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For many high school students, the PSAT is their first big standardized test. The PSAT is often considered a practice test, but it is technically a preliminary test for the SAT.

Here’s why you should study and take the PSAT seriously:

If a student is familiar with the format, directions, and questions on the PSAT, then his or her error patterns will be authentic and future test prep will be more productive. Familiarity with the test alone can boost a student’s score by reducing time-wasting struggles on test day.

More importantly, students will receive their tests back in mid-December. Guidance Counselors will be using a student’s PSAT scores to assist with college list building. Students who study and have authentic scores will be able to build a more realistic college list.

How can you prepare?

  1. Understand the format and function of the test. It is about getting the most right answers. All questions are worth one point, no matter how hard or easy. Don’t waste time on one or two hard questions; you can always go back. Use the lack of guessing penalty to your advantage. You shouldn’t leave a question blank.
  2. The College Board offers two free practice tests online (PSAT Practice Test #1 and PSAT Practice Test #2.) Take a practice test and use your error patterns to identify one or two of your weakest areas. Then focus your efforts there.
  3. Link your PSAT practice to Khan Academy for customized online PSAT practice based on your error patterns. The College Board (writers of the test) has hired Khan Academy to provide free, approved, customized practice. Since there are not a lot of real tests yet (only two real tests: PSAT 2015 and PSAT 2016) and two practice tests, Khan Academy’s diagnostic practice is the closest thing students will have to prepare for the real exam.

Interested in practicing with real tests?

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Here are some important highlights about the test.


  1. Reading Test: 60 Minutes | 48 Multiple-Choice Questions | 5 Passages
  1. Literature
  2. Social Science or Politics
  3. Natural Science
  4. Social Science or Politics
  5. Natural Science

★ One of the above will be a comparison passage set.

10-Minute Break

  1. Writing & Language Test: 35 Minutes | 44 Multiple-Choice Questions | 4 Passages

Roughly 50% of these questions test you on grammar. The other 50% test will include rhetorical skills. Key usage and mechanics concepts students must know to do well: recognizing prepositions and prepositional phrases; knowing the definitions of transition words, recognizing comma splices involving pronouns, identifying subjects, recognizing singular vs. plural verbs, and knowing punctuation rules (especially with the colon).

  1. No-Calculator Math Section: 25 Minutes | 13 Multiple Choice Questions | 4 Grid-Ins

According to my math colleague, the key to success on the No-Calculator section is to write down every step.

5-Minute Break

  1. Calculator Math Test | 45 Minutes | 27 Multiple Choice Questions | 4 Grid-Ins

This section contains a lot of word problems, but most of them are testing you on the equation of a line.

Total Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes

Test Date: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 (For students taking in school)



The PSAT is scored out of 1520. Your Total Score breaks down into 2 Section Scores —Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and Math — each out of 760. Your grade report will also include will also show your Reading, Writing, and Math Test Scores (out of 38), along with Cross-Test Scores and Subscores which reflect your performance on certain types of questions.



The SAT Reading can be the most difficult part of the test because it is the most unpredictable versus the math and writing. One key way to prepare is to become familiar with a general timeline of U.S. history (events and documents), have an understanding of real world concerns, and have some knowledge about what the College Board refers to as the “Global Conversation.”

Here is an overview of these concepts within the context of each passage:

  1. HISTORY: The history passage will always be about individual rights and focus on either the founding fathers, the American Revolution, slavery, the Civil War, women’s rights, and, lately, transcendentalism (Thoreau — government versus individual rights). Understand that individual rights means rights for ALL people. Every passage will relate back to this big idea. It also helps to know the more nuanced definitions of moral, natural/human, and inalienable rights.

Everything you need to know will be in the passage, but sometimes these historical passages are difficult to read, so if you have some background and can grasp the “big idea, “you don’t need to comprehend every word, sentence, or even paragraph to answer the questions correctly.

  1. SOCIAL SCIENCES: The Social Sciences passages often focus on Organic Farming/Food Miles/Life on Mars/Social/Global/Environmental Responsibilities, the Internet/Technology — how it affects the brain, our ability to communicate with others, or privacy issues. According to my students, the August 2017 SAT had more science driven passages. So some of the social sciences passages focus on new discoveries in space (planets/asteroids/stars) and on earth (DNA/Intelligent Machines).

These are all hot-button topics that colleges embrace as part of their foundation curriculum. Every college wants their students to be informed thought leaders and global citizens.

  1. SCIENCE: The true Science passage almost always involves an experiment. Questions will ask about the hypothesis, experiment, different scientists’ theories, and results/outcomes.
  2. Finally, the LITERATURE passage will be from the Common Core syllabus of texts since David Coleman, the head of the College Board, was the architect of the Common Core. Patterns in fiction include American and British writers from the Victorian era or early 20th century or international writers in an early 20th century setting. But, this observation is only speculation on my part. There aren’t enough authentic tests yet for this to be a pattern.

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