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Top 3 PSAT Prep Strategies Every Student Should Know

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PSAT Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying

The PSAT (think of it as a pre-SAT), owned by the College Board, is a multiple-choice test held in October of each year, and many high school students have been hard at work for months prepping on PSAT practice tests. If you are just getting started, here are a few things to know as well as the top 3 PSAT test tips.


PSAT Facts

  • The PSAT for most students is used as a practice SAT (also owned by the College Board). Scores on the PSAT exam do not factor in the college admissions process.
  • Students can only take the test once a year, and besides preparing a student for the SAT, the PSAT allows students to see the format and structure of the test first-hand (both the PSAT and SAT are multiple-choice exams).
  • The National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSQT) uses PSAT scores from students as one of the factors to determine awards. To participate in this program, 11th graders must take the PSAT.
  • If you score high enough and are selected as National Merit Scholar, you will receive a financial scholarship and notoriety for achieving such a high honor.
  • The PSAT is usually given to over 3 million students on a Wednesday in October and is open to 9th, 10th, and 11th graders.
  • The PSAT is mainly a multiple-choice exam, with no wrong answer penalty.
  • The PSAT has a reading section, a grammar section, one no calculator math section, and one calculator allowed math section. The test format is nearly identical, and you can use a similar strategy for the PSAT on the SAT.


Why Should I Take The PSAT

Since the PSAT has no bearing on college admissions, students are encouraged to test in the 9th and 10th grades to understand their academic strengths and weaknesses (only the ACT and SAT are used for college admission). Skills like analytical reading, grammar, and math reasoning take time to develop. The PSAT/NMSQT is given to 11th graders and serves as the official score for National Merit Scholarship.

Taking the PSAT early gives you more time to fix glaring problems. Glaring problems need more than PSAT tips to improve your score.


How Should I Prep For the PSAT

Tip #1: Know when and how to guess.

Since there is no penalty for selecting the wrong answer on the PSAT, never leave an answer blank. Here are a few rules to optimize your guessing strategy.

  • First, unless you have run out of time, try to use the process of elimination to get rid of at least one answer choice. On most PSAT questions, particularly the most complex ones, one answer choice will look very obvious.
Remember complex, and difficult PSAT problems do not have simple and obvious answer choices; otherwise, they would not be complex and difficult problems! You must practice these skills to get better.
  • Second, for PSAT scoring, there are only correct and incorrect answers. Engenius students are taught there are correct, incorrect, and bad answers. Your score on the PSAT will increase considerably if you approach the test looking for bad answers first, then incorrect ones.  

Because there are three wrong answers and only one right answer on each PSAT question, looking for the wrong answers first increases your odds of getting the question correct.

If you don't want to read something that complex, take it from me; guess randomly if you can't solve any part of the problem.


Tip #2: Pace yourself.

If you are not aiming for a perfect score (PSAT perfect score is 1520), then you can slow down a bit, answer the questions you know how to do, and guess randomly on the ones you run out of time for.

Here's why:

The PSAT has four sections (two verbal and two math).  The Reading test is long (47 questions in 60 minutes).  The Writing and Language test is much shorter, but you must work faster on each problem (44 questions in 35 minutes). The Math - No Calculator section is 17 questions in 25 minutes. Though you have more than a minute per question, you may wish you had twice the amount of time. The Math - Calculator Allowed section is a long one to finish up the day with (31 questions in 45 minutes).

Ok, so you now know how much time on each section. What do you do with this information? First, you need to know how many questions to get correct for the score you want.

If this is your first time taking a PSAT, you probably don't have a goal score.

Here are a few ranges to set a goal: the national average for the test is approximately 500 Verbal and 500 Math.  To score 500 per section, you must correctly answer about half of the questions.  

To be in the top 10 to 15 % of all test takers, you must correctly answer approximately 75% to 80% of all problems.

Tip #3: the Math - No-Calculator Math Section Requires Thought.

I know what you are saying, but don't the other sections require thought? Yes, but this section challenges your reasoning ability more than the others, so you need to change your mindset. Here's how:

  1. These aren't your math teacher's math problems! Look beyond what is stated and solve for every unknown. You often need to solve for one or two unknowns to find the missing link. Solving several parts of the problem that aren't essential may be necessary. Unfortunately, you won't know that until it is too late.
  2. If only variables exist in the problem, make up your own numbers and substitute them to help you solve the problem. For example, a problem may ask which is greater x and x2. At first, it appears to be x2, but what if you substituted in 0 or  ½ the outcome is different. For these problems, numbers like 0, 1, 2, fractions, and negative numbers all work well.
  3. If there are only numbers in the answer choices, use the answer choices to help you solve the problem. This "guess and check" method works great and often quickly gets you the right answer.


What Should You Do the Night Before the PSAT?

Everyone responds differently to stress, so there is no simple answer to what you should do the night before your test.

For some, the best thing to do is to relax, not study, go do something fun with your friends or do anything other than worry about the test. For others, the thought of not studying for a test is so stressful that you stress yourself out! If this is you, then, by all means, study, but not too much. Study enough to calm your fears and lessen your anxiety, then put the books down and relax.

No matter, it's vital that you get enough sleep the night before (as if sleeping isn't important enough already!). It may seem like common sense, but frequently people don't get enough rest the night before and will find their academic performance affected in some noticeable way.

So make sure you get as much sleep as possible - at least 7-8 hours. But before you go to bed, make certain you have everything you need (ID, pencils, something to snack on, and something to drink during breaks).

Even though this test is most likely administered at your high school, you will still want to bring some form of ID to prove who you are.

These tips will work on the ACT and SAT, so make certain you refer back to this when you take one or both of those exams.


What Should You Do on Test Day

On test day, make certain you wake up a bit earlier than you think you need to. You want to be fresh for the big day.

  • Eat breakfast. This will fuel you up with the right nutrients before you start answering PSAT questions. As for breakfast, make it a light one. This will give you time to digest before starting your test.
  • If possible, wake up early enough that you can go for a short walk or jog.  Physical activity energizes you and gets the brain thinking about anything except PSAT questions (at least temporarily).
  • Before the test, make certain you spend 15 to 20 minutes warming up your brain. You want to do a handful of easy problems in each of the sections (reading, writing, and both math sections). This will give you a chance to get your brain going so you can walk into the test ready to do your best.
  • Getting yourself mentally ready with this little bit of prep is worth it!

These strategies and tips will help you focus and, hopefully, help you score significantly higher on your PSAT!


PSAT Scores

Unlike SAT scores, PSAT scores take much longer to return to you. Normally you can get your SAT scores pretty quickly (2 to 4 weeks on average). The PSAT is run differently, and it often will take more than two months to get your scores back.

Rather than sit around and wait for your score, make certain you take a practice ACT, and even a practice SAT to see how you do. Many students have a preference for one test over the other. You can use this time before you get your PSAT scores back to practice on a real SAT or ACT.

For these and other ACT and SAT prep tips, contact the Engenius Learning Center near you.  Click the button below for a free 3-day trial! Please feel free to post a comment here or on your YouTube channel!

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Question: Is there a penalty for a wrong answer?

Answer: No. All sections of the PSAT are penalized for incorrect answers is something that was true years ago, but the College Board phased that out in 2016. 

Question: Is the PSAT just a practice test?

Answer: Yes and no. Most students will take the PSAT as a practice test (this is usually done in 10th grade). The PSAT can be a practice test for 11th grade, but 11th graders who are aiming to be a National Merit Scholarship Finalist will be taking the PSAT as a qualifying exam.

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