We’ve put together the following PSAT tips to help you prepare for this unique exam! The PSAT, more formally referred to as the Pre-SAT or the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), is a standardized test that students commonly take the first week of October. Some high schools require students to take it, while others make it optional.
Before your eyes start to glaze over as you learn about yet another standardized test, you need to understand what makes the PSAT unique: colleges won’t see your scores. This presents a low-risk, high-reward opportunity that can enhance your journey to college, allowing you to gain insight into where you stand with regards to the SAT. If you do well enough on the PSAT, scoring in the top 5% of students within your state during that year, you could even qualify for scholarships like the National Merit Scholarship.
This year, the SAT and the PSAT have undergone a major transformation—both exams are now digital, completely redesigned to be easier to take! Read our deep dive into the digital SAT for more details on this change to the SAT. We’ve updated this PSAT tips guide to cover everything you need to know about the digital PSAT so you can confidently tackle the test this October! (Unless otherwise noted, all tips are applicable for the Digital SAT, too!)
If you’re looking for PSAT/SAT prep materials, Piqosity now offers a full-length digital PSAT practice test for free!
What is the PSAT?
As described above, the “Pre-SAT” is a standardized test taken in the Fall semester of students’ Junior year, created to be a preview for the SAT they’ll be taking in the Spring. The PSAT exam presents students the opportunity to gain familiarity with the SAT, like a benchmark practice exam, without the added pressure of colleges seeing their scores.
Both tests have the same format, ask the same types of questions, and have the same two halves: a reading and writing section and a math section. The PSAT can help you identify your weaknesses and areas of improvement in these subjects. With this information, you can create an individualized SAT study plan.
Do you want to know where you currently rank among your peers in a low-pressure environment while learning what to expect on the SAT? Then try your best on the PSAT/NMSQT! However, it is important that you remember this is a low-stakes assessment of how you currently perform. We have some helpful advice for tackling test-taking anxiety, but don’t be nervous.
The Digital PSAT’s Adaptive Design
Unlike traditional pencil-and-paper tests where each tester takes the same exam, the digital PSAT and SAT are partially personalized.
Each section of the exam has two modules—the first module is the same for all students testing that day, while the second module depends on their performance on the first. If they get around two thirds of the first module right, their second module will be the harder version; if they don’t, their second module will be an easier version. The digital PSAT and SAT use this adaptability to gauge students’ abilities in fewer questions.
What’s a Good PSAT Score?
Historically, half of students score at least 1000 on the PSAT, and the top 25% of students score at least 1150. If you want to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, you’ll want to aim for a 1450 or selection index score of at least a 214, which is the average cutoff for Semifinalsits across the US.
Your total PSAT score will be a number between 320 and 1520, calculated by adding your scores from each section (160–720). While both sections of the exam contribute equally to your total score, the questions within each section do not all have equal weight. Whether a student took the easier or more difficult second module, as well as qualities of each question, are taken into account when calculating their section score.
How to Do Well on the PSAT
Because the PSAT has no real downsides, there’s no risk when you take the test. That being said, you still want to do your best. The following PSAT tips will help you understand the test better and raise your score.
Know the Structure
Knowing the format of the exam can help you determine how to study. The PSAT is nearly identical to the SAT—though it’s scored differently, it tests the same knowledge areas. The PSAT has the following structure:
Number of Questions
Reading and Writing
Another important note about the PSAT (and SAT) is that there is no penalty for getting a question wrong as opposed to skipping the question entirely. This means if you have no clue about a question or simply didn’t get to it in the allotted time, just guess! You will have a 1-in-4 chance of getting a higher score per question.
Prioritize Easy and Medium Questions
A crucial factor that sneaks up on many students is the timed element of the PSAT. Each section requires students to get through problems pretty quickly, but there are always some problems that just take longer to figure out than others.
Luckily, you don’t have to answer questions within the section in order. One of the best strategies to boost your score is to prioritize the easy and medium questions before tackling those difficult ones. This ensures that you get through as many problems (notably, ones that you are likely to get right) as possible.
Take a Practice Test
The single best method for improving your score on any standardized test is to have taken the test before. Unless your school offers it to 9th and 10th graders, you’ll only be taking the PSAT once, in 11th grade.
The most effective approach to prepare for the PSAT is to take practice tests. Official tests are free and available at the College Board website, the organization that develops and administers the PSAT and SAT. Piqosity has also just launched a completely free digital PSAT practice test, an effective option for students looking for personalized virtual practice.
PSAT Tips for Math
A common concern for students sitting down to take the PSAT, SAT, or ACT is the math sections. These portions tend to be more intimidating for some students, but we have some PSAT Math tips that will be sure to give you the upper hand.
What Material is Covered in the Math Section?
The PSAT used to have two math sections: Calculator and No Calculator. The digital PSAT has combined these into one large math section that allows calculator use throughout. The 70 questions in the Math section of the PSAT/SAT fall into four categories: Algebra, Advanced Math, Problem-Solving and Data Analysis, and Geometry and Trigonometry.
To do well on the math section, it is key that you are comfortable with questions from each topic. As stated before, practice questions are available in the form of official practice tests. Once you familiarize yourself with these categories, there are a few general PSAT tips that can boost your score further:
1. Review and Know your Formulas
Even though you’ll have access to a calculator throughout the math section, you’ll need to know your formulas. These include commonly used ones like the circumference of a circle or the quadratic formula that you have seen in your math courses up to this point.
Most of the formulas you will need are going to be given to you, but the difficult part will be knowing when and how to use and manipulate them to find the correct answer.
A good start on prepping for the Math section of the PSAT is to review the official math formula sheet given to you. Identify which formulas you feel comfortable with and which you need to brush up on. Then, refer back to practice tests for example problems to work on.
2. Be Comfortable with your Calculator
One tip that students often overlook is to become familiar with their calculator. You only get 44 minutes to answer 70 questions on the math section—an average of around 35 seconds per question. That’s not much time! The last way you want to spend precious seconds during the test is learning your calculator on the fly.
Before the exam, be sure to review the many different functions you will be asked to perform on your calculator. This includes the obvious multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction as well as using exponents effectively.
3. Identify What Concept is Being Asked
The first step of answering any math question is to recognize what concept is being tested. When you approach a new problem, quickly identify what is asked and then follow a strategy to find the correct answer. Most questions are formulaic, and if you can identify what kind of question is, then you can know how best to tackle it.
If you are able to understand the question well enough, you can determine if the question is worth your time. Should you answer it now or return to it after you have answered some easier questions? The better you are able to make that assessment, the more efficiently you’ll be able to use your time.
PSAT Tips for Reading and Writing
The new digital (P)SAT has combined the previously-separate Reading portion and Writing portion into one section of the exam. Students who struggle in their English and Language Arts classes might find the Reading and Writing section of the PSAT daunting. Have no fear, as we have you covered with some great tips and strategies that will help you approach this section.
What Material is Covered in the Reading and Writing Section?
The Reading and Writing section of the Digital (P)SAT has been entirely redesigned! You’re probably used to the old, standard format of page-length passages paired with several questions—these have been replaced with one short, paragraph-length passage embedded in each of the 54 questions. The subject matter of passages are either based in literature, history/social studies, science, or the humanities.
The best way to prepare for the reading and writing section of any standardized test is to read often, from as many types of sources as you can. It is especially helpful to familiarize yourself with the kinds of questions you’re likely to find on the PSAT. Read on for tips that can help you even more:
1. Read with Intentionality
A pitfall that many students unconsciously slip into often occurs in the reading sections of standardized tests—it’s not uncommon for testers to zone out or fail to comprehend what they are reading. However, the new format of Reading and Writing questions is designed to encourage students’ focus.
The shorter passage length in the digital Reading and Writing PSAT helps combat the burnout that students get from reading long or complex passages. However, this change can only go so far if students don’t actively focus on the exam—the PSAT is a fast-paced test, with an average of 1 minute and 11 seconds allotted per question. You can’t afford to lose much time!
So for each question, remind yourself to stay attentive. You might find it helpful to write a note about or highlight main ideas or keywords. (Bluebook, College Board’s app for PSAT/SAT testing, has an “annotate” feature for passages—similar to the interactive tools in Piqosity’s practice test question interface!). This active reading will stave off any slips in concentration you might have.
2. Prioritize Easier Passages/Questions over More Difficult Ones
As with the math section of the PSAT, you are going to want to prioritize the easier questions over the harder ones. Luckily, College Board made another change to the Reading and Writing section that lessens your burden—“…Questions that test similar skills and knowledge are grouped together and arranged from easiest to hardest.”
Thus, the new PSAT makes it straightforward to prioritize easy questions: complete the sections for the ELA topics that you’re confident in first, working through questions in the order presented to you. The questions in the Reading and Writing section will be under one of four categories of literacy knowledge: Craft and Structure, Information and Ideas, Standard English Conventions, and Expression of Ideas.
If you know what kind of passages are easier for you to get through, you can also prioritize your strengths when it comes to genre. The subject matter of digital PSAT Reading and Writing passages are either based in literature, history/social studies, science, or the humanities. Developing a solid understanding of how each of these types of passages is presented is key when it comes to preparing for the PSAT reading and writing section.
3. Don’t Just Choose the Answer That Sounds Right to You
We’d like to warn you to avoid a very common heuristic that students use when breaking down sentences on grammar questions. A heuristic is a shortcut to solving a problem—a famous example is the use of a “rule of thumb”, a rule that doesn’t always work but often gets you close to the right answer.
In the case of grammar, students will typically break down a sentence into its component parts (e.g., independent clauses, dependent clauses, phrases, etc.) by listening to how the sentence sounds when spoken and looking for pauses in the sentence. Don’t do this! It can cause you to make big grammatical mistakes and get questions wrong.
Instead, spend the time learning the grammar rules that are most likely to be tested on the PSAT, such as Standard English sentence structure, punctuation, and word usage.
4. Practice College-Level Vocabulary
There aren’t long word lists of unusual and unwieldy vocabulary that you’ll be expected to remember on the PSAT. The College Board states that the vocabulary you’re tested on for the PSAT are commonly encountered words in college-level reading. Plus, all vocabulary questions are presented with additional context.
If you develop your personal diction in your own time by reading high level texts with rich vocabulary and learning the meaning of common college-level vocabulary words, you’ll have a much easier time on both the PSAT and SAT reading and writing sections.
For more information on the Digital SAT Reading and Writing section, keep an eye out for our “Digital SAT Deep Dive” article on the Reading and Writing section—coming soon!
PSAT Tips For the Night Before the Exam
If you are reading this the night before the PSAT and hoping for some immediate help, there’s not a lot that you can do to prepare. We do have a short list of last minute PSAT tips that you can implement in a crunch to squeeze out some more points, but don’t expect a drastic improvement in your performance.
What to Do With One Day to Prepare
The most effective thing you can do with only one night to prepare is to make a plan of attack. You need to know how you are going to approach each section of the PSAT. With that in mind, these following tips for the PSAT will help you build a strategy.
1. Take a Portion of the Practice Test
With limited time, the best thing you can do is still to look at a practice test and familiarize yourself with the format and questions. You likely don’t have the time for a full run, but you can take half the test (maybe just the odd questions, or the section that you’re less confident in).
2. Familiarize Yourself with the Format
Having looked over or taken at least part of a test, review the areas where you were strongest and where you were weakest. We want to avoid any surprises on the big day.
Know which sections appear in what order and know how much time you will be allocated for each section. This will provide you with the foundation for our following tip.
3. Create A Plan
Having a plan will go a long way to raising your score, and you’ll likely find it even more beneficial on such short notice. Strategize around your strengths and weaknesses. Have a plan for each section with an understanding of how you are going to approach those questions.
Maybe this means you avoid the science passages in the reading and writing section, or you focus your energy on the algebra questions because you know those well. Whatever your strengths and confidence are, develop a plan around them!
After the PSAT—SAT Prep with Piqosity
We hope these PSAT tips have helped you prepare for this test and get acquainted with the digital format. After you get your PSAT scores back, analyze your errors and sort them into categories so you can figure out where you’re making mistakes. In addition, don’t forget to use outside resources to prepare for the SAT—as you begin or continue your test prep journey, Piqosity is here to help!
Along with our full-length, online ELA and Math courses for grades 5-11, we offer full SAT, ACT, and ISEE test prep courses, each of which includes 12 practice exams, dozens of concept lessons, personalized practice software, and more. In addition to our upcoming digital SAT course, we’re also offering a free digital PSAT! This DPSAT is designed to help you prep ahead of time for the October exam’s format, available by signing up for a Piqosity community account.
Our free community account allows you to try out all of Piqosity’s features. When you’re ready to upgrade, Piqosity’s year-long accounts start at only $89. (Secure a 10% off coupon by joining our mailing list!)