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PSAT Test-Taking Strategies: 3 Tips

In order to raise your PSAT score, you should be familiar with the overall structure of the PSAT as well as the structure of the three tests it entails: Reading, Writing & Language, and Math. The strategies outlined in this section can be applied to any of these tests to help raise your PSAT score.

 

PSAT Test-Taking Strategies

The PSAT is different from the tests you are used to taking in school. The good news is that you can use the PSAT’s particular structure to your advantage.

For example, on a test given in school, you probably go through the questions in order. You spend more time on the harder questions than on the easier ones because harder questions are usually worth more points. You probably often show your work because your teacher tells you that how you approach a question is as important as getting the correct answer.

This approach is not optimal for the PSAT. On the PSAT, you benefit from moving around within a section if you come across tough questions, because the harder questions are worth the same number of points as the easier questions. It doesn’t matter how you arrive at the correct answer—only that you bubble in the correct answer choice.

 

PSAT Strategy #1: Triaging the Test

You do not need to complete questions on the PSAT in order. Every student has different strengths and should attack the test with those strengths in mind. Your main objective on the PSAT should be to score as many points as you can. While approaching questions out of order may seem counter-intuitive, it is a surefire way to achieve your best score.

Just remember, you can skip around within each section, but you cannot work on a section other than the one you’ve been instructed to work on.

To triage the test effectively, do the following:

  • First, work through all the easy questions that you can do quickly. Skip questions that are hard or time-consuming
  • For the Reading and Writing & Language Tests, start with the passage you find most manageable and work toward the one you find most challenging. You do not need to go in order
  • Second, work through the questions that are doable but time-consuming
  • Third, work through the hard questions
  • If you run out of time, pick a Letter of the Day for remaining questions

A Letter of the Day is an answer choice letter (A, B, C, or D) that you choose before Test Day to select for questions you guess on.

 

PSAT Strategy #2: Elimination

Even though there is no wrong-answer penalty on the PSAT, Elimination is still a crucial strategy. If you can determine that one or more answer choices are definitely incorrect, you can increase your chances of getting the right answer by paring the selection down.

To eliminate answer choices, do the following:

  • Read each answer choice
  • Cross out the answer choices that are incorrect
  • Remember: There is no wrong-answer penalty, so take your best guess

 

PSAT Strategy #3: Guessing

Each question on the PSAT has four answer choices and no wrong-answer penalty. That means if you have no idea how to approach a question, you have a 25 percent chance of randomly choosing the correct answer. Even though there’s a 75 percent chance of selecting the incorrect answer, you won’t lose any points for doing so. The worst that can happen on the PSAT is that you’ll earn zero points on a question, which means you should always at least take a guess, even when you have no idea what to do.

When guessing on a question, do the following:

  • Always try to strategically eliminate answer choices before guessing
  • If you run out of time, or have no idea what a question is asking, pick a Letter of the Day

 

Expert Test Tip

Heather Waite, Pre-College Instructor

“There is only one correct answer. There is no ‘best’ answer. Every wrong answer on the test has a flaw; find the flaws, find the answer!”

Common Testing Myths

Since its inception in 1971, the PSAT/NMSQT has gone through various revisions, but it has always been an integral part of helping high school students qualify for various scholarships. As a result of its significance and the changes it has undergone, a number of rumors and myths have circulated about the exam. In this section, we’ll dispel some of the most common ones. As always, you can find the most up-to-date information about the redesigned PSAT at the College Board website.

Myth: Colleges use PSAT scores to make admissions decisions.
Fact: Nothing could be further from the truth. When you take the PSAT, your scores are provided to a variety of organizations, including the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, that offer scholarships based on students’ needs, merits, and backgrounds. Colleges can opt to receive lists of high-scoring PSAT students to target them with advertising. In short, a great score on the PSAT can help you get noticed by top colleges, but a terrible score won’t have an adverse impact on your admissions decision.
Myth: There is a wrong-answer penalty on the PSAT to discourage guessing.
Fact: While this statement was true a few years ago, it is no longer true. Older versions of the PSAT had a wrong-answer penalty so that students who guessed on questions would not have an advantage over students who left questions blank. This penalty has been removed; make sure you never leave a PSAT question blank!
Myth: Answer choice C is most likely to be the correct answer.
Fact: This rumor has roots in human psychology. Apparently, when people such as high school teachers, for example, design an exam, they have a slight bias toward answer choice C when assigning correct answers. While humans do write PSAT questions, a computer randomizes the distribution of correct choices; statistically, therefore, each answer choice is equally likely to be the correct answer.
Myth: The PSAT is just like the SAT.
Fact: The PSAT is a valuable tool to help you prepare for the SAT. However, there are important differences between the two exams. First, the PSAT is shorter than the SAT in terms of timing and the number of questions. Second, the PSAT does not include an essay section. Third, the PSAT does not test more complex topics such as imaginary numbers or trigonometry. Finally, you’ll take the PSAT at your high school and not an established testing center. Most students find that their PSAT experience helps get them ready for the SAT, but remember that taking the PSAT should form only a small part of your SAT preparation.
Myth: The PSAT is just like another test in school.
Fact: While the PSAT covers some of the same content as your high school math, literature, and English classes, it also presents concepts in ways that are fundamentally different. While you might be able to solve a math problem in a number of different ways on an algebra test, the PSAT places a heavy emphasis on working through questions as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Myth: You have to get all the questions right to get a perfect score.
Fact: Many students have reported missing several questions on the PSAT and being pleasantly surprised to receive perfect scores. Their experience is not atypical: Usually, you can miss a few questions and still get a coveted perfect score. The makers of the PSAT use a technique called scaling to ensure that a PSAT score conveys the same information from year to year, so you might be able to miss a couple more questions on a slightly harder PSAT exam and miss fewer questions on an easier PSAT exam and get the same scores. Keep a positive attitude throughout the PSAT, and in many cases, your scores will pleasantly surprise you.
Myth: You can’t prepare for the PSAT.
Fact: You’ve already proven this myth false by learning more about the exam. While the PSAT is designed to fairly test students, regardless of preparation, you can gain a huge advantage by familiarizing yourself with the structure and content of the exam. By working through the questions and practice tests available to you, you’ll ensure that nothing on the PSAT catches you by surprise and that you do everything you can to maximize your score. Kaplan resources can help you structure this practice in the most efficient way possible, and provide you with helpful strategies and tips as well.