It may be an unusual year for education, but one thing is constant— October means PSAT and all the PSAT questions from parents and students. Today I’m going to answer some of the most  common questions about the PSAT, so you can understand its role in college admissions and what students should do to prepare. 

10 Questions & Answers to Help You Prepare for the PSAT (October 2020)

1. What is the PSAT and will my kid’s results get sent to colleges later? 

The PSAT is the Preliminary SAT / National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). It serves as a practice SAT for most students and results are never sent to colleges for use in admission. 

High school juniors can also qualify for National Merit Scholarship recognition and awards with ultra-high test scores on the PSAT. 

2. When is the PSAT?

Usually the PSAT is given in October. This year there are multiple PSAT dates due to the coronavirus pandemic. Check with your local high school to see which test date(s) they will be offering the PSAT

  • October 14 — Primary PSAT 
  • October 17— Saturday PSAT
  • October 29 — Alternate PSAT
  • January 26 — Additional PSAT

College Board will have different versions of the exam for each of these test dates. The questions will be different, but the content tested will be the same.  

3. How do we register for the PSAT?

Unlike the SAT where you have to register online, PSAT registration is handled at your local high school. There is a fee for the PSAT, but check with your guidance counselor to see how payment is handled at your campus. Some districts cover the cost of testing for all students with grant money and many private schools include the PSAT as part of the academic program paid for by tuition. 

If you are a homeschool student not affiliated with a traditional high school, you can take the test. Contact the public school in your area and let them know you would like to take the PSAT. Do this soon, because they don’t have unlimited materials.

4. What type of calculator should we get for the PSAT? The principal sent a long list of possible calculators and we don’t know where to start.

You do not need to spend a lot of money on a calculator for the PSAT. Students may NOT use their phones, but a basic calculator will do the job. 

Both of my children (college and 8th grade) have TI-Nspire calculators, one of the expensive graphing models. We did not purchase these for PSAT or SAT use. We decided to invest in these calculators because our kids would use them regularly in math class from Algebra I through Calculus. If you are considering purchasing a calculator for school that could also be used on the PSAT, I offer some additional guidelines here:  https://www.collegeprepresults.com/how-to-choose-the-right-calculator-for-high-school/

If a $100 – $150 calculator is not in the budget this year, don’t worry. A dollar store calculator that can add, subtract, multiply divide, and take a square root will be fine. For under $20 you can upgrade to a scientific calculator that has the basic trig functions: sin, cos, tan. This is the type of calculator I use when I take the SAT / ACT. I have an extra TI-Nspire that I intend to learn. It is sitting in my desk drawer. I haven’t invested the time in enough YouTube tutorials to make it useful to me. If I tried to use this fancy graphing calculator on a test it would do more harm than good because I would waste time trying to complete even basic tasks and I’d likely enter information incorrectly. (Do you know how to correctly use the parentheses on your calculator?!!!)

The best advice is for students to take a calculator to the PSAT that they know how to use. 

5. My son is doing virtual instruction this year. Do we need to schedule him to take the PSAT somewhere?

Probably not.

For almost all students the PSAT is simply a practice test to help them identify strengths, weaknesses, and potential scores on the SAT. 

Ages ago when I was in high school (before cell phones and the Internet!) we needed the PSAT to let us know how we might do on the SAT. Back then it was difficult to get official tests in order to practice. Today, you can print a PSAT from the College Board website and have your son take it timed at your kitchen table. (Print out the bubble sheet too and have him use it for the full effect!) You can score the test together and discuss the results. I have links to official PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests on my website: https://www.collegeprepresults.com/test-prep-resources/

However, there are a few students who might need to take the actual PSAT this year instead of an at-home practice. High scoring juniors who are seeking National Merit recognition will need the PSAT (or SAT) as a qualifying test. Check with your school’s guidance counselor or the National Merit website for more information. 

6. We just found out our 8th grader will be taking the PSAT. Why? Isn’t this a little early to start college testing?

My son is in 8th grade and I know how you feel. I will tell my son that the PSAT is an opportunity for him to get used to this type of testing. He should try his best, but this is really practice for the practice test in high school, so it should be a low stress event. 

Why are we testing 8th graders? 

Because the College Board, the corporation that brings you the SAT and PSAT, is looking to expand their sales and bring in customers early. Maybe this sounds cynical, but we don’t really need to give the PSAT to 8th graders in order for them to be prepared for the SAT in 11th or 12th grade. College Board has cleverly found a way to sell more tests. 

Part of the reason the PSAT 8/9 (the test designed specifically for 8th and 9th graders who haven’t had exposure to as much math) is popular at many high schools is for practical purposes. The PSAT 8/9 gives the freshman class something to do while the sophomore and junior classes take the PSAT. Why this extends to 8th grade testing is unclear.

7. Can you explain how the PSAT relates to scholarships?

I mentioned this earlier in the article, but the PSAT, junior year only, doubles as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying test. High scoring juniors will be recognized their senior year and can compete for National Merit scholarships. 

The scholarships from the National Merit Corporation are relatively small, but many colleges and universities offer substantial scholarships to National Merit finalists. 

If you are interested in learning more, I have some additional resources for you:

8. Should my daughter study for the PSAT?

In general, it is good to know what the PSAT will look like. This can help ease fears and reduce anxiety on test day. For students grades 8-10, I wouldn’t spend too much time preparing. You could look over a sample test and talk about the questions. My 8th grader and I won’t be doing anything to prepare him for the PSAT other than a quick reminder to do his best, but don’t stress if he doesn’t finish or doesn’t know how to answer some questions. 

If your daughter is a high scoring junior, she may want to do more to prepare for the PSAT because she is a possible National Merit scholarship candidate. 

9. My son does better if he knows what to expect on test day. Can you explain what’s on the PSAT and are there any sample questions we could look at?

Questions on the PSAT, fit into three basic areas:

  • Reading passages
  • Writing (all multiple-choice grammar)
  • Math

The reading section is always first and it’s long (60 minutes!). Students will have five passages with questions. These are NOT simple reading comprehension questions. Expect a number of questions with college-bound vocabulary and line references that require students to go back to the passage with an understanding of details. Students will see a variety of material: fiction, non-fiction, science, social science, and one “old” text (typically 100+ years old.) 

The writing portion of the exam is a multiple choice grammar test. Students will need to correct errors by selecting the “best” choice replacement for an underlined portion of text. Other questions may ask about organization, main ideas, and effective use of evidence. Consider this section a 35 minute peer editing exercise. 

The remaining two sections of the exam are math. Students will have a 25 minute section in which calculators are NOT permitted. In the final 50 minute section calculators are allowed. Students will find multiple choice and gridable student produced response questions. Math covers basic principles, algebra, and geometry and questions range from manageable to very hard. This is where some students need to be reminded that they may not have covered all the material they will see on the test. A 10th grader who is just starting geometry may not have enough knowledge or experience to accurately answer all of the geometry questions on the PSAT. (That’s ok!)

If you want to see what a PSAT looks like or to practice with a released exam, you can find them on the College Board site or on my website: https://www.collegeprepresults.com/test-prep-resources/  (You will find links to practice ACTs and SATs here as well.)

10. HELP! We are barely making it though each week of school. Now I hear the PSAT is coming up. I don’t think either of us (daughter or me) has the bandwidth for this. Is the PSAT something we need to buckle down and do or something we can blow off? (Normally I would be on top of things, but this year has been too much.)

I hear you! Virtual 8th grade is kicking my tail this year! 

The only students who really need the PSAT are those ultra-high scoring juniors trying for National Merit recognition. They need a qualifying test. 

Everyone else can “blow off” the PSAT if it is just too much. For some students that means they will take the test without looking at any practice materials. That’s ok. For students who are already stressed out or who find testing situations to be particularly anxiety provoking, that may mean they stay home or otherwise opt out of taking the PSAT. That’s ok, too. 

If you don’t take the PSAT this October (or January if that’s when your school is giving it), you can always take a PSAT later in the year or next summer. Print one out using the link from above and sit down one Saturday morning and take it timed. Yes, you will have to score it yourself, but that is actually better because it will force you to look at how many questions you missed and hopefully you will take a little time to look at the type of questions and why you missed them. 

Conclusion

The PSAT is a practice test. There will be a small percentage of juniors for whom the scores “count” because these students are hoping to earn National Merit recognition based on their performance. For everyone else it is just practice. Scores will not be used for college admission, so you don’t need to do extensive preparation, purchase an expensive calculator, or stress yourself out. 

Some students benefit from the experience of taking the PSAT under standard testing conditions at school, but you can recreate most of the experience by timing yourself at home as you take a released PSAT from College Board. 

The purpose of the PSAT is to help students identify strengths and weaknesses prior to taking the SAT. Focus your efforts on this goal.