Should my teen study for the PSAT?


Each fall, parents with 9th, 10th and 11th graders ask me about the PSAT and whether their teen should study for the PSAT. As with most things in college readiness, it depends.

Let’s start with a general description of the PSAT to make sure we’re all on the same page. It’s considered a preliminary SAT exam and students often take it to get an unofficial look at the SAT. “Unofficial” means that this test is “off the record” for college admissions purposes. It’s rare that students would submit these scores for consideration in college admissions.

PSAT for 9th graders
Most high schools do not offer the option for 9th graders to take the PSAT. Although I have seen it offered at several independent schools.

Typically, I do not recommend that students take the PSAT in 9th grade. It adds too much unnecessary pressure and anxiety. The 9th grade is such a transitional period that the year is better spent acclimating to the new school environment, making friends, and getting to know teachers.

PSAT for 10th graders
Taking the PSAT in 10th grade can be a good idea, if your high school offers that option. 10th graders who take the PSAT can get familiar with the format and determine their own level of comfort with the question types. The results would also closely project SAT scores.

In addition to the PSAT in sophomore year of high school, I would highly recommend that students also consider taking the pre-ACT. The pre-ACT is an unofficial preview of the ACT. Again, taking the pre-ACT would be an opportunity for sophomores to get familiar the ACT format and determine their level of comfort with the question types.

The results of the PSAT and pre-ACT can then be compared, using an SAT-ACT comparison tool to determine if a student should take the SAT or ACT in junior year. It’s a waste of time and money to take both tests, so I highly recommend that students stick with one test . . . either the SAT or ACT!

Sophomore year is an important year for students to discover their interests and further their academic preparation. Spending time to study for the PSAT or pre-ACT is not a good use of their time. Certainly, students may look at practice questions, if they like, but I would not suggest prioritizing PSAT and/or pre-ACT test prep over homework assignments and reading for pleasure.

PSAT for 11th graders
The majority of high schools in the US require that high school juniors take the PSAT. The PSAT is used in junior year as the qualifying exam for National Merit Scholarships. Even when students take the PSAT in junior year, they must still take the SAT or ACT to meet college admissions requirements.

I have recommended that my students study for the PSAT in only a few cases. When I recommended that my students study in junior year, they met these criteria:

1. Had taken the PSAT in sophomore year
2. Had scored in the 99%ile on the PSAT in sophomore year (Each state has their own National Merit Scholarship baseline so be sure to look it up for your state.)

Those students were in striking distance of qualifying for National Merit Scholarship so it made sense for them to study for the PSAT in advance. Their study plan often included completion of two or more practice tests before the test date and thorough reviews of reading, writing, and math.

Rule of thumb: Test prep should never take precedence over maintaining a strong transcript whether a student is 9th, 10th or 11th grader.

Please let me know your thoughts and/or comments on this topic.

Should my Teen study for the PSAT?

santa clara campus

College-bound teens take the PSAT every year in mid-October. The PSAT is the test that high school juniors take to qualify for National Merit recognition, although more 9th and 10th graders are taking this test each year. In addition, the PSAT gives students practice and feedback for the SAT. After taking the PSAT, students will get a full report which details the questions they missed. This report can be a useful guide to prepare for the SAT.psat logo

Many parents ask me every year whether their teen should study for the PSAT. My answer (like for most things related to college admissions): It depends. The first question in all things college admissions is why. So, I ask parents to tell me why they think their teen should study for the PSAT. Based on the reason, I can then suggest whether it’s worth the teen’s time to study for the PSAT.

Reasons to Study for PSAT  

  • To get a higher score than last year
  • To have a chance at a National Merit recognition
  • To present stronger scores for a summer program application

Reasons to NOT Study for PSAT

  • Did not take the test last year
  • Scores from last year were below 750 for each section
  • Academic course load is demanding
  • ACT is best test for student

In most cases, students do not need to study for the PSAT. It’s an annual test that plays a marginal role in college admissions. If a student’s best test is the SAT, then they would be better off focusing their prep efforts on the SAT, instead. The best time to prep for the SAT is usually 8-10 weeks prior to the scheduled test date. If the PSAT date coincides with the SAT prep then it’s a win-win.

Timely strategies and tips to Ace the SAT

This show is the first of our two-part series on standardized testing.  The second show in this two-part series on standardized testing focuses on the ACT.  There’s no mistaking that the SAT is a very different test from the ACT. The SAT has its roots in intelligence/aptitude tests. Students can benefit from knowing how to take this test before the test day.

Jim Meany of Insight Tutors in Greenwich, CT joined our show today to share some timely and timeless strategies and tips that will help students do well on the SAT. Jim started his tutoring career as a physics tutor, earned his bachelors and masters from Stanford in Biology and an MBA from USC (which Stanford alums affectionately referred to as the University of Spoiled Children!) Jim has over 25 years of tutoring experience and has led Insight Tutors for over 10 years. Please check out the audio podcast or transcript below!



Dr. Pamela:     Thank you so much again for joining us.  We are excited to have you on the air and I know the seniors who are listening are excited to hear from you because there is an SAT that is coming up in the next couple days.  I want to jump right in and ask you what are some strategies for seniors that are retaking the SAT.

Jim:                 It is a really good question. Given that it is late in the game for the seniors with the test this Saturday, they might think all is lost but not necessarily. The SAT and standardized testing, in general, is a huge opportunity for those to embrace it as such.  One thing that seniors can do is to go into the test with that mindset.  This is yet another chance for them to differentiate themselves on their application and while they may not have the time or taken the time to prepare as they might have wanted to, there is still some stuff they can do or actions they can take in the next couple days.  One is to adopt a certain perspective about the undertaking.  That is, while the SAT and the ACT are very important Metrix and I genuinely believe they are very important Metrix that unfortunately sometimes are used improperly, they are only one aspect of a multidimensional holistic application.  If they can keep that in mind, I think it will help to allay some of the anxiety about going into the test. It is an important aspect of your application.  It is not nearly the most important aspect except in very rare cases and that perspective will help them a lot.

That being said, in terms of what they get down and studying actions they can take, they can still pull up a prep book, make sure they understand the directions going in, because directions don’t change and your time on the test is too precious to be reading directions, you want to jump right into the first question.  They can be sure on test day morning to warm up before the exam.  It is just like any athlete does before an athletic event, if you are going to be exercising your brain for the next four hours; you want to warm up your brain. By that, I mean taking a couple of easy math questions that you have done before, that you know the answer to so that you don’t get stumped and don’t get freaked out. Work through those questions.  Get in the mode in thinking mathematically.

Take a look at maybe a short reading comp passage that you have done before so that you are warmed up and ready to tear it apart when you get into the test set.  Maybe look at an essay that you have outlined, that sort of thing so that you are not using the time during the test to warm up.  Again, that time is way too precious.  To use another athletic analogy and I don’t mean to overuse them, on your very first test question, you want to be at race pace.  You don’t want to be climbing that hill to get to race pace.  You want to be able to hold that pace through the exam. It is kind of a marathon more than a sprint.  While your energy will lag and soar during the exam, you want to keep that constant high energy level throughout the exam and not let down until they call time on the last section.  Those are some of the ideas that I would have for our seniors out there.

Dr. Pamela:     Now one of the things, Jim, in terms of what you said right after adopting a perspective and before the warm-up, you mention taking a look at a prep book. Are you suggesting doing that between today and tomorrow, the night before, or doing that the morning of?

Jim:                 Both. What I would do, you know, standardized tests traditionally are not tests that respond well to cramming.  I am not suggesting a mega cram session as I am sure you are familiar with your Stanford case.  What I am suggesting is, I am not even suggesting sitting for a full-length practice test because by now you should have done that and if you are repeating the test you know what it is like to sit still and focus for over four hours. That would not be a good use of one’s time.  However, what would be a good use would be to handle a couple of passes under timed conditions, maybe a math section, and go into it, especially for the seniors, go into it with an understanding of where your strengths lie. That is where you are going to get your points this Saturday.

Don’t worry so much about the stuff that is still not familiar to you or still not easy to accomplish. That is going to only slow you down on test day.  Maybe an hour a day, just ultimate familiarity and then test day morning, you are sure to have your ride arranged, you are sure to have your admission ticket, your number 2 pencils, your calculator, fresh batteries, etc.  Just take 10 or 15 minutes, even in the car on the way if you are being driven, not if you driving please, but if you are being driven and do a couple of practice warm-up problems.  I think you will find, if you follow that, paradoxically, you will be in the test center, ready to go and you will be upset at all the other people who forgot their number 2 pencils or don’t know where to go because you will want to jump into the test, seize it as an opportunity and you will want to show the test makers just how adept you are at taking their test.

Dr. Pamela:     That’s a tip I should have known for the GMAT too.

Jim:                 You make a very valid point.  A lot of the standardized tests are variations on each other.  We have the SAT and ACT for college admissions.  We have the GRE which I loosely refer to as SAT for grownups. We have the GMAT which has problem-solving and a little twist on problem-solving called Data Sufficiency, but it also has critical reading as well as critical reasoning, the LSAT has logic games, everyone’s favorite and critical reading. There is no math on the LSAT for the math folks out there. They are often different birds of a slightly different feather but very related.

Dr. Pamela:     So Jim, let’s talk through the sections of the SAT and what students need to know to do their best on test day.  Can we talk through the sections?  Which section do you want to start with?

Jim:                 We might as well start with the first section which is the difference from the ACT.  On the SAT, you sit through the essay first.  The ACT if you take the essay, comes last, but on the SAT you are presented with a prompt in which you are going to write a response in 25 minutes.  I would like to tell people, the prompt is where it is at. You want to look at the wording that they use, for instance, I am looking at one right now in one of the sample tests and the question is, “Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?”  One thing I will mention about the SAT versus the ACT, the SAT started more as an aptitude test.  It tends to be a little more esoteric.  You see this, especially in the essay.  My all-time favorite SAT essay prompt is, “Is there always a however?”  I am sitting there thinking, I didn’t know I was sitting for my PHT in philosophy trying to answer “Is there always a however?”  Back to the point at hand here.  “Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?”  I see very important keywords there.  Knowledge, what do we mean by knowledge?  Is it didactic knowledge, mathematical knowledge, knowing one’s self; is it knowledge of an event coming up?  Burden, what do we mean by a burden?  Does that mean something bad is going to happen?  Are we going to have to pay damages, are we going to feel guilt, that kind of thing.  Benefit. What kind of benefit are we talking about?  Are we talking about the financial benefit, benefit to one’s self, society, etc?  You can see that if you key in on the keywords, you can generate your thought process pretty quickly.  One other tip I will give the students who are taking the test on Saturday, you will notice that with every SAT prompt, there is a box of short paragraphs, maybe three or four sentences above it that often is a quote from someone in the past.  This one starts with “Knowledge is power.” Which is a very interesting statement.

One mistake that students make is they think they have to repeat that part of the prompt in their essay and that is wasted space. The readers have that prompt right in front of them, you only have a limited amount of space anyway and that doesn’t do anything to move the line forward in terms of your test performance. What you want to use that for is to stimulate your thought process. As an example, knowledge is power, what kind of power?  Financial power, personal power, military power, and then it goes on to say in agriculture medicine and industry for example. Three very different yet related entities and that is where you go to generate your examples. Medicine.  Is knowledge power?  Yes, if I know how to cure cancer, I have the power to make people’s lives better.  Industry.  I will give you a contra example.  Knowledge is power.  What if it is insider trader knowledge?  Is that power or does that confer power to someone else like the Securities and Exchange Commission to indite you?  So, I love essays.  It allows you to go in many different directions. There is no right or wrong answer.  Your 1 to 12 score depends a lot on how well you present your ideas. Believe it or not, there is great freedom to write the essay of your choice, as long as it satisfies certain guidelines.

Dr. Pamela:     That is really good information.  Insightful.  Let’s talk about the other sections.  One of them I know which gives some students grief, particularly one of our international students right now, the reading section. The verbal section was a little bit more challenging.  What strategies do you have for students on that particular section of the SAT?

Jim:                 We have a couple that we can mention.  One thing I will mention first, is they mix up the order of the sections on the SAT. While a practice exam may have presented the reading comprehension section right after the essay, your test might have the math section and that can vary within a room even.  You don’t want to be worried about what if I get math first or what if I get verbal first because you want to have the mindset of “I can handle whatever they want to present to me and do a good job on it.”

Regarding the verbal section and the critical reading section.  For students for whom English might be a second language, this can be a challenge. There is no denying that. Colleges I believe also look at the TOEFL exam, Test of English as a Foreign Language, in part of their assessment. Again, you are not necessarily dead in the water if verbal is not a strong point of yours.  A couple of tips that anyone can use on the verbal, is absolutely the first thing you want to do within any section is to turn your pages to the end of the section, do not go beyond the end of the section but you want to have any idea of how many passages are there, are there the dual passages, the compare and contrast packages, is there one short passage and one longer passage and I am getting beyond the two short first paragraph passages.  You want to get the overall view of the sections so you will know better how to marshall your resource of time and distribute that.  It always starts with the sentence completion.

A lot of people make the mistake regardless of what is their primary language at home, at looking at the answers first to try and fit the answers back into the blanks. That is the kiss of death.  Believe it or not, the test makers don’t necessarily have your best interest in mind.  They will write answers to confuse you. What you want to do instead, is you want to cover up the answers with your hand or your grade sheet and read the sentence looking for contextual clues. You want to think about, “Well if I were writing the test, what word would I put in the blank?” It could be something as basic as, “I would put a positive word or a negative word.”  Then you go quickly without dwelling on any one answer until you have seen all five you go quickly through the answers to say, “Yes, that word might fit.  That works pretty well.  Then, before you move on, you re-read the sentence with your choice in it and if it works, you circle the answer in your book, which you should do on all the answers and then transfer it to your grade sheet either one at a time or by the page, which I think creates much greater efficiency. That would be a suggestion I would have for the sentence completion.  Handling the essays, I say absolutely, that would be a classic wrong answer on reading comprehension because it is too extreme, but you want to consider previewing your questions first. That tells you what the author thinks is important in the passage.  That tells you what the passage is about and it can give you a leg up on your analysis of the passage.

You do not want to pre-read the answers for two reasons.  1)  Four out of five of them are wrong.  2)  You don’t have the time. Another very important tip I can give to students is that pick the answer that best fits it.  You want to go after the reading comp section with the understanding that four of the answers are categorically wrong and one of the answers is categorically correct.  I know that sounds extreme but what that does is that keeps you from arguing with yourself, well this could be the right answer, that might be the right answers, which one do I pick.  No, four of them are wrong and one of them is right and it is a huge confidence builder and it is a huge speed builder if you will. The other aspect that I mentioned, that we cover here at Insight Tutors is these tests are written to a formula. The sections are written to formula, the right answers are written to a formula and the wrong answers are written to a formula.  Learn to recognize the wrong answers.

If I have a minute, I will just run through the five or six that they want to be on the lookout for, would that be okay?   The one answer that I alluded to before is the answer that is too extreme.  If I tell a client I never make a mistake in front of a client, it is pretty easy to prove me wrong.  I have to mess up once.  But if I say I generally don’t make mistakes in front of a client, it is much harder to prove me wrong so be very wary of answers with “all, always, never or none” in them. Sometimes they are right but most of the time they are not.  The answer is half right or half wrong.  It starts out looking good and the end is a variance and the test makers do that because they know you are nervous and know you are in a rush and you see the promising beginning, circle it, and move on and they have trapped you.  Look for the answer that is the exact opposite of what you want.  This shows up particularly true on tone questions and questions where there is dialogue. They give you the answer that speaker B would have said instead of speaker A.  Especially the answer that is the wrong point of view or the wrong part of the passage.  On the SAT, the questions generally go in order with the passage.  The answer is a “wow that is funny” answer.  Where did that come from, totally unrelated to the passage that you can eliminate and “Wow that is funny, close in cousin, the one that corrupts the details.”  They know you have seen the words before but they might reverse cause and effect and then finally the one that makes an unwarranted comparison.  It might be a science passage about two theories. One of the answers says, “Well Theory A is more believable than Theory B” and nowhere in the passage was that stated or even suggested.  I just ran you through a couple of hours of tutoring right there.  Those would be some of the suggestions on how to handle a reading comprehension section.

Dr. Pamela:     Those are great.  We only have a couple of minutes left so I don’t want to take another break but what I do want to do is if you can give us a snapshot or two really good math or quantitative strategies that students can use.  We did a show earlier that focused just on the math but I would like to hear from you what you suggest to your students.

Jim:                 Scan the math section first and go to the easy questions.  By easy, I mean the ones that are easy for you.  Although the questions generally go in order from easier to harder, that is a statistical thing, it is not necessarily relevant to your test-taking ability.  For example, if you like geometry and you are nervous about the math section, go through and do all the geometry questions first after you have reviewed the section.  The other tip I would offer is the calculator 99 times out of 100 is a hindrance.  Do not rely on your calculator.  If you are using it for guess and check, you have forgotten what the question was after you have gone through all the guess and check.  By the way, they will put answers in there that are correct answers to the wrong questions. Again, they have trapped you. I would suggest doing the questions that you like the best first and not relying too heavily if at all on the calculator.  They will give you problems that involve exponents of 2 to the 99th, I will you a really basic one divided by 2 to the 98th and if you are punching 2 to the 99th into your calculator you will exceed its capacity anyway.  The answer is 2 to the 1st.  2 goes into the 99 minus 98.  It took you five seconds to figure that up and now you have built up a surplus for the harder questions that you will want to do at the end. Given that you have a little bit over a minute per question in general, if you save 55 seconds on one question, you now have over 2 minutes to do a really hard question.  Those are two suggestions I would have.

Dr. Pamela:     Thank you, Jim, for joining us.  I want to thank those that are listening as well.  You can always e-mail additional questions that we can share later and post those answers up for you.  We will be doing part 2 on the ACT so look for the announcement there. Bill will come on and tell you more about how to stay connected with us.


If you’re taking the SAT this weekend: Read this

In the last week, I’ve received several calls from parents who are worried about their son’s or daughter’s preparation for the SAT. My first response is to allay their fears that this one test will doom their teen’s future admission to college. While it’s true that these standardized test are reviewed in the college admissions process, it is only one of several factors considered. (Sigh! Thank goodness it’s not the only one, right?)

There is a growing number of test-optional colleges. If you don’t test well but you do write well, those colleges should be considered.

If you’re still reading this post, you’re probably already registered for Saturday’s SAT exam, so I’d like to offer you this invitation:

Please join me on BlogTalkRadio this Thursday, December 1 at 9 pm EST

We’re hosting the first segment of our two-part series on standardized tests, which will focus on Last Minute Tips and Strategies for the SAT. My guest will be Jim Meany of Insight Tutors in Greenwich, CT. Jim has over 25 years of tutoring experience. He is a graduate of Stanford University and University of Southern California.

If you have any questions for Jim, you are welcomed to send those to radio at


P.S. Jim will join us again next week to discuss the ACT!


Best tips for Acing the ACT or SAT

There’s a great quote which states (paraphrased): “If you think you are, you are.” Research on test-taking confirms this statement. If you are nervous about your test performance (read, telling yourself “I’m not going to do well”), then it actually impairs your test performance. To ease their anxiety, students can follow these tips:

1. . . . teaching yourself in advance to think differently about the test, Dr. Driscoll says. Envision yourself in a situation you find challenging and invigorating; a soccer player might imagine scoring a goal, or a mountain climber might envision herself topping a ridge, he says. Then switch your mental image to the testing room and imagine yourself feeling the same way. With practice, you’ll be able to summon up more confidence on test day.

2. . . . reducing “novelty and stress on the day of the exam” can prevent choking under pressure, says Sian Beilock, a researcher and author on cognitive performance. If you are taking the exam in an unfamiliar place, visit the room in advance.

3. . . . setting aside 10 minutes beforehand to write down your worries, says Dr. Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. She and a fellow researcher tested 106 ninth-graders for anxiety before their first high-pressure exam, then asked half of them to spend 10 minutes writing down their thoughts right before the test. The anxious kids who did the writing exercise performed as well on the test as the students who had been calm all along. But anxious students who didn’t do the writing performed more poorly. Expressing one’s worries in writing, Dr. Beilock says, unburdens the brain.

via Toughest Exam Question: What Is the Best Way to Study? –

Two additional pre-test tips that I constantly share with my students are getting a full-night’s rest before the test. So many teens have become accustomed to staying up late, that they don’t even realize the sub-optimal performance of doing so. My own teen is a great example of that! Secondly, eating oatmeal on the morning of the test also improves your performance. Even when my children were in elementary school, I would make oatmeal each morning of the testing period for achievement tests. I read about the research on oatmeal several years ago  and it still holds true.

Taking the SSAT: How to Prepare and Why Take It

We have been podcasting The Education Doctor Radio show since December 2010. Our most popular shows have been on standardized testing and, much to our surprise even, boarding schools. In the Midwest, there is a growing trend of boarding school applicants from the Chicago area. Another interesting trend in boarding school admissions is that many students are learning about this option on their own and asking parents if they can visit or apply.

One of the admissions criteria for boarding school is the Secondary Schools Admissions Test. The first test administered this year will be coming up on October 15 (which happens to be the same day as the PSAT). The PSAT, of course, is offered by College Board, while the SSAT is offered by a totally separate organization. Because the acronyms are so similar, many people may mistake the SSAT and SAT. On our radio show today, we focus on the SSAT – we discussed why thousands of students take this test each year and how students can best prepare for the SSAT.

Secondary Schools Admissions Test

Our guest today is Aimee Gruber, Senior Director of Outreach, at SSATB. She joins us on the eve of the online registration deadline, which is tomorrow, September 30. Registered students are now preparing to take the test on October 15, so she joins us at a time when it will be most helpful for our listening families. Aimee gave us her insight and practical tips to taking the SSAT so that students can score well and get in to their best-matched schools.

In the taping of this show, we covered each section of the SSAT – Quantitative, Reading Comprehension, Verbal – and practical tips that students can apply right away. Next week, on our show, Aimee Gruber returns to discuss how the school admissions offers use the score reports, SSAT-related questions that students should ask in their interview, and how students and parents can interpret their score reports. Please remember to join us on October 6 at 8:30 pm EST or you can listen live by calling (714) 333-3356.