Everything Students Need to Know About the PSAT

The PSAT raises concerns and confusion for many. The primary question students ask is, “What is this the purpose of this test?” The follow up questions often inquire, “Is this really preparing me for the SAT, or is there some other point? Will it count for my grade in a class? What if I’m planning to take the ACT not the SAT?” Students want to know if the PSAT ‘matters’ for them.

Let’s look at some facts.

One thing to ensure students realize about the PSAT is that it is connected to the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – the NMSQT. All these acronyms can get confusing but be sure they know the NMSQT is actually going to be relevant if they’re in the top one to three percent of students in the state in terms of academic ability/GPA. It can inspire students to know they may become eligible to earn scholarship money that can be applied to colleges. Who doesn’t want that? Now, imagine they had access to explore $20 billion in available funding for college through GATE’s digital solution. Yes, the PSAT can get them a few thousand a year for college if they’re among the academic elite, but shouldn’t every student in your district also have access to finding ways to pay for college, in many cases resulting in far more than the PSAT can offer them?

A word of caution: be sure they’re aware that NMSQT qualifications needed vary from state to state. That is, certain states are more competitive for the score needed as a minimum to qualify to become a National Merit Scholar. Other states are less competitive. They can find information about that on the College Board website at

What GATE recommends is that students assess their grades, take a look at how they’ve done and what level of course work they’ve been attempting as well. There’s a wide gap in ability between a pre-IB student and one earning a C in a regular curriculum, and colleges recognize this. They admit students in many cases on the basis of looking to control attrition rates—they don’t want to admit students who may drop out due to the rigor being too challenging. One positive thing about standardized testing like the PSAT is that it can point out in glaring detail where lack exists in a student’s skillset.

For those who are already preparing themselves by taking upper level classes, working at high levels in demanding coursework generally indicates a likely candidate. Any teen able to do that level of coursework at an A level should at least consider investigating the NMSQT. With or without the National Merit Scholarship possibility, the PSAT is something that some sophomores and almost all juniors take in October.

In terms of the PSAT somehow preparing students for the SAT–the truth is that these are two very different tests. For the PSAT a perfect score is 240. For the SAT a perfect score is 1600. Some students mistakenly assume there is a one-to-one correlation. While you might get a pretty good idea of how you might do on certain aspects of the SAT, the PSAT doesn’t completely parallel what the SAT requires.

One major difference is that the PSAT does not have an essay. Also, the PSAT has five sections whereas the SAT has two. With the PSAT what they can expect is: section one critical reading, section two math, section three critical reading again, section four math again, and section five writing. Note that by “writing” they don’t mean that students are writing an essay. This is actually more of a grammar section where students are being given sentences that have errors in the –for example, pronoun errors, antecedent errors, verb and subject problems within sentences. They need to be able to accurately diagnose why that semicolon shouldn’t be there and be able to find a correct replacement, quickly.

Like the SAT, the critical reading on the PSAT is going to have sentence completion at the beginning and then follow with the writing passages. It’s a really great idea to have students use the trainings in GATE to bone up on vocabulary skills before taking the test, because they are bound to see words they don’t know. Being able to break them down is going to be helpful, so we recommend strategies like those found in GATE’s popular, patented “Digging for Roots” interactive etymology game.

An important strategy for students to keep in mind is that skipping is allowed on the PSAT. Because they have been weaned on the idea that they should always eat everything on their plates and finish every question on a test, this can catch them off guard. The PSAT is going to deduct a quarter point every time they get something wrong, but they’re going to get a full point added to the raw score every time they get something right. So those quarter point deductions can really add up and hurt in the long run. If a student doesn’t know the answer to something and they are unable to rule out even one or two of the possible answers, it may be best to just skip it entirely. It’s counter-intuitive, but the SAT, as well as the PSAT, has a skipping strategy that students need to get comfortable with so that they can maximize their scores.

A final tip: there are scaled sections of difficulty on this test. Students should know when looking at a twenty-five minute math section that they will begin easy and get progressively harder as it goes. Let’s say there are twenty-one problems – basically they’ll take the number of problems and divide it into thirds. Well, the first seven are going to be fairly easy. The middle seven are going to be medium-hard. Those last seven are likely to be quite challenging. It’s kind of like those rascals in the test writing labs get them comfortable confident only to turn the tables. Students report feeling like, “Oh man I’ve got this in the bag” and then getting to question nineteen and thinking, “What the heck am I even looking at? I don’t even know what that means.”

Encourage students to budget time wisely, and make sure they know that it’s going to get harder as it scales and to consider skipping at the end if it’s something they don’t know. Nobody’s going to yell at them and keep dessert away if they don’t clean their plates.