PSAT crash-course: What to expect from the test

The PSAT, which is scheduled to be administered by the College Board on Oct. 12 and Oct 15. this year, offers an important practice test for college entrance exams, and acts as a gateway to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship and other scholarship programs.


For those considering Ivy League or other highly selective schools, the PSAT can further serve as a "wake up call" to see if they have the potential to get a high enough SAT or ACT score to get in, according to Steve Cohen, co-author of "Getting IN! The Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age."

"The PSAT is a great practice exam for students," Cohen says. "The most important reason to take it is to give kids familiarity with the types of questions asked in a real test setting. The results give you some indication of where you stand at that moment on that particular type of test."

The earlier, the better

More than half of students who take the PSAT do so in their sophomore year or earlier, according to the College Board. The earlier students take the test, the better they can assess strengths and weaknesses in the areas of critical reading, math and writing skills.

"They get to see where they rank in different categories, and from that point on can plan," says Jim Schmidt, vice president of Recorded Books, which offers an online PSAT prep course. "They can look at strengths, and filter down and see where they're weak. They can improve on that score to get into the school they want."

Scores for juniors who take the PSAT also help determine eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship program, which since 1955 has awarded more than 360,000 scholarships valued at over $1.4 billion.

The scores also are used as criteria for several other programs, including the The National Hispanic Recognition Program, National Scholarship Service and The Telluride Association. However, it's important to note that PSAT scores are not part of the criteria for being admitted to a college.


Taking the PSAT can also help students figure out whether they are best suited for the SAT or the ACT. The latter is more commonly taken by students in the Midwest, but accepted as a qualifying test by most colleges and universities around the nation, Cohen says.

One major difference between the SAT and the ACT is that the latter contains a fourth section on science, in addition to the usual sections on reading comprehension, writing skills and math.

"If you want to go to college, in almost all instances, you've got to take the SAT or ACT," Cohen says. "If you blow the PSAT, it may give you some indication that the SAT isn't the test you should be taking."

Adding up your score

The College Board uses a scale of 20 to 80 for each of the PSAT's three sections. The average scores for 11th graders in 2010 were 47 in critical reading, 49 in math and 45 in writing skills, while 10th graders on average received scores of 43 in critical reading, 44 in math and 40 in writing skills.

Score reports also include the selection index, which adds up the three scores and indicates whether students qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program. The average selection index for 11th graders is about 141, with the range going from 60 to a perfect score of 240.

Questions and answers

The PSAT consists of five sections and lasts for two hours and 10 minutes. There are two 25-minute critical reading sections; two 25-minute math sections; and a 30-minute writing section.

The multiple choice reading section includes 13 sentence completions requiring the test taker to fill in a blank in a sentence and 35 questions about information contained in passages.

The math sections feature 28 multiple choice questions and 10 in which students produce the answers, with subject areas to include numbers and operation; algebra and functions; geometry; and data analysis, statistics and probability.

The final writing section, which is multiple choice, offers 14 questions asking test takers to find sentence mistakes; 20 to improve sentences; and five to improve paragraphs.

To study…or not to study

Cohen suggests students "go in cold" for the PSAT, so they truly understand how much--or how little--prep they need for the SAT or ACT.

"There's enough anxiety and stress around college admissions," Cohen says. "Going in cold can give you a good sense of where you are, and then you can take action."

However, with scholarship money on the line, Schmidt suggests that students might want to brush up on reading, vocabulary, writing and math skills on their own or via a prep course. There are a wealth of online resources, including on the College Board site. The site provides sample questions and answers, and explains the thinking behind the exam.

Whatever form their practice takes, students should try to replicate the real world experience by printing out a sample exam and taking the test in real-time.

"You may be taking a course online, but that's not how you take the test," Schmidt says. "Try to do something that replaces as closely what happens on test day--that means using paper and pencil.

If standardized tests aren't your thing

Almost as important as preparing for the subjects covered by the PSAT is understanding how standardized tests are structured, ways to budget your time so you don't have to rush through certain sections, and how to eliminate obviously wrong answers in the multiple choice sections.

"There's a lot of strategy involved, and there's a lot of psychology," Schmidt says. "It's tough to take an all-or-nothing test."

With such high stakes--some state schools base their admissions largely on the SAT--it's important to lay the groundwork for future college success by starting with the PSAT.

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