Do-it-yourself guide for online PSAT prep

How can you get ready to succeed on the Preliminary-SAT (commonly known as the PSAT) when millions of other students are also preparing for the big test? The College Board, the test administrator, reports that in 2010, more than 3.5 million students at over 23,000 schools took this national assessment test.


The PSAT measures reading, math and writing skills critical for college success. The test is generally recommended for 10th-grade and 11th-grade students as it helps identify academic strengths and weaknesses and provides practice for the primary test for college admissions, the SAT. However, a recent trend is for students to take the PSAT as early as the 7th grade. The College Board estimates that in 2010, more than half of those taking the test were in 10th grade or below.

Start at the beginning

Prepare early and make sure where you can actually take the test. The PSAT is offered once a year, usually in October, and is administered in a high school setting. Decide if you have the motivation and discipline for do-it-yourself PSAT prep, or if you may need to invest in support such as tutors and prep courses.

Because the PSAT/NMSQT is designed to evaluate academic skills, the test administrator recommends taking challenging courses and reading as strategies for long-term preparation. But as more students seek college entry, and competition mounts, you may want to take a more proactive approach in training for the PSAT.

Study for PSAT by yourself

Students who choose do-it-yourself PSAT prep can find a variety of study guides, online resources and sample tests. The College Board offers sample questions in the different categories along with answers and the reasoning behind them. For example, you can try the Math Multiple Choice test, which provides test-taking hints as well as practice questions.

Other online tools include a countdown timer for self-timing on Online-Stopwatch.com. The Study Guide Zone site has links to preparation materials and also features free downloadable study guides. At Dictionary.com, students can flip through a deck of flashcards complete with audio definitions, or create a personalized word study list.

If you prefer to work offline, you can purchase books that offer practice tests and tips. Barron's, Kaplan, the Princeton Review and the College Board are among the publishers, and many offer a new edition each year.

Digging deeper into the PSAT/NMSQT

Find out as much as you can about the test beforehand. Build up your test-taking endurance, since the PSAT/NMSQT takes 2 hours and 10 minutes, in addition to about 35 minutes for sign-up and what the College Board calls "administrative duties." Try to simulate taking the actual test, which includes five sections:

  • Two 25-minute sections on critical reading
  • Two 25-minute sections on math
  • One 30-minute section on writing skills

The Helping Students Prepare section of the College Board website has test-taking tips, strategies, resources and tools. Find hints on whether or not you should guess on questions. Discover simple but useful techniques like checking your answer sheet to make sure that you are in the right place, or reading all the possible answers before choosing an answer.

Private prep

One-on-one tutoring is another option that the Web can help you set up. At WyzAnt, tutors and students connect for private lessons in online PSAT prep. Interested students use the website to locate and contact qualified, pre-screened tutors, and lessons are conducted online. An online tutor matching service, TeachStreet, seeks to match students and teachers both academically and geographically so that lessons can proceed offline.

Nevertheless, the PSAT is a relatively low-stakes test. Colleges will almost never inquire about your scores; the SATs and/or ACTs are much more important. The upshot is: we don't advise spending a lot (or any) money on PSAT prep.

Online classrooms

If a student needs the structure of a classroom, but doesn't want to leave home, a wide variety of online PSAT prep courses are offered. Courses range considerably in cost, and features also vary. Some courses try to simulate the feeling of taking the actual PSAT, while others provide counseling and personalized coaching.

PSAT prep benefits

Why should a college-bound student practice taking the PSAT? The test can be taken multiple times, but the 11th-grade result is most important in terms of qualifying as a National Merit Scholar. Students have little to lose and lots of confidence to gain through exposure to the types of PSAT questions, the pacing and the format. Practice can help a student become familiar with the test directions in advance of the actual test. Also, many study techniques overlap for the SAT and the PSAT, so honing your PSAT skills could be useful preparation for when you face the all-important SAT test.