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
- The National Merit Scholarship Corporation selects finalists from semifinalists who submit a scholarship application
- 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.
- Not only will this test better acclimate you to the test’s format, but you’ll also see how far your score has come.
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.
If you have seen a lot of mail from colleges coming for your high school junior, it’s most likely because they have just taken a PSAT or ACT. Colleges buy mailing lists from standardized tests. This is a way for lesser-known colleges to advertise to potential students. And a way for well-known schools to generate more applications which will then make their colleges more desirable and rank higher on lists like US News. This strategy began in the 1970s when the College Board agreed to sell names of students to colleges.
Sometimes the mail will seem personalized, noting the major your child is interested in. When the student takes the PSAT, they indicate their major of preference. This info is part of the info sold to colleges. Business schools can send mail to all potential business majors. Colleges also market to students based on their PSAT scores. So you may find that where University of Chicago is sending mail to a student who scored high on their PSAT’s their sibling who might have not scored so well is getting mail from lesser-known schools.
Is it important for your student to open this mail? Only if something about the school is intriguing. This could be an opportunity for your student to learn about a school they never have heard of. Otherwise, you are free to recycle the paper mail and delete the emails.
What if a specific school becomes aggressive in their mailings? The schools can be aggressive sending weekly emails with quizzes and activities to engage your child. They can ignore all of this. It will not make a difference if your student engages in these emails even if they plan to apply to that college.
Some college advisors suggest the student create a separate email address for all of their college related information. So before taking the PSAT help your student set up one of these emails. That way they can separate all the college-related email from their regular life email. If your student didn’t do this, then set up a folder with in their email box where they can store all the college-related emails. When they have downtime, they might spend a couple minutes looking at the emails, and then they can delete them.
Organization is important during the college search. Your student will also gather college brochures from tours and college fairs. So perhaps setting up a storage box and some filing folders will be a great way to store important items without them getting lost. You can toss the snail mail in there too.
The mail will slow down. It won’t be a solid two years of your mailbox being bogged down. But be on the lookout for those acceptance letters during the spring of their senior year. You don’t want to ignore those!
You sit in an auditorium packed to the gills with thousands of high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors from all around the nation. On the vast stage is a single podium, behind it a massive projector screen displaying the myKlovr logo and a single sentence in ten-foot high letters – the title of this article.
I walk on the stage wearing a myKlovr t-shirt and jeans, causing the audience to erupt in rapturous applause. I am, after all, myKlovr’s academic guru. I stand behind the podium and begin to speak:
“SAT and ACT scores are very important. That is all. Now please leave – Apple has reserved this space for their next product launch announcement.”
Without another word, I walk offstage, leaving the audience in stunned, frustrated silence.
I wake up from my dream and sigh. Becoming the Steve Jobs of the education world will have to wait for another day. However, my answer was pretty much on the money: SAT/ACT scores are a crucial component of college admissions success.
In this article, we’ll examine some reasons why your SAT/ACT scores are important no matter where you hope to attend college.
So How Important Are We Talking About?
You’re not just a number in the eyes of college admissions counselors. You’re a collection of numbers and letters. 😉
Yep, for a large percentage of applicants, ten seconds is all it takes for a college admissions counselor to make up her mind, even if she continues reading your application for a few additional minutes. This usually happens to applicants whose grades are in the C-F range, and their standardized tests are lower than the college’s Middle 50% scores for accepted students. This way, many applications go into the ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ pile as fast as if they were rolling off an assembly line.
In other words, good SAT/ACT scores prevent you from receiving an automatic rejection. This situation is stark a contrast to past decades when a good score was all that it took to gain acceptance to a top college or university. Not any more – at America’s top colleges, most applicants have respectable scores and top grades. Today, a high score keeps your foot in the door, making sure that the admissions counselor takes the time to read your essays and recommendation letters.
Not every college admissions counselor has the ‘automatic rejection’ mindset. If a college can afford a large admissions staff, for example, they may read everything in your application before making a decision. But admissions counselors are only human. When no one’s looking, and an admissions counselor has a large stack next to her (not to mention that it’s 6:00 PM and she promised her little girl she’d try to be home early once this week), what do you think might happen?
What if They’re Optional?
Submit them anyway. Everything helps. 🙂
What if My Dream College Doesn’t Require Them?
Yes, many colleges (and not just community colleges) no longer require standardized test scores to apply. Personally, I think that’s a step in the right direction. However, good scores are still important for two facets of the college experience:
- Course placement
Good scores may let you skip introductory-level courses (saving you money) and help you earn scholarships (saving you even more money). You don’t even have to apply for some of these scholarships; you gain some automatically if you live in a state with a lottery scholarship or attend a college with a guaranteed merit scholarship.
So if you like saving money, aim for a high SAT/ACT score.
There’s no way around it: good SAT/ACT scores may not earn you an automatic acceptance to your dream college, but they are still rank just under your grades in order of importance. And no matter what, make sure that every part of your application is as polished as it can be.
And since summer break is fast approaching, start researching college tours. The more the merrier!
As a teenager, people are always telling you what to do. Clean your room. Mow the lawn. Don’t drive too fast. Don’t get into trouble. Take a standardized test to get into college.
But at least you get a choice of which test to take. Yay…?
All right: I know that having a choice of which test to take doesn’t come as much comfort. Both the SAT and ACT are difficult tests that require dozens of hours of study time to achieve a respectable score goal.
One thing that shouldn’t take up a lot of your time is deciding which test to take.
In this article, we’ll explore some fundamental questions: what are the differences between these two tests, which one should you take, and do you need to take both? By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll have a plan to determine which test works best for you.
So what’s the difference?
You ever hear the phrase “like apples and oranges?” Well, the differences between the SAT and ACT boil down to “like apples and apples.” Just like the Galas and Honeycrisps in the produce section of your local grocery store, very little separates these two tests other than a few small cosmetic differences:
- The ACT has a Science Test, which is just a camouflaged, more difficult version of the ACT Reading Test.
- The SAT and ACT Math Tests have slightly different background knowledge requirements.
- The SAT has some grid-in questions on its Math Test.
There are a few more differences, but again, it’s not worth your time to know all of them.
Let’s get to the more important question:
Which one should I take?
In short, it all depends on your preference.
That’s right: just like your apple choices at the grocery store, your personal preference plays an important role. Just about every high school student naturally performs better on one test over the other. That means before you do a single second of test prep, you need to discover which test best matches your natural abilities.
Here’s how you select your test: take a practice SAT and ACT. Choose two Saturdays a week apart and take a different practice test on each one. Simulate test-day conditions by using a quiet place in your home or a local library.
End of story.
Do I Need to Take Both?
Should you take a practice test of both to determine which one better matches your natural skills? Yes. Do you need to study for both tests and report scores from both to your dream college when you apply? No. That would be a tremendous waste of the time and energy, both of which you need to polish other parts of your application and continue to perform well in your classes.
Before you protest, let me say that I get it: leaving the SAT or ACT score section blank on your application may make you feel like your application is incomplete. However, remember that when a college says they’ll take the SAT or ACT, that’s exactly what they mean. Having that one small blank space will not upset them one bit.
What if my school makes me take the SAT or ACT?
Some public schools require students to take the ACT or SAT in their junior year, usually during the school day. This is what it was like in the district where I taught for four years. If this should describe your situation, let’s look at some of the pros and cons.
- It’s (likely) free.
- It’s good practice.
- Your school may offer a (again, likely free) test prep program leading up to test day.
- You may not have enough time to prepare.
- The test may not be the one at which you’re naturally more capable.
- A low score may discourage you.
Consider a school-sponsored standardized test as a gift rather than a burden. In my experience working with students like you, the three pros significantly outweigh the three cons (and any others you may think up after finishing this article).
The standardized test-industrial complex wants you to believe that colleges view the SAT and ACT differently, or that there are significant differences between the tests. Insidious untruths, I say! Invest some time and energy in selecting a test. Then, and only then, create and follow through on a study plan.
After going through the college application process with my daughter, I don’t know how students can navigate through this world without some kind of guidance. The college application process is so much more complicated now than it was when I went to school. There are too many articles written and books published about the subject, it’s hard to know where to start.
The one thing that comes up a lot with high school college counselors is that colleges want to make sure the students are taking advantage of what the high school offers academically. For example, if your high school offers honors classes, then the colleges want to see that the student is taking them. And they don’t want to see that your child has free periods. If your student only needs three years of a language to graduate, encourage them to take that fourth year of a language. Same with math, don’t stop at the three year minimum. Senior year isn’t the year to take it easy. On the contrary, colleges especially look at what the student has taken on in their final year.
I’ve also learned that consistency is better than variety. It’s better to be on the Student Council for four years than to try a different club each year. Colleges look at follow through and how the student can grow within that experience. What the student does in the summer before junior and senior year is important too. Colleges want to see the student spending part of the summer either taking academic classes, doing an internship or working a summer job.
Some kids are driven by test scores, others want to enjoy high school and come out with a well rounded transcript. It’s important to get to know which kind of student yours is. My daughter realized she wanted to study journalism, so she picked her high school electives and internships around that. My son wants to go into the performing arts so he is gearing his extra circulars in that direction. Both kids already understand from their school that a high GPA and a rigorous course load is important, so that’s a given.
After watching my daughter study and retake the SAT three times and still end up with not the grades she wanted, I am convinced that she might not be the best standardized test taker. I don’t think my son is either, so instead of getting him a tutor and stressing him out about studying for the SAT’s I think he should focus his energies on his GPA and maybe apply to schools that are test optional. It’s not fair to force your student to do something they are not good at when they could spend that time working on what they excel in.
If you have the means, I think a virtual college counselor is a great idea. The virtual counselor will focus on your child and be able to access all the information out there. Sometimes working with an adult who is not the parent is important. An objective point of view can be refreshing to the student. And with crowded high schools, college counselors can’t always devote time to every student. So don’t take on the entire burden yourself. There is help out there and you’ll need it!
For Americans 60 and younger, standardized testing is part of our shared experience. The ACT and SAT are as much a rite of passage as they are tools for colleges to determine whom to admit. Some states even require high school students to take the ACT or SAT to graduate. These two tests are an ingrained part of the fabric of American life.
On the other hand, many colleges and universities no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores. Their reasoning: standardized test scores are just a number, and cannot reflect an applicant’s true to potential to succeed in college. Also, education groups have pointed to the SAT / ACT as the cause of teenagers’ unhealthy stress levels.
So what are you, a 21st-century high school student, to think? In this article, we’ll explore both sides of the issue. Finally, I’ll leave you with a little advice on how to excel both academically and mentally during standardized test season.
If there is a case to be made in favor of the SAT / ACT, it’s that preparing for these tests teaches you many life skills that you will need later in life. What do I mean? Let me break it down for you:
- Planning: Preparing for a standardized test requires a lot of planning. Do I need a tutor? Which test-prep book should I buy? How long each day should I study? These are only a few of the questions that you must consider when building a successful study plan.
- Routine / Discipline: Preparing for a standardized test requires you to create a study plan, along with the discipline to see it through. This is a life skill that people need no matter what life throws at them.
- Coping: Your first attempt at the SAT / ACT may not go the way you expect. If this happens, it’s okay to feel disappointed, especially if you created and followed through on a study plan. After sadness should come the resolve to improve on your weaknesses. Your test results will tell you where you need to improve, giving you a valuable study tool.
There are two sides to every coin, and the SAT / ACT has just as many cons as pros. Let’s look at the big ones:
- Stress on You: Do you get knots in your stomach when you think about the SAT / ACT? That’s not uncommon; I felt it, too. Also, as a teacher, I knew a few students who broke down in tears during these tests…even the practice tests.
- Stress on Your Teachers: Believe it or not, testing season has the same effect on teachers as it does on students. Think about it: they have to rearrange their schedules, teach test-prep strategies (boring!), and try to explain the importance of doing well on the SAT / ACT. Also, principals put pressure immense on teachers during standardized test season; many schools’ reputation rests on raising or maintaining their standardized test scores. In summary, nobody is having a lot of fun this time of year.
- You Aren’t a Number: As a former high school student and teacher, I have plenty of experience to prove that a test score is small potatoes compared to the everything else that makes up your college application portfolio. So even if your scores aren’t where you want them to be, feel confident in the other parts of your application that make you a shining star.
So it’s standardized test season. Besides creating and following through on a study plan, there are many things you can do to minimize the ‘cons’ this season brings with it. Here are two simple strategies:
- Cut everyone (and yourself) some slack: Students and teachers are testy this time of year, and it’s not uncommon for everyone to feel stressed out. Realizing that others feel the same way as you will help you work with your teachers and peers.
- Take some time for you: Study plans are great but combined with your school work, extracurricular activities, and family life, you can feel that you don’t have a moment for yourself. Yes, there will be many busy days, but don’t forget to build in personal time. If you have to put aside your work for an hour, the benefits will outweigh the negatives.
Standardized testing isn’t going away anytime soon. That being the case, I’m glad you took the time to learn about both sides of the issue. A little perspective goes a long way. Now that you have some essential knowledge, use it to help start your study plan. I wish you the best of luck on test day!