selection Index scores, but you can find estimated PSAT score conversions in our article on the PSAT score range.) 

In general, you must score around 1400-1480 on the PSAT to qualify for National Merit. As previously mentioned, the exact score you'll need varies depending on the state. Regardless, you'll have to aim high!

If you plan on eventually taking the SAT, you could also set a combination PSAT/SAT goal score. To do this, you must have a rough idea as to what colleges you want to apply to as a senior.

Once you've got your list of schools ready (you can use our handy chart), find the 25th and 75th pecentile SAT scores of admitted students to each of your schools. After, look for the highest 75th percentile score on your chart. This score will be your goal score for both the PSAT and SAT, as it's the score most likely to get you into all of the schools to which you're applying. 

Ultimately, if you can hit on or around this goal score on the PSAT, you should have little trouble getting the same score on the SAT. And even if you don't hit it on the PSAT, you'll know exactly what to work on during your SAT prep so that you can raise your score by the time you sit for the SAT.

 

Step 3: Take PSAT Practice Tests

If you really want to do well on the PSAT, one of the best ways to prepare for it is to take at least one official PSAT practice test. You can download these free, full-length tests by going directly to the College Board website.

Of all possible PSAT study materials, practice tests are arguably the best resources available. With practice tests, you’re getting authentic PSAT questions wrapped up in a complete test-taking experience.

Unfortunately, since the PSAT only recently underwent changes in 2015, there aren’t a ton of practice tests to choose from. Here is what you can currently access:

Other solid options for PSAT practice include Ivy Global’s PSAT practice test PDF—a high-quality, albeit unofficial, practice test—and official SAT practice tests (which we'll discuss more in Step 5). The Ivy Global practice test is a full-length test that's extremely similar to the official PSAT practice tests. The only downside is that its scoring guide uses the SAT scale (out of 1600) instead of the PSAT scale (out of 1520), making it a slightly less accurate representation of the PSAT.

Practice tests are excellent tools for tracking your progress. What you'll want to do is take one practice test at the beginning of your studies to get your baseline score (i.e., the score you start with). Then, follow Step 2 above to set a PSAT/SAT goal score. Once you've completed some PSAT prep, take another practice test to see whether you're closer to hitting your goal score.

As you take these PSAT practice tests, always simulate real testing conditions as closely as possible. This means taking the test in a quiet room without distractions and timing yourself on each section as you'll be timed on the actual PSAT. Doing all of this ensures you'll have a clearer and more accurate sense of where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

 

body_slip_banana_peel.jpgStep 4 is all about mistakes. My mistake? Following Donkey Kong.

 

Step 4: Analyze Your Mistakes

When studying, try to understand why the incorrect answer choices you’ve chosen are in fact wrong. This means you'll need to go through all practice tests and questions you’ve used for PSAT prep, mark the ones you answered incorrectly, and spend time figuring out where your logic or calculations went wrong.

Look to see whether there are any patterns in your mistakes. For example, are you consistently getting tripped up on certain question types? Do you tend to guess randomly instead of strategically? Do you struggle with certain skills or content areas, such as algebra or reading comprehension?

Being able to pinpoint your mistakes and understand what you can do to fix them allows you to avoid making these same mistakes on the PSAT and even the SAT or ACT.

 

Step 5: Use SAT Questions & Tests for Extra Practice

Other than the PSAT practice tests above, there aren’t many resources for PSAT practice questions. That said, there are tons of free SAT resources, with questions nearly identical to (though possibly harder than) those on the PSAT. Therefore, I suggest incorporating SAT materials into your PSAT prep if you're dissatisfied with the breadth of questions in PSAT practice tests.

Like the PSAT, the best resource for SAT practice questions is the College Board, which offers dozens of free questions for the three SAT sections on its website. All in all, there are:

For additional practice, take a full-length SAT practice testThese tests are nearly identical to the PSAT practice tests, differing only in length (i.e., number of questions) and difficulty. Each SAT practice test also comes with an Essay section, which you can skip since there are no essays on the PSAT.

While SAT questions and practice tests can be helpful for PSAT prep, remember that these resources are the best free resources for SAT prep as well. Therefore, you may want to reserve some of these questions for future SAT prep (unless, of course, you’ll be taking the ACT—in that case, go ahead and use all SAT resources for your PSAT preparation!).

 

body_black_wallet.jpgReady to open up your wallet? Or nah?

 

Should You Hire a PSAT Tutor? Sign Up for Classes?

Because the PSAT isn’t as important as the SAT or ACT, you generally shouldn't need to hire a PSAT tutor or sign up for PSAT classes. Remember, the PSAT is essentially just a practice test—it has no effect on your GPA or your chances of admission to college. So throwing a bunch of cash at a PSAT tutor or prep course will likely only waste time and money in the end.

The only cases in which PSAT prep courses and tutoring sessions are useful is when you want to qualify for National Merit or get a super high SAT score. In these cases, additional PSAT guidance can shed some much-needed light on critical concepts and skills you need to work on in order to get the score you want.

For most students, though, light prep and a self-guided study plan using free, high-quality resources is typically all you need to prepare effectively for the PSAT. Even just knowing the PSAT format can give you a leg up on test day! So try not to feel obligated to spend money on resources you may not actually need in the end.

If you do decide to invest in tutoring sessions or prep courses, just make sure the price doesn't bother you and that you can apply what you're learning to the SAT as well.

 

PSAT vs. SAT: How Is Test Prep Different?

There's no denying that the PSAT and SAT are undoubtedly similar—but they're certainly not identical, and thus neither is their test prep. Below, we go over the three key ways in which PSAT prep differs from SAT prep.

 

Intensity

PSAT prep is generally far lighter than SAT prep. This is primarily due to the fact that the PSAT is just a practice SAT and therefore a far less important test. Specifically, SAT (and ACT) scores are a significant college admission factor, whereas PSAT scores are not. (That said, being named a National Merit Scholar can certainly give a boost to your college application, especially in regard to financial aid.)

 

Availability of Resources

Since the SAT is a more popular and ubiquitous test, you'll find that there are many more resources available for SAT prep than there are for PSAT prep. This means you’ll have a broader range of materials to choose from when studying for the SAT—from prep books and apps to questions and practice tests—than you will for the PSAT.

 

Essay Section

Unlike the SAT, which includes an optional Essaythe PSAT does not include an Essay section. So if you’re taking the SAT with the optional Essay, you’ll need to make sure you adequately hone your writing skills prior to the exam. In other words, without having to practice composition, the PSAT is a slightly easier test to prepare for.

 

body_woman_dance_umbrella.jpgOnce you finish the PSAT, do a happy dance—ideally, with a frilly umbrella.

 

Key Takeaways: The Importance of PSAT Prep

If your goal is to perform well on the PSAT—whether because you hope to qualify for National Merit or simply want a better chance of scoring highly on the SAT—you’ll need to engage in some PSAT test prep. But if you're not aiming for National Merit or don't plan to take the SAT, you don't need to prep for the PSAT (or even take the test at all, if your school allows students to opt out).

The best way to get started on PSAT preparation is to learn the format of the test, including what questions it’ll ask and what concepts it'll test you on. Setting a PSAT or SAT goal score, too, can help guide your studies. Finally, it's a good idea to spend some time analyzing your mistakes and practicing with high-quality PSAT practice tests and SAT resources.

Most students shouldn't need to hire tutors or enroll in PSAT prep courses to do well on the PSAT. Because the PSAT isn’t a college admission test, scoring highly on it isn’t nearly as important as scoring highly on the SAT or ACT; therefore, there’s no point in spending money on PSAT prep unless you really want to qualify for National Merit and believe the resource will help you eventually get a high score on the SAT, too.

As for test prep, PSAT test prep is typically less intense than SAT test prep, as the PSAT isn't as important as the SAT. Moreover, there is no Essay section on the PSAT and only a small number of PSAT resources available, making PSAT prep overall simpler than SAT prep.

 

What’s Next?

You now know how to prep for the PSAT—but do you know how to register for itOur comprehensive guide walks you through the three critical steps you must take to sign up for this year's PSAT!

What's a good PSAT score overall? For sophomores? For juniorsLearn what constitutes a good PSAT score in general as well as how the definition of a "good" PSAT score can differ depending on your grade level.

Running out of PSAT prep time? Never fear! Follow our 10 last-minute tips to help you get the PSAT score you want on test day.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We have the industry's leading SAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so you get the most effective prep possible.

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in English and East Asian languages and cultures. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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