Student filling out answers to a test with a pencil.

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 common standardized test that students take generally 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.

By taking the PSAT, you can gain insight into where you stand with regards to the SAT—what areas of the test you excel in and which areas you might need to put in a little bit of work. If you do well enough on the PSAT, scoring in the top 3–4% of students within your state during that year, you could qualify to be a Commended Scholar and qualify for scholarships, including the National Merit Scholarship. 

Half of students score at least 1000 on the PSAT with the top 25% of students scoring at least 1150. If you want to aim for the stars, the highest score possible is 1520!

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! 

Both tests have the same format, ask the same types of questions, and have the same three sections: writing and language, reading, and math. The PSAT can help you identify your weaknesses and areas of improvement. With this information, you can create an individualized SAT study plan. 

We have a few PSAT tips that will help you tackle the test confidently and prepare for both the math and reading and writing sections. 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.

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:

  • Reading Test – 47 questions in 60 minutes.
  • Writing and Language Test – 44 questions in 35 minutes.
  • Math Test (No Calculator) – 17 questions  in 25 minutes.
  • Math Test (Calculator) – 31 questions in 45 minutes.

Another important note about both 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, guess! You will have a 1-in-4 chance of getting a higher score per question.

Prioritize Easy and Medium Questions

One of the biggest factors 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 (and problems 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. While you can retake the PSAT if you are unhappy with your score, there are significant restrictions on how many times you can do that. 

A much simpler and more effective approach is to take one of the official practice tests. These tests are free and available at the College Board website, which develops and administers the PSAT and SAT.

PSAT Tips for Math

A common concern for students sitting down to take the PSAT, SAT, or ACT is the math sections. These sections 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 Sections

As stated before, the Math portion of the PSAT is separated into the sections Calculator and No Calculator. The PSAT splits math concepts tested in each section into four categories: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional Topics in Math.

To do well on the math section, it is crucial that you are comfortable with questions from each category. 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

For both the Calculator and the No Calculator sections, 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 sections 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 the 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 your calculator. You only get 45 minutes to answer 31 questions (or just under 90 seconds per question) in the Calculator section. 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 efficient you will use your time.

PSAT Tips for Reading and Writing

Students who struggle in their English and Language Arts classes might find the Reading and Writing sections of the PSAT daunting. Have no fear as we have you covered with some great tips and strategies that will help you approach these sections. 

That being said, the best way to prepare for the reading and writing sections 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 passages you’re likely to find on the PSAT.

What Material is Covered in the Reading and Writing Sections

The Reading section of the PSAT incorporates passages or pairs of passages and asks students questions that test reading comprehension, command of evidence, vocabulary in context, and analytical skills. The Writing section introduces non-fiction and argumentative passages that assess a student’s command over grammar, vocabulary in context, and editing skills.

For both the Reading and Writing sections, you can apply some of the same tips:

1. Read with Intentionality

A pitfall in which students often unconsciously slip occurs in the reading sections. The PSAT reading section uses some dense passages, and it is not at all uncommon for students to find that they took the time to read it but zoned out or failed to comprehend what they read.

This is particularly problematic given the timed nature of the exam. You can’t afford to lose time! 

So for each passage, remind yourself to focus on the content. You might find it helpful to underline main ideas or keywords. This active reading will stave off any slips in concentration you might have. 

2. Prioritize Easier Passages over More Difficult Ones 

As with the other sections of the PSAT, you are going to want to prioritize the easier questions over the harder ones. Unfortunately, to identify the difficulty of the questions, you often have to read the passage first.

Therefore, in the reading section, you will have greater luck identifying the more difficult passages and reading the other ones first. 

For the reading section, this means being familiar with the different types of passages you are likely to see: at least one narrative passage and either an argumentative passage or an explanatory passage. The latter informational passages might include charts, graphs, or infographics to be interpreted.

If you know what kind of passages are easier for you to get through (for example, maybe you struggle with those pesky charts and graphs), then you can prioritize your strengths (and spend your initial time on the narrative passages).

3. Don’t Just Choose the Answer That Sounds Right to You

The last of the PSAT reading tips involves avoiding 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 is a surefire way 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.

PSAT Tips the Night Before the Exam

If you are reading this the night before the PSAT and were 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 a few 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). 

2. Familiarize Yourself with the Format 

Having looked over or taken a partial 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 section or you focus your energy on the algebra questions in the No Calculator section because you know those well.

Whatever it is, have a plan!

After the PSAT – SAT Prep with Piqosity

We hope these PSAT tips have helped you prepare for this test. 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 – Piqosity is here to help.

Joining Piqosity is FREE (no credit card information required, no sneaky fine-print trials). We offer a full SAT test prep course, starting at just $89. Start off with our mini diagnostic test to get a baseline score, and set realistic goals for your SAT success. Then, figure out a plan for exactly how you’d like to study. We’ll be with you every step of the way, so don’t wait, begin your test preparation journey with Piqosity today.

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