The PSAT: More Than a “Mini-SAT”

In many ways the PSAT is very similar to the SAT. If you have higher aspirations for the PSAT than practice for the SAT – National Merit or qualifying for AP classes, for example – you may want to consider what makes the test different.

The PSAT is administered every October to sophomores and juniors and counts junior year for National Merit scholarship, if the scores are above the cutoff range. While the test is shorter than the SAT, 5 sections compared with 10, 2-hours and 10-minutes compared with 3-hours and 45-minutes, it is by no means an easier test. The reading, math, and writing sections test, by and large, the same material as the SAT, with medium comparison passages, think-outside-the-box math problems, and pesky parallelism grammar questions. Nevertheless, there are some considerations worth noting.

Every point counts.

If you are trying for National Merit, the corporation will consider your overall score, out of 240 points. Unlike some colleges, which place more weight on the reading and math sections, the NMSC places equal weight on all three sections. Generally, the writing section is easier to improve than sections than the math section, which contains more content, or the reading, which requires strong reading skills. Don’t neglect the third section as you prepare, because a good amount of points are there for the taking.

More of the math is grid-ins.

On the SAT, 10 of the 54 math problems (about 18%), are grid-in questions. The bane of many math students, these questions do not provide the safety net of multiple choice answers and instead require students to input their own numerical values for the problems. These problems can cause trouble for students dependent on the multiple choice answers for determining the solution. On the PSAT, you will see the same number of grid-ins for fewer math problems. This brings the percentage up to 26%. If you are prepping for the PSAT, you will definitely want to practice the grid-ins and become familiar with determining the solution without the aid of answer choices.

More of the reading is comparison.

The questions for the PSAT reading section are identical to those of the SAT reading section, but the test will feature fewer short/medium passages, bringing the percentage of comparison questions up significantly. The reading section of the SAT can expect to test students with about 9 comparison questions (13% of the reading questions). The reading section of the PSAT, however, has about 8 comparison questions, about 17% of the reading section questions. You’ll want to make extra sure on the PSAT that the comparison questions are an asset for your score, not a liability.

The differences are not staggering, but for students aiming for National Merit recognition, with the subsequent potential for financial aid, they should be addressed in test prep. Spend time working through two authors’ perspectives and the related comparison questions. Force yourself to solve math questions, even multiple choice ones, without consulting the answer choices. And make sure that you strengthen your “grammar ear” to reap the necessary points in the writing section.

Of course, the PSAT is changing along with the SAT. In December 2014, the College Board will release practice PSATs to give students a sense for the redesigned PSAT in October 2015. The test will look markedly different, so students may want to consider taking a redesigned SAT in June of their sophomore year to get feedback on their performance with the new test so they can prepare for the new PSAT. Significant scholarship money is riding on students’ abilities to convert their high performance in the old PSAT realm to the new, so they will definitely want to get as much practice as they can.


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