It’s PSAT week!!  That means many of you sophomores and juniors may be taking the PSAT soon.  Here are five tips and strategies if you’re looking to do your best.  I also give you a little bit of information about the test and why it matters.


The PSAT is a practice version of the SAT.  It’s a little bit shorter than the SAT (2 hours 45 minutes without breaks, versus 3 hours without breaks). It’s typically given on a lovely Wednesday in October smack in the middle of the school day (or possibly on a Saturday if that’s how your school does it).  It has no essay portion.

Generally, test results are released, along with a full report of your answers and a copy of the exam for you to review, in December.  You can use this test as a diagnostic guide. Use it in your test prep planning to help you decide whether you want to take the SAT or ACT– and how much studying you’d like to do.

Additionally, the test can qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Find more on that at the end of this article (you’ll need to score in about the top 2% of students nationally for any such recognition).


TIP #1: Bring Stuff

Namely: a #2 wooden (non mechanical) pencil, a calculator approved by the College Board, and a watch that doesn’t beep.

If you’re a serious overachiever, you can also check out our extensive post on What to Bring to the SAT or load up your calculator with programs by clicking here.

TIP #2: Familiarize Yourself with the Test

One of the best things you can do if you’ve only got a bit of time to study, is to get to know the test and what it entails.  If your school didn’t give you a booklet on the exam, print out a practice test from online and review it.

In particular, pay attention to the directions on the test. One of the biggest time wasters for students unfamiliar with the exam is reading the directions.  They are the same on every test, so read them once now, before your clock is ticking!

If you’re looking to cram for the exam tomorrow, I also suggest you check out our post on How to Cram for the SAT— it’s nearly the same test and all the cramming tips apply here, too!!

TIP #3: Pace Yourself

The biggest error new test takers make is spending too long on a few tough problems.  The truth is, for 98 percent of you, this test is practice and nothing more.  Even if you are in the top two percent of test takers, spending a ton of time on a single question can easily kill your score.  If you don’t understand a problem and have given it a good minute to try to figure it out, mark it and move on.  Come back to the problem at the end of the test.  Remember you are allowed to write in your test booklet-– so don’t be shy!  Star or circle anything you want to come back to double check.

Additionally, if for some reason your pacing strategy doesn’t work out, remember that on the new SAT and PSAT, you are not penalized for guessing.  So be sure to put an answer down for EVERY question, even if you don’t have time to actually attempt it.

TIP #4: Brush up on your Skills

As a standardized test, the PSAT covers multiple skills that you’ll be expected to know.  You can review these skills just as you would for any test at school.  In particular, the grammar section and math sections cover specific rules that you can go over on your own, either with SAT prep materials or free online with Khan Academy.

You can also check out some of our other blogs and videos on the SAT for more advice on how to be better at the test itself:

5 Tips for the SAT Reading Section

How to Self Study for the New SAT

SAT Self Study Game Plan

TIP #5 Don’t Freak Out!  It’s just Practice…Unless You’re a Top Scorer…

For most of you this test is just practice!  So don’t worry too much if you mess up.  No college will ever see your score.

The only people who might be a bit more nervous about the test are American citizens or permanent residents on a path to citizenship who score in the top 2% nationally.

The top 1/2 of 1 % of students in each state are invited each year to become what is called “National Merit Semifinalists” — and additionally, the top 2% or so nationally are honored as National Merit “Commended Students.”  Because semi-finalists are judged according to what state they’re in. If you live in New Jersey or California, it’s much more competitive to become a semi-finalist than if you live in West Virginia or Wyoming.  If you’re in the latter states, the cut off for “Commended Students” may actually be about the same as that of becoming a semi-finalist.

To calculate which students qualify, the National Merit folks calculate a selection index based on twice your reading/writing score and one times your math score. In other words, your verbal score counts more toward this program.

Those who qualify as semifinalists can become finalists so long as:

-They apply for the honor

-Their grades are great and as amazing as their test scores

-They take the SAT and receive a similarly high “confirmation” score.

If you’re a finalist, you qualify for scholarships– but be warned– you’re not getting a full ride to Harvard from your National Merit scholarship.  These are usually employer or school dependent. Most of the schools offering scholarships aren’t top 20 institutions– i.e. you may get a sweet deal from a school like USC or the University of Kansas. Unless your parent’s company offers a giant scholarship, the money in this game is usually on the less impressive side.  In any case, the distinction is a great honor and can help boost your college application and make you an even more impressive applicant to wherever it is you’re applying.