PSAT Prep: How to Understand and Approach Each Question


                PSAT Prep: How to Understand and Approach Each Question

                If you’re early in your high school career, the PSAT is a focal point. You may have seen students spending hours going over PSAT booklets and trying to figure out how to navigate the exam. Now, one of the biggest questions for the PSAT is, how important is the exam? Quite frankly, it has a moderate amount of importance. If you are aiming for the National Merit Scholarship, PSAT prep is crucial. If you’re not considering the National Merit Scholarship, then the exam can be valuable preparation and exposure for the SAT.

                You might be wondering what PSAT prep should really look like and what you should expect from the exam. We’ll walk through how to prepare step-by-step below!

                What is the PSAT?

                The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) is an exam that is designed for juniors to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. For many students, it is a required test for certain states or an optional practice for the SAT. It is similar to the SAT, only differing in the timing and number of questions:

                • The exam is 2 hours and 45 minutes long, containing 3 subjects broken down in 4 parts.
                • The PSAT is scored out of 1520, and features the following sections: reading, grammar, non-calculator math, and calculator math.

                Now, do you need to immediately meet with a tutor and start PSAT prep? Probably not. We recommend only using tutoring services for the SAT or ACT or if you are aiming to be a Merit Scholar. If you decide to start prepping for the SAT before the PSAT, then using your SAT prep as PSAT prep is highly advised. Regardless, this test does have its own quirks and will probably seem very different than the previous exams you have taken in school.

                That being said, PSAT prep is important. Start by taking practice exams. There are tons online, including a few of them directly on the College Board’s website. Familiarizing yourself with the PSAT can also be an advantage for any SAT testing in the future.

                Understanding the structure of the exam is the key to starting prep. We will discuss a few of the strategies for the exam and how to approach each section of the PSAT.


                For the PSAT, you want to start on the right foot. Approaching the exam and reading the whole passage for the questions can be time consuming. The first thing before you start reading or even skimming is to know your Personal Order of Difficulty (POOD). What is your POOD?

                Well, it is exactly what it sounds like. There are typically a few different types of passages in the reading section. Are you a fan of history? Science? Literature? Using your Personal Order of Difficulty helps you determine where to start in the reading section. You do not need to go in order of passages, but can freely jump during the duration of the sections test to your advantage.

                Another common practice is using POE, or the Process of Elimination. This is walking through answer choices and eliminating questions that are not correct. Using markings like slashes and checkmarks next to your answer choices can help you keep track of which answer choices are right and wrong.

                Then it’s time to break down the questions for each passage. To determine which questions you should do now, consider the following:

                • Is the question easy to answer?
                  • Yes - the question’s answer is easy to find in the passage and tends to match the language of the passage easily.
                  • Maybe not - if this is your answer, move along and come back to it after you have learned more about the passage.
                • Is the answer easy to find?
                  • Yes - the question includes a paragraph or line reference that the test taker can locate and find the answer in that area.
                  • Maybe not - these tend to look like the first questions of the passage or questions without any line references.

                If you run into a question that seems too difficult to answer, use your POOD and try to eliminate choices with POE. If it still seems difficult to answer - pick a letter and move on. Do not sit staring at questions for too long. If you have time at the end of the section, you can go back and look over it.

                Writing and Language

                The first step of approaching the Grammar section during PSAT prep is making sure that the answers to the questions are clear, concise, consistent, and complete. These 4 C’s can help you easily navigate answer choices and eliminate the wrong ones more quickly.

                In addition, nearly all of the inclusions in this section do not have a straightforward question but rather a list of answer choices. Do not stress yourself out over this, as it becomes clear how to answer your question by asking yourself 2 simple questions.

                • What is the same in each answer choice?
                • What is changing in the answer choice?

                When encountering each question, it is important to read everything around the underlined section. Everything surrounding that portion of the passage is grammatically correct and gives clues to the correct answer. Using other words around the underlined portion helps when selecting the answers that work the most consistently in the passage.

                The last part of this strategy for PSAT prep is very simple. Do not be afraid that the “No Change” answer is a trick; it is a totally viable choice. It would not be on the exam if it was not an option. If the answer makes sense without changing, go with it.


                In the math section, POOD can help you determine what questions to do now, later, or never. Now questions are ones that you find easier and can do quickly. Later questions are problems you will come back to at some point during the exam. Never questions are questions you will not attempt and will pick any answer for, as it is better to guess and have a shot than no chance at all.

                Use your time wisely in this exam: be careful of how you utilize your calculator and focus on your accuracy over speed. You can do this by working on easier problems before harder ones and coming back to the harder problems later.

                Word problems tend to be harder for many students. The best way to start is by underlining the question. Do not start calculating anything yet. Then look for clues and use POE. Finally, break it down into bite sized pieces and avoid tricky phrasing that is purposely trying to confuse you.

                Remember that whatever you score on this exam will not determine any college acceptance, unless you qualify for the scholarship. Though if you have any questions regarding the scholarship, they can be found on Kyo Standard’s website. Taking the PSAT is a very good place to begin when analyzing how you might score on the official exams. So, take the test seriously and practice if you want to learn how to get a jump start on your SAT prep.

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