Quick Tips for Taking the PSAT

This Wednesday, October 16 is one of the national administration dates for the PSAT. I wanted to offer some quick tips for students taking the PSAT.

First, everyone should understand that the PSAT will not be used for college admission.
For 9th and 10th grade students the PSAT is 100% practice. For 11th graders the PSAT will be used to determine National Merit awards, but will NOT be sent to any colleges.
9th and 10th graders don’t need to prep for the PSAT. Using these tips and taking the test seriously (no pressure, but trying their best) will give you an honest picture of scoring strengths and weaknesses. Juniors should already know if their PSAT is just for practice or if they are in the top 3% of test takers who need to prepare for and focus on the PSAT for National Merit recognition.
All students will do better on tomorrow’s PSAT if they can focus on the questions (instead of stressing about results.)

Quick Tips

1. Don’t leave any questions blank. 

That’s right. Fill in an answer for everything.
Parents, you may remember the days when the big test taking advice was to leave questions blank if you were uncertain of the answer. Everything changed in 2016 when College Board made the most recent updates to the SAT and PSAT.
The current exam only counts questions a student gets right (no points off for wrong answers.) It makes sense to fill in every question— even if it is a guess.

2. Understand the test format. 

The PSAT follows a predictable order:
  1. Reading 60 min
  2. Writing 35 min
  3. No Calculator Math 25 min (That’s right, no calculators allowed on this section!)
  4. Calculator Math 45 min (You need to bring your own calculator!)
Students should expect to sit for almost 100 minutes doing passage based questions (reading and writing) before starting on 70 minutes of math.

3. Read carefully. 

This is deceptively simple advice. Most students make it through the day skimming material— reading quickly to glean main ideas. This type of reading allows them to work through assignments, but backfires when it comes to the PSAT.
Every. Word. Matters. 
Students should read everything carefully. This means every word of every answer choice, paying attention to punctuation in the writing section. Every part of every math question. As temping as it may be to skim, don’t.

4. Write in your test booklet.

Don’t try to keep everything in your head. As you mentally eliminate choices in your head, cross them off on the page. Don’t attempt calculations in your head; write them out. Draw figures. Write out equations.
No one is going to frame your test booklet when you are done, so go ahead and use it.

5. Pace yourself. 

Some students work too quickly and make careless mistakes. Some students are meticulous, but work so slowly they can never finish enough questions. Pace yourself to be efficient (finishing enough) and effective (getting questions correct.)
We can remember the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. She didn’t want the porridge that was too hot or the porridge that was too cold; she wanted the temperature just right. When it comes to PSAT pacing, you can use a similar plan: not too fast, not too slow— just right.
Ideally students will practice pacing over many weeks. If you are looking for the quick cram option, simply look at the total time per section (written above and on the top of the first page of the section) and approximate where you should be 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% through each section.
 [The next 5 tips will focus on specific sections.]


6. If part of a reading answer is wrong; the entire answer is wrong. 

Do not settle for a “part right” answer; it’s a trap! If any part of a reading answer is incorrect (or just not 100% right), eliminate it. This is where that careful reading comes in handy!


7. Do not rely on your ear when answering the grammar questions.

Most native English speakers do a lot of grammar by ear when it comes to their own writing. We have a “that doesn’t sound right” warning that keeps us from making many common errors. Unfortunately, the PSAT writers know this and exploit it.
You will find PSAT writing questions that sound terrible, but are technically correct. You will also come across many options that sound good, but are wrong.
Utilize your knowledge of actual rules of grammar and usage and don’t rely on “sounds good” grammar.

Reading & Writing 

8. There is a “best” answer.

The concept of “best” answer can be tricky. It means there may be one or more good / correct answers, but one is clearly superior (at least according to the PSAT writers!)
As a quick strategy this means students need to read ALL answer choices and evaluate them. Don’t circle the first one you find because there may be another choice that is better.
In a long-term prep program students should study what the deceptive wrong answer traps are, what specifically the PSAT is asking / looking for, and the best strategy for answering different question types.


9. Not all math problems are multiple choice. 

Approximately 15% of the PSAT math problems are not multiple choice. Students will have to solve these problems and grid their own numerical answers into the bubble sheet.
Some students like these questions because they feel more like the problems encountered in math class; others find them much harder. Just be ready for the few grid-your-own-answer questions at the end of each math section.

10. Math problems are presented in order of difficulty. 

Math questions start off easier and become progressively harder.
This information is key. High scoring math students know they need to work earlier problems at a faster rate in order to have time for the hard questions at the end. Struggling math students know to focus on the more “do-able” questions at the beginning of each section because they may be forced to guess on the hard questions towards the end.
The only catch to this order of difficulty arrangement is that difficulty “resets” when the question types change. This means that towards the end of both math sections students will find easier grid-in problems. The big tip here is to work those easier grid-your-own-answer questions before you struggle through the hardest multiple-choice problems.
Wishing all students well on the 2019 PSAT!
Get a good night’s sleep, focus, and try your best. (There is no need to panic!)

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