By Thomas Broderick
Considering all the standardized tests that you take in high school, it’s easy to overlook the PSAT. After all, it’s a practice test. On the one hand, the pressure’s off. On the other hand, you may feel that you don’t need to try your best on test day.
But you should try your best. A great score can help you tremendously when it comes to getting into your dream college.
In this article, we’ll examine the test’s format, difficulty, and relationship to the National Merit Scholarship Program. Let’s jump in!
What’s the Format?
Let’s compare the PSAT and SAT’s format and time requirements.
|Evidence-Based Reading & Writing:|
Reading: 60 Min., 47 Questions
Writing: 35 Min., 44 Questions
|Evidence-Based Reading & Writing:|
Reading: 65 Min., 52 Questions
Writing: 35 Min., 44 Questions
No Calculator: 25 Min., 17 Questions
Calculator: 45 Min., 31 Questions
No Calculator: 25 Min, 17 Questions
Calculator: 55 Min., 45 Questions
|Total Time: 2 Hours, 45 Min||Total Time: 3 Hours|
- The SAT also includes a 50-minute optional essay. More on that in another article. 😉
- You do get short breaks between sections on the PSAT.
In the smallest of nutshells, the PSAT closely mirrors the SAT in format and time. Think about it: it would have to as the results are meant to predict how you’ll perform on the SAT. Now that we know a little bit about the test, let’s cover a few key facts about each section.
- Five passages
- Literature (1)
- Social science (1)
- Science (2)
- U.S. founding document or an international text inspired by U.S. founding documents (1)
Big Takeaway: The reading test is 80% non-fiction, meaning that to improve your reading comprehension skills (and score), it’s better to read the newspaper than your favorite novel.
Writing and Language
I have three words for you: grammar and usage. On this test, you’ll face passages with underlined portions and the dreaded NO CHANGE option. Believe it or not, NO CHANGE can trip up a lot of test takers by making them second-guess themselves.
Big Takeaway: As there are a TON of grammar and usage rules out there, I’ll keep it simple. Buy a used copy of Strunk & White and learn to love it.
The first thing you need to know about the mathematics section on the PSAT is that the first 17 questions (the no calculator ones) are grid-in questions, meaning that you provide the answer rather than selecting from a handful of options. That’s part of the reason why you have 25 minutes – you need to write in the grid and bubble in the answer so that a machine can score it.
Here’s what the mathematics portion covers:
- Everything you learned through middle school
- Algebra I
There’s a lot of math in those four bullet points, but I bet it’s the last one that has you the most worried.
Big Takeaway: Jump down to the next section to learn more about the most significant difference between the PSAT and SAT.
Is it Easier Than the SAT?
Short Answer: Yes, but only a little.
Long Answer: The good folks at the College Board designed the PSAT for a slightly younger crowd, meaning that on the PSAT, you won’t find more than two questions that deal with an introduction to trigonometry. Expect a lot of algebra and geometry questions, though. The Reading/Writing and Language questions are about as difficult as their SAT equivalents.
What’s the NMSQT?
Short Answer: PSAT = National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and the test takers who earn the highest scores receive a scholarship and/or recognition for their accomplishment.
Long Answer: Test takers with excellent PSAT scores can receive one of four distinctions:
- Commended Student
- Test takers who score above the College Board’s super-secret selection index score
- The top 0.5% of test takers in each state
- Typically 1% of all finalists receive a scholarship
In other words, it’s more challenging to earn a National Merit Scholarship than it is to get into Harvard.
Even if You Don’t Receive a Scholarship
Were you a finalist, semi-finalist, or a commended student? If so, you may not have an extra $2,500 to spend on college, but you have something else just as valuable: bragging rights. Although I don’t recommend that you actually brag on your college applications, definitely bring up your finalist/semi-finalist/commended student status in your personal statement or application. As these distinctions are rare, they’re going to earn you a TON of points with college admission counselors.
Should I Prepare for the PSAT?
A lot of high school students take the PSAT ‘cold,’ meaning they’re using the test to determine their baseline score. Going in cold can be a valuable strategy, as having authentic PSAT results can act as the foundation for an SAT study plan. However, many students want to shoot for the stars and become National Merit Scholars. If this describes you, let’s talk prep work.
Creating a Study Plan
Here’s a valuable ‘plan of attack’ to use when preparing for the PSAT.
Note: For maximum impact, start this plan about five weeks before the real PSAT
- Take a practice test under timed conditions.
- Saturday morning would probably be the best time to do it.
- Score it.
- Analyze the results to determine your weakest areas.
- Start with the ‘easy fixes’: topics that take you the least amount of time to improve.
- Slowly work your way up to harder subjects.
- An excellent study plan means commitment. Try to spend 30 minutes to one hour a day preparing for the PSAT.
- A few days before the real PSAT, take a second practice test.
- Not only will this test better acclimate you to the test’s format, but you’ll also see how far your score has come.
- If you earn a higher score on the PSAT, that’s great! If you earn a lower score, you may need to research and practice test anxiety remedies.
What Happens After I Take the PSAT?
Analyze (and Learn From) Your Scores
Whether or not you prepared for the PSAT, you can learn much from your score. If you went into the test cold, consider the experience as steps #1 and #2 in the previous section’s study plan. Also, think back to how you felt on test day. If you had any test anxiety symptoms, it might be time to consult some resources to make sure when you take the SAT, you don’t have to worry about high heart rate, sweating, and feelings of hopelessness.
Expect a Lot of Mail
Even if you did ‘just okay’ on the PSAT, expect a lot of physical and digital mail to show up soon after you receive your results. The College Board – along with the ACT – make a lot of money selling your info to colleges and universities across the country. The benefit for you is that when a college sees that you’re an okay to strong test taker, they’ll reach out to you with a letter or packet that describes their schools and what they can offer you as a potential college student.
Reading through the material will teach you much about colleges and how they operate. Like advertisements, they’re trying to catch your attention. Not all schools will interest you; that’s fine. For the ones that seem promising, contact them to learn more and start discussing college tours with your family.
The PSAT can be scary, especially if it’s your first standardized test. For that reason, even if you don’t create a study plan, I’d still recommend that you take one timed practice test. That way, at least you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into.
My other final thought is that no matter how much you study, please remember the PSAT is just the start of a standardized test journey that lasts until you take – and likely retake – the SAT. So, if your results aren’t what you expect, cut yourself some slack. As a 21st-century high school student trying to do his or her best, you deserve it.