Do Your Best on the PSAT


In mid-October, thousands of sophomores and juniors across the country will take the PSAT. For most students, the PSAT is their first dive into college admissions standardized testing. And while PSAT scores themselves won’t be consequential for the majority of test takers, this does not mean that the PSAT is pointless. In fact, some practical, focused preparation for the PSAT can help make the experience productive and useful for attaining higher SAT (or even ACT) scores in the future. Here’s how to do your best on test day.

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Know the structure. Like the SAT, the PSAT has four sections. Knowing what you’re facing is half the battle.

  • Reading (60 minutes, 47 questions) –– Tests reading comprehension through questions asking about main ideas, author’s intent, words in context, textual evidence, and data interpretation. Shorter than the SAT Reading section by 5 minutes and 5 questions.

  • Writing & Language (35 minutes, 44 questions) –– Tests understanding of English grammar, mechanics, and usage through questions about punctuation, sentence efficiency and structure, subject-verb agreement, proper word choice, and much more.

  • Math – No Calculator (25 minutes, 17 questions) –– Tests skills in manipulating and interpreting algebraic expressions, word problems, geometry, and data interpretation. Unlike its SAT counterpart, does not test trigonometry. Shorter than the SAT Math No Calculator section by 3 questions.

  • Math – Calculator (45 minutes, 31 questions) –– Tests basically the same content evaluated in the No Calculator section, but allows the use of a calculator for more involved computation. Shorter than the SAT Math Calculator section by 10 minutes and 7 questions.

The vast majority of questions on the test are in multiple choice format. However, each of the Math sections features problems at the end that require students to compute their own answers.

Typically, students will get a 10-minute break after the Reading section and a 5-minute break after the Math – No Calculator section.

Get a feel for the style of questions through practice. There’s no better way to know what’s coming than to practice with official exam materials before test day. The College Board website offers two full-length sample PSATs; download them and use them for practice! Pay close attention to the question types that repeat. Use the answer keys to highlight questions you answer incorrectly, and try to see where you went wrong.

Develop a strategy. If your practice reveals that you’re pressed for time or tend to really struggle with the most difficult questions, remember that you don’t need to finish the sections to do well. Set a goal for the number of questions you’ll answer on a given section, and seek to maximize the percent of these questions to answer correctly. For the problems or questions you can’t get to, guess! You can’t lose points for incorrect answers –– your score is calculated based simply on the number of questions you answer correctly.

When the scores come back, use the report! PSAT scores usually come back in December. When used in the right way, the score reports can be very revealing. The data can help you increase your score on the SAT, and even on the ACT!

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