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A Complete PSAT Study Guide

Is the PSAT on the horizon for you? If so, you may be wondering what makes this test important and how you can best prepare for it. In this complete PSAT study guide, we will examine the impact of the PSAT on a student’s academic career and offer strategies, tips, and resources to help you pave the way for success.

Understanding the PSAT

Before you dive into creating your perfect PSAT study plan, it’s important to first understand the structure of the PSAT and its potential impact on your academic journey.

Test Structure and Scoring

Like the SAT, the PSAT has also migrated to a digital format. The digital test consists of 2 sections (Reading and Writing and Math) each made up of 2 modules. The Reading and Writing section contains 54 questions total (27 per module) and takes 64 minutes to complete (32 minutes per module or about 1 minute and 11 seconds per question). The topics of the questions that appear on the Reading and Writing section include:

  • Craft and Structure: 13 to 15 questions.
  • Information and Ideas: 12 to 14 questions.
  • Standard English Conventions: 11 to 15 questions.
  • Expression of Ideas: 8 to 12 questions.

The Math section of the PSAT contains 44 questions total (22 per module) and takes 70 minutes to complete (35 minutes per module or about 1 minute and 35 seconds per question). The topics of the questions found in the Math section include:

  • Algebra: 13 to 15 questions.
  • Advanced Math: 13 to 15 questions.
  • Problem-Solving and Data Analysis: 5 to 7 questions.
  • Geometry and Trigonometry: 5 to 7 questions.

After completing the PSAT, students will receive a total score that ranges from 320 to 1520. This score is the sum of the scores the student earned in the 2 sections, each with their own range of 160 to 760. The scoring process takes into account the following factors: correctness or incorrectness of the answer, difficulty level of the question, how the question evaluates skill level, and the ease of guessing the answer to the question. By considering all these qualities, the PSAT can provide a more accurate measurement of students’ academic abilities.

Why the PSAT Is Important

The PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, is sometimes referred to as the NMSQT, or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is cosponsored by the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The National Merit Scholarship is one of the reasons why taking the PSAT and performing well is important to many students.

Students whose PSAT scores meet a certain criteria may be eligible to earn a National Merit Scholarship. The National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes top scorers in each state and rewards them with one of 3 options: a corporate-sponsored scholarship, a college-sponsored scholarship, or a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship. Students may also gain other academic opportunities through the program, such as full-ride scholarships and networking connections.

The PSAT can act as a measuring tool for students preparing to attend college and take college readiness tests like the SAT and ACT. It does not directly impact college admissions, but it can help students understand their own academic abilities and identify areas in need of improvement. Students who experience test anxiety may also benefit from taking a standardized test that is not as high stakes as the SAT or ACT. The PSAT provides an opportunity for nervous students to practice test-taking strategies and become more comfortable in a testing environment.

Creating a Study Plan

If you want to perform your best on the PSAT, you’ll need to develop a comprehensive study plan that allows you enough time to prepare. Use these tips to help you create a personalized plan that fits your schedule and studying needs.

Setting Goals

Before you start preparing, you should set a goal for your PSAT score that aligns with your reasons for taking the test. Are you interested in earning a high enough score to become a National Merit Semifinalist? Do you want to use the exam as practice for the SAT? In each case, defining your goals enables you to prepare in a way that makes achieving those goals easier.

It may help to determine your target score for the PSAT. Those looking to earn a National Merit Scholarship, for example, should aim for their score to land in at least the top 10% of test takers. The cut-off scores to become a National Merit Semifinalist vary from year to year, but you can increase your chances of being selected by setting and meeting a high target score. The average score for PSAT test takers is about a 920, so students interested in scoring in the top 10% should try to earn a score between 1210 and 1520.

Time Management

Balancing schoolwork, extracurricular activities, a social life, and PSAT preparation is a challenging task for high school students. Typically, students take the PSAT in October of their junior year, so you should have plenty of time to plan out your preparations in advance. 

Create a study schedule that is realistic and achievable. You don’t want to ask too much of yourself or be forced to neglect other commitments in favor of studying. In most study plans, consistency is the key to improvement. Try designating specific time slots for daily or weekly PSAT study sessions for the best results.

Practice Tests

Practice tests are an extremely useful tool for PSAT prep. They can act as a benchmark that helps students measure their current abilities and figure out where they may need to focus their studies to make improvements. 

Use practice tests to identify your strengths and weaknesses at the start. Then, incorporate them into your regular study routine. Review each test thoroughly, analyzing mistakes to understand patterns and refine your strategies. Taking practice tests frequently will also familiarize you with the test format and help you improve your time management skills.

Content Review

The bulk of your study sessions will most likely involve reviewing content that may appear on the exam. Based on the results of your practice tests, you can focus your content review in areas that need improvement and continuously adapt to center on different skills. Remember to review both strengths and weaknesses to maintain a balanced understanding and ensure your best performance on test day. You can find content resources online or utilize study guides provided by your school.

Maintaining a Healthy Balance

Preparing for the PSAT is important, but you won’t be able to perform to the best of your ability if you neglect your well-being along the way. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat well, and take breaks regularly, especially in the days leading up to the exam. Don’t feel pressured to neglect your extracurricular activities or your social life either. Try to find a balance that enables you to properly prepare without sacrificing fun.

Test-Taking Strategies

It’s nearly impossible to prepare for every single question that will appear on the PSAT, so it’s important to have effective test-taking strategies on your side that can help you navigate the exam. Try out some of these!

Process of Elimination

Process of elimination is a tried and true method of narrowing down your answer choices and increasing your probability of guessing correctly. If you’re unsure about the answer to a question, try striking out the choices that you know can’t be the correct answer. Once you have your options narrowed down, you can compare and contrast the remaining choices and use context clues to make an educated guess.

Answer Every Question, Even Difficult Ones

You will not be penalized for answering questions incorrectly on the PSAT, so you should choose an answer for every question. Even if you are unsure, make your best guess and move forward. Try not to spend too long deliberating over difficult questions, as this can quickly eat into your allotted time for that section. Use the tools provided to mark the question for review and return to think more about it later if you have extra time.

Practice Reading Strategies

The passages that appear on the PSAT can be about any of the following topics: literature, history, social studies, the humanities, and science. There will only be one question for each passage, so you may not need to spend a long time picking them apart, especially if you are pressed for time. It may be helpful to try reading the question before the passage. This way, you can stay alert as you read to pick out the information that will be relevant to selecting the right answer. Feel free to skim passages when necessary, but pay close attention to critical details.

PSAT Resources

There are lots of resources available to help students prepare for the PSAT. Let’s go over a few of them now.

Official PSAT/NMSQT Practice Tests

You can find official PSAT/NMSQT practice tests online here. Since the PSAT has gone digital, the online practice tests will look extremely similar to the actual test. You can effectively use these tests to simulate what it will be like on exam day. Set up a timer and take your practice tests in a quiet environment to give yourself the full test day experience.

Test Prep Courses

If you’re unsure where to start in your PSAT preparations, online prep courses can be a great guide. They provide resources to help you review the right content and offer a study schedule that will keep you engaged and active. Plus, online instructors can explain difficult concepts in easy-to-understand ways and answer all your last-minute questions in the days leading up to the actual test.

Learn more about online test prep with Prep Expert!

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