Even if prepping for the SAT or ACT isn't the most enjoyable of activities, it's easy to see why it's important to do well on these tests. Depending on your point of view, SAT and ACT scores are either tools that colleges use to help figure out if you're a good match for them and if you'll succeed at their schools...or are admissions gatekeepers that you have to conquer if you want to attend most American colleges*.
By contrast, PSAT scores are never seen by colleges. Even if you get a perfect score on the PSAT, it's really only useful for helping you qualify for a National Merit Scholarship—something that only US citizens and permanent residents are eligible for.
So why prep for the PSAT, and what do you need to know about PSAT prep if you're interested in trying it out? Keep reading to find out more about the pros and cons of focused PSAT prep (rather than joint PSAT/SAT prep) and what our PSAT prep recommendations are.
Why Take the PSAT?
While the SAT (or ACT) is far, far more helpful to college applications than the PSAT, there still are good reasons to take the PSAT. We'll start with the most important reason: if taking the PSAT is required by your high school.
If The PSAT Is Mandatory in Your School
In some high schools (particularly public high schools), the PSAT is mandatory for all students. Sometimes, this just means that you'll have to take the PSAT NMSQT the fall of your junior year. Depending on your school, however, you may also have to take the PSAT NMSQT or PSAT 10 sophomore year, and indeed some students start taking PSAT-like-exams (PSATLE?) as early as 8th grade with the PSAT 8/9.
Dealing with all these extra standardized tests is kind of a pain as a student, but from the high school's point of view, the PSAT is a good way to see if students are on track for college applications. No matter what point of view you look at it from, though, if it's mandatory to take the PSAT at your school, then you'll have to take the PSAT.
What if, though, you don't fall into this category? Perhaps you could take the PSAT but you'd have to go to a different school to take it, or your school offers the PSAT but doesn't require students take it—should you take it anyway? In these cases, the PSAT is still worth taking for the following two reasons.
Taking the PSAT Is Mandatory to Qualify for National Merit
You may know that another name for the PSAT students take in the fall of 11th (and sometimes 10th) grade is the PSAT NMSQT (or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). That's because the only way to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship is through taking the PSAT NMSQT as a high school junior.
National Merit Scholarships are merit-based (rather than need-based) awards given to students who have (through testing and other factors) qualified as National Merit Finalists.
The competition for National Merit is open to high school students who:
- are enrolled and progressing normally towards graduation (basically, you plan to graduate high school in four years, not more or less)
- plan to enroll full time in college the fall after high school (no gap years!)
- are US citizens or US lawful permanent residents planning to become citizens
We'll discuss the different kinds of scholarships you can win by becoming a National Merit Finalist (and what steps beyond the PSAT you need to take to become one), but for now, just know that if you want to win a National Merit Scholarship, you must take the PSAT NMSQT in your junior year and do extremely well.
The PSAT Is Great Practice for the SAT
Taking the PSAT can be a great low-stakes way to see what taking a college entrance exam will be like. You can treat it as an extra chance to get used to standardized testing without having to worry about the scores affecting your college acceptance.
Learning how you react to extended periods of focus on a test, how stressed you feel doing a math test without a calculator, what the time pressure is like—you can gather tons of different data points for future SAT/ACT prep by taking the PSAT.
There are fewer and fewer schools these days, even among top-tier colleges and universities, that require all SAT scores sent (notable exceptions include Yale, Georgetown, UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon), so if you have the time and money, you can take the real SAT just to see what it's like and not worry about your scores. However, in most public high schools, taking the PSAT is free—or at least significantly cheaper than the SAT—and its administration is built into the school day (no need to waste half a Saturday).
Bottom line: the PSAT is a fine way to dip your toe into the waters of college entrance tests at low cost but under realistic conditions.
Dip your toe into the water of college entrance exams with the PSAT and the sands of standardized test experience will follow.
PSAT Prep vs. SAT Prep: What's the Difference?
While there's a lot that remains the same between the PSAT and the SAT (including the subject areas covered and test structure), there are a few major differences between the tests that lead to differences in PSAT prep compared to SAT prep.
The most important difference between the two tests is that PSAT scores are not looked at by colleges, whereas SAT scores are very much an important factor in college admissions. It's possible to argue that colleges might consider your being a National Merit Semi-Finalist when looking at your application, which indirectly relates to your PSAT score, but the SAT vastly outweighs the PSAT in importance when it comes to college admission. Because of this, PSAT prep is lower stakes than SAT prep.
Another key difference between the PSAT and SAT is that the PSAT has no essay section. While the SAT essay section is optional, and more and more schools are making it optional to send SAT essay scores, there are still a number of schools (mostly highly selective colleges) that do require you to take the SAT with the essay. Therefore, students prepping for the SAT and aiming for a high score to get into top-tier schools will need to spend some of that prep time learning how to write a high-scoring SAT essay. By contrast, students studying for the PSAT don't need to bother with essay prep.
Overall, the PSAT is also a little easier than the SAT, both in terms of timing and content covered. With the exception of the Writing and Language section (which has the same number of questions and is the same length on the PSAT as on the SAT), there are fewer questions per section on the PSAT than the SAT. While you have the same time per question on PSAT Reading as on SAT Reading, there are fewer questions on each passage; and both PSAT Math sections give you more time per question while asking fewer questions than the SAT Math sections do.
The cumulative result of these timing differences is that you need slightly less endurance to take the PSAT than the SAT—you only have to concentrate for an hour and 45 minutes instead of two full hours. Combined with having more time to answer each Math question, these timing differences between the PSAT and SAT mean that when prepping for the PSAT, you don't have to get as good at time management as you do for the SAT.
Finally, there are subtle differences between the content covered on the PSAT and SAT. As we mention in this article comparing the PSAT and SAT, there may be slightly fewer big picture and inference questions and more detail-finding questions on the PSAT than on the SAT.
In addition, the PSAT Math sections contain proportionally fewer questions that require geometric and trigonometric knowledge than do the SAT Math sections. Instead, PSAT Math includes more questions (compared to SAT Math questions) on the Passport to Advanced Math topic areas, like functions and linear and nonlinear systems of equations. Your PSAT prep will reflect this difference—instead of having to cover the SAT's harder topics (that you may not have yet learned in school as an 11th grader), you can spend more time perfecting a smaller number of skills.
Now that we've discussed why you should take the PSAT at all and the differences between prepping for the PSAT and the SAT, we'll move on to the debate of whether or not to prep for the PSAT.
Why Do PSAT Prep?
With the College Board offering free SAT prep through Khan Academy and ACT, Inc. offering paid ACT prep, it's become pretty clear that even the testing companies themselves admit that prepping for the SAT and ACT will help you get a higher score.
Because the PSAT is just a slightly easier, slightly shorter version of the SAT, it makes sense that you can prep for the PSAT and increase your score the same way you can with the SAT. Since PSAT scores aren't used in college applications, however, it can be harder to figure out whether or not it makes sense for you to prep for the PSAT.
To help you decide, we've laid out the arguments for the three most compelling reasons to spend time prepping for the PSAT: qualifying for National Merit, focusing on one thing at a time, and getting ready for SAT prep.
Reason 1: Qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship
The number one reason students take the PSAT is to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. We have a more detailed breakdown of how the National Merit Scholarship process works in this article, but basically what happens is that you take the PSAT NMSQT in the fall of your junior year to see if you can score well enough to become a National Merit Semifinalist (which is the first step on the road to becoming a National Merit Finalist and getting a National Merit Scholarship).
As a National Merit Finalist, you can win a National Merit scholarship, a scholarship from your college, or a corporate scholarship. For more info on how to get each type of scholarships, read this article explaining how you can qualify for and win a National Merit scholarship.
Let's now go back to the first step of the process, which happens when you take the PSAT NMSQT in the fall (usually October or early November) of your junior year. Your PSAT score qualifies you for National Merit depending on whether your score passes the cutoff for your state.
The cutoff isn't announced officially by the College Board, but it can be inferred from students receiving notification that they have or haven't become a national merit semifinalist. You can find out what your state's National Merit cutoff score was last year here.
By taking an official PSAT practice test or by comparing your sophomore year score on the PSAT to the cutoff score for your state, you can get a good idea of how much prep you'll need to score high enough to pass your state's cutoff score and become a National Merit Semi-Finalist.
Aiming for a National Merit Scholarship but worried your score won't qualify? If you're not sure you can self-study your way to a qualifying PSAT score, you'll love our PSAT prep program, PrepScholar.
We designed our program to learn your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics and customize your prep to be as effective as possible for you. When you start with PrepScholar, you’ll take a diagnostic that will determine your weaknesses in over forty PSAT skills. PrepScholar then creates a study program specifically customized for you.
To improve each skill, you’ll take focused lessons dedicated to each skill, with over 20 practice questions per skill. This will train you for your specific area weaknesses, so your time is always spent most effectively to raise your score.
We also force you to focus on understanding your mistakes and learning from them. If you make the same mistake over and over again, we'll call you out on it.
There’s no other prep system out there that does it this way, which is why we get better score results than any other program on the market.
Check it out today with a 5-day free trial:
Reason 2: Focusing on One Test at a Time
Because PSAT prep and SAT prep are so similar, many students who are aiming for National Merit either go straight to studying for the SAT as prep for the PSAT or try to study for both tests at once. Whether or not this is effective really depends on the individual student.
Some students thrive by multitasking. Whether it's doing homework while listening to music and eating dinner or preparing to take multiple SAT subject tests on one day, these students get good results when they maximize their time by doing multiple things at once.
For other students, however, having to prep for multiple things at once (particularly if they're academic or test-related things like the PSAT and SAT) is so stressful that it leads to poorer performance on everything. As an example: during college, I had multiple assignments I had to hand in at the end of each finals period. Rather than work a little on each assignment each day, I found it more effective for me to focus on one project at a time and get it out of the way before going on to the next.
Similarly, depending on what kind of student you are, you may find that it's more helpful to start out by focusing just on the PSAT, getting that over and done with, and then moving on to study for the SAT. This "one thing at a time" strategy works well for students who have some time during sophomore year or the summer before junior year to set aside specifically for PSAT study.
CAUTION: If you're just starting to study the fall of your junior year and your prep time is limited, you're better off going straight to SAT prep. If you have to choose between PSAT prep and SAT prep, the clear choice is SAT prep. It's only if you have the time to do both that you should consider prepping for the PSAT and SAT separately.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by everything you have to do for college applications, it can be helpful to prep for one test at a time.
Reason 3: Getting in Gear for SAT Prep
One other benefit to prepping for the PSAT is that it put you in a good place for SAT prep.
As we discuss in detail in this article comparing the PSAT and SAT, there are very few content differences between the PSAT and SAT (the main difference being in the math concepts covered and the increased length of the SAT). By prepping for the PSAT, you'll be more than 75% of the way there for the SAT. You won't be able to get away without doing any SAT-specific prep (particularly for those math topics that aren't on the PSAT), but the amount of work that you'll have to do is way less than those starting on SAT prep from scratch.
If the "doing more prep now means less hard prep later" argument isn't convincing, think about it in non-test prep terms. Imagine that you want to learn how to play the piano by the end of junior year of high school. You have the option of learning how to play an electric keyboard first or just starting straight on the piano. Also, for some reason there's an electric keyboard competition the fall of your junior year that could lead to you winning money; it's only open to people playing the electric keyboard, though (not people playing the piano).
Because the electric keyboard and piano are so similar, if you do start out by just teaching yourself to play the electric keyboard (what the notes are, how to read music, how to do different things with your right and left hands at once, etc), you'll be most of the way there to learning the piano; all you'll have to get used to is the bigger range and using the pedals. Or in test-prep terms, if you prep for the PSAT, you'll just need to learn any pre-calc math you hadn't learned when you took the PSAT and work on time management and endurance in order to prepare for the SAT.
What if you're already studying for the SAT, or don't have the time to first study for the PSAT and then for the SAT? Going back to the analogy, if you already know how to play the piano, then you don't need to do intensive prep to teach yourself how to play the electric keyboard—you just need to do a practice test to make sure you get used to playing on a simpler instrument. Or in the case of the PSAT/SAT, if you've already studied for the SAT, you just need to take a PSAT practice test to make sure you're all set for that.
Basically, if you prep for the PSAT, it'll help you prep for the SAT; if you're already prepping for the SAT, that will also prep you for the PSAT.
While we've gone over some of the reasons students might want to prep for the PSAT, there are also cases in which PSAT prep is unnecessary and pointless. We'll get into these cases in the next section.
When PSAT Prep is Unnecessary
As we mentioned above, the main reason to take the PSAT (other than your school forcing you to take it) is to qualify to apply for a National Merit Scholarship.
If you're not interested in qualifying (or are ineligible) for that National Merit Scholarship, then there is no point in doing pure PSAT prep. That doesn't mean you can't prep at all—you just should jump right into prepping for the SAT (or ACT)
You can still treat the PSAT as a chance to take an official standardized test and get used to what sitting and concentrating for that long at once feels like, but there's no need to prep for the PSAT in particular.
Another important point that we touched on earlier is that prepping for the SAT will help you with the PSAT. If you start to prep for the SAT before your junior year (when you'd take the PSAT NMSQT), any SAT prep you do will also prepare you for the PSAT.
Of course, if you're not prepping for the SAT effectively, then you won't prep for the PSAT any more effectively. But, assuming you're putting in time and effort in the right way, if you're already prepping for the SAT, there's no need to do additional PSAT prep.
Summary: Is PSAT Prep Right for You?
Whether or not it makes sense for you to prep for the PSAT specifically (instead of just prepping for the SAT) depends on a few different factors. We've put these factors into a checklist you can go through below to see if prepping for the PSAT is the right call for you.
Should You Study for the PSAT?
You're hoping to qualify for National Merit
You don't care about National Merit
You work better when focusing on prepping for one test at a time
You're already prepping for the SAT anyway
You want to get a head start on prepping for the SAT but don't want to prep for the SAT because you haven't learned all the math you need to know for it yet
You don't have the time and just want to focus on SAT prep
If you checked off all "No" answers, there's no need to do any PSAT-specific prep; instead, you should turn all your prep energies toward studying for the SAT (or ACT).
However, if you checked off any of the "Yes" reasons, then it's worth thinking about doing some prep for the PSAT in particular.
Doing well on the PSAT is just the first step to winning a National Merit Scholarship. Find out how the whole process works with our complete guide to becoming a National Merit Finalist and winning the scholarship.
The PSAT NMSQT is only offered once each year in the fall, but what date is it this year? We tell you when the PSAT is and when you'll get your scores in this article.
Curious what the PSAT looks like? Want to try your hand at a practice test? We have a complete list of all the free official practice tests the College Board has released here.
Want to improve your PSAT score by 150 points? We have the industry's leading PSAT 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 that you get the most effective prep possible.
Check out our 5-day free trial today:
Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.