Test Prep

Everything You Wanted to Know About the PSAT

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 MinTotal Time: 3 Hours

Quick Notes:

  • 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
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry

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
  • Semifinalists
    • The top 0.5% of test takers in each state
  • Finalist
  • Scholarship
    • Typically 1% of all finalists receive a scholarship
    • $2,500

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. 

Final Thoughts

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.

How to Balance SAT Test Prep With School Schedule

How do you add test prep into an already full schedule of academic classes and extracurriculars? Hopefully during the summer your student established a test prep routine. Maybe using phone apps, or an online test prep program, or even a test prep class. My son has a twenty-minutes-a-day routine. But those twenty minutes can get used up pretty quickly now that school is here.

I think the best test prep is self-motivation. When my daughter was a junior in high school she really didn’t get the urgency of test prep. By the end of junior year, she understood and stepped up her game. Suddenly test scores mattered to her as she was beginning to narrow down the colleges she wanted to attend and saw their minimum SAT score requirements. So perhaps start talking to your child early in the year about which colleges they are interested in. Look at the requirements of those colleges with them and let the reality sink in. If it’s something they want (getting into a specific school) instead of something you want (them to practice SAT) then they will become self-motivated and the test prep will take on an importance. With my own experience, this shift was necessary.

According to The Washington Post, “In June 2015, SAT administrator College Board partnered with Khan Academy, a nonprofit education organization, to launch Official SAT Practice.” The Khan site is free to use and allows the student to connect to their College Board PSAT scores. Khan will prepare practice questions designed to support the students’ needs based on their scores. The student can practice with Khan at any time of the day and get instant feedback.

Research shows that test prep will increase the student scores by an average of thirty points. Some people argue that’s not enough increase to warrant expensive tutors or take time away from academic studies. Others argue thirty points may make or break your student getting into a top college.

I would sit down early with your child. Evaluate which schools they want to get into and compare their SAT or ACT scores with the average score for that school. Then come up with a game plan. Get your child involved in their future as soon as possible. Taking responsibility for their own actions will only benefit them later. And help them balance their prep time with everything else.

Summer SAT/ACT Test Prep Progress

Two months ago my son agreed to do SAT test prep for twenty minutes a day. That plan went pretty well the first week, but we found that on weekends, his days were so packed he could barely find a minute to study. He’d been using an SAT test prep book at home and we were just about to go on a long road trip. I was worried his twenty-minutes-a-day plan would disappear. Then I discovered SAT and ACT practice apps I could download for free. I was elated. He was a bit bummed that he now had no excuse not to study on the road, but I convinced him the apps are game-like and might relieve some boredom on the long car ride.

These are a few that he has tried:

Math Brain Booster Games is a free download in the Apple Store. This game helps to build speed and mental math skills. It’s fun to pick up and “play” and has a timed element which gives it a competitive edge. Their description notes, “it will improve ATTENTION, REACTION and VELOCITY.”

The Daily Practice for the SAT®, free app from The College Board, has several parts. One that my son found helpful was the Scan and Score feature which allows you to take a photo of your SAT practice worksheet and obtain instant test scores. They offer an SAT Question of the Day, or the chance to binge on specific SAT practice questions. Not the funnest interface, but definitely closet to the real thing given that it was created by The College Board.

Magoosh offers the free ACT Practice Flashcards app. This harmless interface allows the student to move through a series of flashcards and set their own practice pace. By logging in, your child can keep track of their progress and easily pick up where they left off. Practice sessions for English include: Punctuation and Grammar, and Structure and Style. For Math: Integer Properties, Fractions and Ratios, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Advanced Topics. For Science: Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

So no need to let the family summer road trip be an excuse for your child to stop SAT or ACT prep. And parents, you might want to try the app once in awhile. There’s nothing wrong with a little mental math practice in your adult years. And besides, children learn from example, right?

Spring Has Arrived and So Have SAT Scores

Traditionally the PSAT is taken in the Fall of tenth grade. Some students begin studying for it the summer before. Methods of study can be in the form of a PSAT practice book, online course, private tutor or an in person course.

Merit scholarships are offered for students scoring in the top one percent of the PSAT. The PSAT is a good indicator of how your child will do on the SAT. Some statistics say that SAT scores will rise at average 139 points from PSAT scores.

More and more colleges are putting less weight on SAT scores. SAT’s are not always the best indicator of the student’s ability and more and more colleges are becoming test optional. On the other hand, larger universities might rule out students with lower SAT scores. Each college or university will tell you what the average SAT score is for the students they accept. Lewis and Clark College has a Test Optional component where you send in additional writing samples and letters of recommendation instead of test scores if you are not a good test taker

If your child is leaning towards SATs it’s probably best to have them take the SAT at least twice. The first time they might have been nervous and just getting used to the test taking environment. Do you press them to take the test a third time? There are different approaches to this. One parent I talked to told me their child needed ten more points on his SAT in order to qualify for his dream school in Scotland, so that student has a huge motivation to retake the SAT for a third time.

My son is not a great test taker but he is a great student. He’s planning to take mostly honors classes next year as a junior and we have just had the conversation about SAT prep. As a family we decided that he would be better off not spending lots of time on SAT prep, instead spend that time on getting his GPA as high as he can. He will then focus on applying to test optional colleges.

Studying for the SAT is almost like taking on an additional class that requires daily homework and most importantly self motivation. There is only so much time in the day for eleventh graders. I’d say, pick and choose what is going to show you off the best. Can you add the rigor of SAT prep and not give up the school musical or sports team? If you can, then great, if it’s too much, then something has to give.

Sophomore year is a great time to research colleges and see how much weight they put on SAT’s. And then guide your child in the direction that suits them the best. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in this country and not all require high SAT scores.

SAT or ACT? Which One Should I Take?

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.

Whichever score is stronger (Compare your practice test scores to the latest percentile rankings for the SAT and ACT), that’s the test you will study for and eventually take.

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).

Final Thoughts

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.

Juniors: Use Midwinter Recess to Make an SAT/ACT Prep Plan!

Despite having the illustrious title of ‘academic advisor’ at myKlovr, I don’t know everything. For example, five minutes ago I had no idea that public school students in New York City had a midwinter recess, or what a midwinter recess even was. I grew up in Tennessee, and we only got spring break!

As this article is slated for publication on midwinter recess eve, please take a moment to enjoy the fact that you have a week off of school.

*Momentary Pause for Enjoyment*

Now that you’ve had enough time to enjoy your break, let’s get down to business. Juniors, if you haven’t already taken the SAT/ACT, the time is fast approaching! The next ACT is on April 14th, and the SAT follows right behind it on May 5th. Simply put, you have between eight and ten weeks to prepare for your first date with a standardized test.

Let’s use part of this week to create an SAT/ACT prep plan!

Selecting Your Test: 2 Days

A quick Googling informs me that in New York City, the SAT is a much more popular test than the ACT. But popularity doesn’t mean everything. If you know the colleges you want to apply to, research their admissions data to determine which test the majority of applicants take before applying. If your dream colleges have no preference, or you don’t yet know where you want to apply, it’s time to take a full-length, timed practice SAT and ACT.

Yes, you will need two days, one for each test. Don’t try to take them both on the same day; your results will be as useful as pulling a random score out of a bag. Take the tests in the morning, just like you will on test day. Once you have your scores, compare them against the SAT and ACT percentile rankings. On whichever practice test you earned a higher percentile, that’s the one for which you will prepare.

Note: To give your brain a break, skip a day between each practice test. That way test fatigue won’t affect the results of your second practice test.

Figuring Out Your Weaknesses: 1 Day

It’s time to dive into the test results to discover your weaknesses. You can do this in one of two ways:

  1. By Question Topic: For each section of the test, arrange all missed questions into categories based on their question topic. For example, if you missed a comma question on the ACT English test, that question would go under ‘commas.’ When you are finished, you will understand which topics are giving you the most trouble.
  2. By The Reason You Missed the Question: Did you miss the question because of a simple mistake, because you misunderstood part of the question, or because you had no clue how to solve the question? By categorizing your missed questions this way, you can identify the ‘low hanging fruit,’ question types you can master with the least amount of effort.

Either way, you organize your missed questions, you will discover your weaknesses on the SAT or ACT. The next step is to create a study schedule. 

Scheduling Time Between Now and Test Day: 1 Day

Sit down with a calendar and mark everything coming up between now and test day that has nothing to do with the test itself. Examples include family activities, working at a part-time job, extracurricular activities, etc. All of these commitments come before studying for the ACT/SAT, so you need to know just how much time you can dedicate to studying.

Remember, you don’t need to study every day. When planning and executing a successful study schedule, the key word is ‘consistency.’ If you make a plan to study four times a week, see it through. If you resolve to commit one hour to each study session, see it through. Just like exercising, studying will become more natural if you make it part of your routine.

Start Your Study Plan: 1 Day

There’s no time like the present to get into the studying habit. Near the end of your midwinter recess, take an hour to hit the ground running. As it’s your first study session, start with something easy, one of the ‘low hanging fruit’ topics we discussed earlier. Mastering a simple topic will give you a sense of accomplishment and encourage you later on. Also, another reason I’d recommend starting with an easy topic is that you probably won’t need outside help. Save the harder topics for when you’re back in school and can call on the help of teachers and peers.

Final Thoughts

Hey, would you look at that: midwinter recess lasts a total of nine days, and you’ll only need five of them to help you create an ACT/SAT prep plan. That means there’s still plenty of time to relax, and maybe even play tourist in your hometown.

Happy studying!

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