Preparing (or Not) for the PSAT

Summer is officially over, and the leaves have begun to fall. That means that one of the great fall traditions, the PSAT, is almost upon us. This year, the PSAT is being offered on several dates: Wednesday, October 13; Saturday, October 16; or the alternate date of Tuesday, October 26. Check with your school’s guidance office on its plans for administering the test this year.

The PSAT contains the same sections and the same types of questions as does the SAT, but it’s just a little shorter. Some junior-year students and parents wonder if it is wise to prepare for the test as fully as they likely will later on for the SAT or ACT. Although it is entirely understandable and admirable to want to perform one’s best, it may not be advisable to invest time and energy in preparing for the PSAT beyond a week of good sleeping habits and preparing a snack for the break.

The Merit of National Merit

One of the major attractions of the PSAT is its role as the National Merit Scholarship Corporation’s Qualifying Test. A strong enough performance on the test enables a student to participate in the competition for recognition as one of the nation’s commended scholars, semifinalists, or finalists. For some students, there are scholarship or financial incentives as well. Unfortunately, because of the limiting qualifications to reach the finalist level, only two or three incorrect answers in a 50-60 question section are often effectively disqualifying. If students have already begun SAT or ACT studying to get ahead of the game, or because they need to get scores to recruitment coaches earlier in the year, fantastic. Those students might seek some assistance to get those final few points, for the pride and challenge of it. For the vast majority of students, though, the time spent preparing for the test might be better spent elsewhere.

Opportunity Costs of PSAT Studying

As juniors, students clearly have a loaded schedule. Instead of preparing for a test that no college will see, could you stay current with your assignments or get help in a challenging class? Could you spend more time in a rewarding club or interest? Alternatively, it’s a great time to experiment with stress-relieving techniques: exercise, meditation, artistic pursuits, or taking in nature, for example. Find out which one works best for you. Then, plan how to add these to your schedule proactively. Finally, it can never hurt to take one more look at your schedule to make sure all your goals, including personal and social ones, are accounted for in the week’s activities. Junior year is still young. It’s a good idea to build useful habits, set yourself up for success, and put some flexibility into your schedule for dealing with the unexpected.

PSAT Prep in Perspective

Although we’ve just recommended other things juniors might prioritize over in-depth PSAT prep, there are a few things that are helpful to do ahead of the test. In general, treat the test as an official practice test. Get a good night’s sleep the two nights before testing. Dress in layers and have your snack, pencils, ticket, and calculator ready. Pay attention to your reactions as you test. What sections were more challenging? Did you have enough time to finish everything? Where was it hard to focus? When did you struggle to not rush through the questions? If possible, plan a no-stress post-test debriefing session with Mom or Dad. Clear your mind by sharing what comes to mind over some snacks or hot chocolate. Paying attention to yourself as a test taker, then reviewing your results with your counselor and family, can give you great insights for your eventual official SAT or ACT. It can also help you prepare better for your tests at school. We should not ignore the importance the PSAT actually has, but let us not inflate it beyond decisions that will have a deeper and more lasting impact on our long-term success.

Originally published August 16, 2018; updated August 19, 2019; October 8, 2020; and August 5, 2021.