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Help! The PSAT is Right Around the Corner!

At this point, junior year is in full swing, and you now understand what all your upperclassmen friends have been warning you about. You’ve likely got a test or paper under your belt in each of your classes and are in the process of finding the balance of managing a heavier workload and more responsibility in your extracurriculars. And now you realize that the PSAT is coming up rapidly. Oh, great. Here comes the College Board to put its big, fat, number two pencil-stained thumb on the scale and throw everything out of whack again. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way if you keep the PSAT in perspective. Here are a few things to think about as you prepare to run the first of the gauntlet of standardized tests coming at you this year.

DO take it seriously.

Yes, the “P” stands for preliminary, but that doesn’t mean you should blow off this test. Get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, bring your College Board-approved calculator, pace yourself during the test, and don’t give up if you get fatigued or frustrated.

There are several reasons you should give the PSAT your best shot, even if you don’t intend to compete for a National Merit scholarship.

  • Your PSAT score can provide a baseline score to help you decide how and when to prep for the SAT or even whether the ACT might be a better option for you. The PSAT is pretty much the SAT with 15 fewer questions in 15 fewer minutes, so how you do on the PSAT is a good predictor of how you’d have done on an SAT.
  • If you’re an overachiever and have already begun prepping for the SAT or ACT, the PSAT is a great, low-stakes way to see how you perform in a real-world exam setting. Test-taking is about more than your ability to answer questions correctly. Every time you sit for a standardized test will help you improve your performance on the next one: you’ll learn what you need to do in order to cope with or prevent unanticipated obstacles and distractions, such as that runny nose sitting next to you or the proctor who seems to be able to use his cellphone during the test.
  • The PSAT is also unique among these tests in that you get all the feedback: your score report, the answers and explanations to every question on the test, and the test booklet you used on test day. When scores are posted in December, you’ll be able to understand not only what you got right and wrong but how you got it right and wrong. That’s exactly what you need to know to learn from your mistakes and improve your score on a test that actually counts.

But DON’T take it too seriously.

That’s right. The PSAT doesn’t really “count” for anything. Sure, it’s the qualifying test for a National Merit Scholarship, but that — by design — affects less than 1% of test-takers. Colleges never see your PSAT scores. You can’t send them even if you try. So the last thing you should do is bomb a test in a class because you were busy preparing for or worrying about the PSAT. That’s not a good trade. You should be thoughtful when you sit down to take the PSAT, but it shouldn’t be too stressful. It’s just not that important in the overall scheme of things.

And some tips from your friendly, neighborhood SAT tutor.

All that being said, if you’ve got some time to kill one night and want to set yourself up to succeed on the PSAT, that’s great. You might already have a practice test that you got in school. Check that out. If you’ve lost it, don’t worry, you can download some more on the College Board website. Working through a practice test beforehand will help ensure that your scores say more about your abilities and less about your unfamiliarity with the test. As you do so, consider these big-picture strategies:

  • Reading: Read the passage first. Don’t skim it; actually read it as if you were going to be tested on the material, because, you know, you are. Read each question carefully and then go back to the test for evidence. You can only find the right answer choice after you’ve found the answer in the text. I promise, they’re all in there. Think of this as the world’s worst game of Where’s Waldo.
  • Writing: Other than your name, you don’t write much of anything on this test. This should really be called the grammar section. Again, be sure to read the whole passage, answering questions as you go only after you’ve gotten to the end of the sentence the question asks about. You might want to mumble to yourself as you read. It’ll help sharpen your ear for what sounds right and what wrong. If a question does have directions, follow them like a robot — there’s no such thing as too literal or too obvious. And all things being equal, take the simplest and shortest answer.
  • Math: The questions here won’t feel much like math at school. Math in school is supposed to teach you something. These questions aren’t designed to teach you anything. They’re actually designed to trick you. So read each question slowly and carefully, write down all your work, and make sure you answer the right question. Use your pencil and calculator well and don’t rush too much at the outset. Questions get harder as you go, so making hasty errors in the beginning only to stare at hard problems you can’t figure out is not the best way to maximize your score. The easiest and hardest questions on the test are each worth one point. So collect all the points you can, focusing on problems you know how to do.

Best of luck to you on the upcoming PSAT. Stay cool, make good decisions, and start out your standardized testing year on the right foot!

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