How to Study for the PSAT: An Expert’s Guide


Here’s How To Study for the PSAT

Interested in learning how to study for the PSAT? You came to the right place! The PSAT/NMSQT and the PSAT 10 are standardized tests that assess your college readiness. Students typically take them in the 10th grade in the fall or spring semester.

The fall administration of the PSAT/NMSQT may qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship (hence the “NMSQT” of the title.) Each year, 7,400 students are awarded this scholarship, which helps defray the cost or pay the total cost of college. And while the PSAT 10 tests you on the same knowledge as the PSAT/NMSQT, it does not qualify you for the scholarship competition. They are the exact same test besides the National Merit® Scholarship Program qualification, which only takes place in the fall.

Lucky for you, it’s not difficult to learn how to study for the PSAT because most of the study resources for the PSAT are free. The challenge is finding the time in your already busy schedule and having the discipline to sit down and actually study for the test. So let’s get going so you don’t waste a single second as you prepare to take the PSAT.

The PSAT: What Is It?

The College Board created the PSAT to test you on the information you’ve learned in high school and the skills you’ll need to succeed in college. The test takes 2 hours and 45 minutes, with time for breaks between the test sections. The highest score you can get is a 1520, which is divided among the different sections. The test is all multiple-choice questions.

The main sections on the PSAT include:

  1. Evidence-based reading: This section takes about 60 minutes. You’ll be given five different passages, or paired passages, and asked a series of questions about what you’ve read. The goal of these questions is to assess how well you can draw conclusions and understand materials in different subjects including history, literature, and science. All of the information needed to answer the questions is in the passages that are given to you to read.
  2. Writing and Language test: This section contains 44 questions. You’ll have 35 minutes to complete them, so you have to move quickly. Twenty-four of the questions cover “expression of ideas” and 20 are standard English conventions. Passages with mistakes in them are given to you, and you have to read each passage and identify the mistake. You may have to choose the right answer from among several that may seem close to the right answer.
  3. Math: The Math section of the PSAT is divided into two parts. On Part 1, you are not allowed to use a calculator. That section takes about 25 minutes. You don’t have to show your work or how you derived the answer as you may be asked to do in class, but you will need to know how to calculate the answer by hand. Scrap paper is given to you to make that easier. In the remaining 45 minutes of the Math section you are allowed to use a calculator. The problems include Algebra, Data Analysis and Problem Solving, as well as introductory to advanced math. The questions should be in line with what you’ve learned in school, and the total time for this section is 70 minutes.

In case you were wondering, the test is administered at your school. The fee is $15, but you may not have to pay the fee. Talk to your teacher or a guidance counselor for more information on fee waivers.

And remember, the fall PSAT test is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and the spring test is the PSAT 10.

How to Study for the PSAT: A Weekly Guide

There are a few differences between taking the PSAT and taking other tests. It’s hard to study specifically for the PSAT because you aren’t being tested on your direct knowledge of a subject. No one is going to ask you to name the periodic table of elements or the types of rocks, for example, questions you might be asked in class or at school.

Instead, the PSAT gives you the material you need to answer the question, but with a twist: the questions themselves may require more thought. Therefore, practicing for the PSAT is the best way to study. The more you practice the test, the easier the questions will seem as you gain familiarity with the tone, style and type of questions asked.

We recommend four ways to study for the PSAT:

  1. Review your class notes:Math and English class notes are the most useful for the PSAT, particularly notes on algebra and algebraic formulas and grammar rules. If you know you struggle with something in particular, like the difference between it’s and its, then go over that information ahead of test day.
  2. Read:The best way to help you take the PSAT and other tests is to improve your reading skills. If you play the guitar, piano or any other musical instrument, you know that the more you practice, the better you play. The same goes for academic skills like reading. The more you read, and the more challenging your reading materials, the better a reader you become. Read magazines, books, and websites with content that makes you think, like news websites. The more you read and the more widely you read, the better.
  3. Practice the test:Because the PSAT is different from other tests you’ve taken in the past, it’s a smart idea to take several practice tests. This will help you get the hang of the questions, the format, and even the timing of the test.
  4. Review your results:After you take a practice test, compare your answers to the published answers. How did you do? The answers you got wrong will tell you a lot about what you may need to study. If you take two practice tests and consistently get the same type of questions wrong, it’s time to go back to your class notes on that subject and study it again. If you need help, ask your math or English teacher to coach you through the problem types that you miss most frequently.

Preparing for the PSAT: Two Weeks to Study

Because the PSAT isn’t a “make or break” test, you don’t need to study for it quite as much as the SAT. The National Merit Scholarship portion is attractive, though, so if you’re aiming for the scholarship money, double the amount of study time to increase the likelihood of a high score.

Give yourself at least four weeks to study for the PSAT. Schedule your test date with your school then start preparing four weeks early.

Week 1: Take practice tests.

The first thing to do is to take a practice test. This will help you understand what’s going to be asked on the PSAT and spot questions you may need more help with in the future. A list of free online practice resources is included at the end of this article.

Week 2: Study areas you get wrong a lot on the practice test.

After taking your practice test, you should have a better idea of the test questions you need to work on. Use your second week of studying to go over formulas or other information needed for the test.

Week 3: Take another practice test and study our class notes.

During week 3, take a second practice test to see if you’ve improved. Study your class notes and review the second practice test.

Week 4: Practice difficult sections.

During the week leading up to the test, just work on the test sections that you found the most difficult. Take more sample math tests if you have trouble with math, etc.

The night before the test, close your books. Get everything ready for the morning, including pens, pencils and calculators and get a good night’s sleep. If you’ve done your preparations well, you’ve got nothing to worry about!

Free PSAT Practice Tests

You can find sample tests online from many sources.

  • The College Board: The test makers offer a free sample test, question of the day, and lots of information on the test itself.
  • Peterson’s: Peterson’s offers a selection of free sample test questions.
  • McGraw-Hill: You can download, print and take a PDF sample test.

The PSAT is one of the first steps on the road to college. It marks a turning point in your high school career. Once you take the PSAT, you’re on your way to going to college and starting your career. It’s an exciting time. Don’t let procrastination keep you from doing your best. Learn how to study for the PSAT and feel confident on test day.