The PSAT raises concerns for lots of students and parents. The primary question students ask is “what is this the purpose of this test?” The follow up question often inquires, “Is this really preparing me for the SAT, or is there some other point?” Students want to know if the PSAT “matters”.
Let’s look at some facts.
One thing to know about the PSAT is that it is connected to the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – the NMSQT. All these acronyms can get confusing but the NMSQT is actually going to be relevant if the student is in the top one to three percent of students in his or her state in terms of academic ability/GPA. What can happen is that students become eligible to earn scholarship money that can be applied to colleges. Who doesn’t want that?
A word of caution, though: be aware that qualifications needed vary from state to state. That is, certain states are more competitive for the score that you need as a minimum to qualify to become a National Merit Scholar. Other states are less competitive. You can find information about that on the College Board website at collegeboard.com.
What I recommend is that students asses 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. 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 2400. Obviously this is just multiplying by a hundred and adding a zero in those points, so some student 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 only five sections whereas the SAT has ten. With the PSAT what you can expect is – section one is critical reading, section two – math, section three comes back to critical reading, section four – oh yeah, you guessed it – it comes back to math. Section five is actually a writing section, but by “writing” they don’t mean that you’re writing an essay. This is actually more of a grammar section where students are being given sentences that have errors in them – for example, pronoun errors, antecedent errors, verb and subject problems within sentences – any of those types of issues. 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 bone up on vocabulary skills before taking the test, because students are bound to see words they don’t know. Being able to break them down is going to be helpful, so I recommend strategies like those found in my company’s Vocabulary Strategies materials for clients.
An important strategy to keep in mind is that skipping is allowed on the PSAT. Because students 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, really 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. You should know, if you’re 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 you 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 you 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!”
Students, budget your time wisely. Know that it’s going to get harder as it scales. Know to maybe skip at the end if it says something that you don’t know. Nobody’s going to yell at you and keep your dessert away from you if you don’t clean your plate. You are allowed to skip. Just please don’t skip everything — that’s not a great idea!