How to Study for the PSAT Test

By Taylor Cameron

The PSAT test may not be used for college admissions, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important part of the college prep process. A good study plan for the PSAT test can help you earn scholarships and prepare you for the SAT® test.

In this guide, we’ll go over why you should take the PSAT test, when you should take it, and some general tips for how to study for it. We’ll provide you with a comprehensive overview of the PSAT test as well as eight strategies to help you prepare for the test.

What is the PSAT?

The PSAT (PSAT/NMSQT®) test is the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Sophomores and juniors can choose to take this standardized test as a precursor to the SAT test. The College Board owns and administers both the SAT and the PSAT tests. The National Merit Scholarship Program uses test scores from the 11th grade test to determine scholarship eligibility. The test also helps students gauge how they’ll do on the SAT test.

Most high schools offer the option to take the PSAT test. Talk to your high school counselor to find out how to sign up, when it’s offered, and where you can take it.

PSAT vs SAT test

The PSAT test acts as a practice run for the SAT test, and the tests are quite similar in terms of content. However, the SAT test is slightly more challenging than the PSAT test. The chart below highlights a few key differences between the two tests.

psat test format

You can find even more in-depth information about the differences between the PSAT and SAT tests.

PSAT/NMSQT vs PSAT 10 vs PSAT 8/9 Tests

The College Board administers three different versions of the PSAT test based on grade level.

PSAT/NMSQT Test

This test is offered by school districts throughout the U.S. in October of 11th grade. Scores from this test determine semifinalist status for the National Merit Scholarship Program. To qualify, students have to earn a score within the top 0.5% of scores from 11th graders throughout their state. The exact score needed to qualify will vary slightly from state-to-state and year-to-year.

PSAT 10

This version of the test is available to sophomores and is the same as the PSAT/NMSQT test in terms of content and difficulty. However, there are a few key differences. Students can sit for the exam in the spring of their 10th grade year. Not every high school offers this version of the test.

We suggest that students take PSAT 10 test as extra practice for the PSAT/NMSQT test. Taking this version of the test allows you to get a feel for what to expect on test day, in addition to acting as good practice for taking the test in a proctored environment.

PSAT 8/9 Test

This test is available for 8th and 9th grade students who want to test their knowledge and skills as early as 8th grade. These scores do not count towards the National Merit Scholarships Program and not every school offers this version of the test.

We typically suggest that only advanced students who feel ready for high-level math and verbal questions take the PSAT 8/9 test. This test consists of content that students do not see until later on in the education process, and testing too early can be discouraging. But if a student feels adequately prepared, taking this test early will give him/her plenty of time to prepare before 11th grade.

Is the PSAT Test Hard?

The PSAT test is slightly easier than the SAT test, but it is still challenging. We encourage students to prepare for the test in advance instead of trying to cram at the last minute.

If you’re aiming for National Merit Semifinalist status, then you’ll want to start your preparation as soon as possible. Some high performers will start preparing with lessons, workshops, and practice tests as much as a year or two before the official test. Keep in mind that timing will vary depending on the student.

Is the PSAT required for college admission?

The PSAT test is not required for college admission. However, your score can qualify you for scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Program. Many colleges offer generous scholarships for students who earn this recognition. For example, the University of Texas at Dallas offers a full tuition scholarship plus stipend for National Merit Finalists.

When is the PSAT Test?

Unlike the SAT or ACT® tests which happen periodically throughout the year, the 11th grade PSAT test is only offered once per year in October. There are three test dates: primary, Saturday, and alternate. Most schools will offer the test on the primary test dates, but this may vary depending on the district. It’s best to check with your high school counselor to find out exactly when the PSAT test will happen at your school.

Most testers will take the PSAT test in the 11th grade, but some choose to take the PSAT 10 (10th Grade) or PSAT 8/9 (8th or 9th grade) tests as early practice for the 11th grade PSAT test. This test is not available for 12th graders, and not every school will offer the opportunity to take a version of the PSAT test before 10th grade.

Why Prepare for the PSAT Test?

Most notably, studying in advance for the PSAT test can help students achieve a score that qualifies them for the National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist status. But keep in mind that there are multiple other scholarships available for students based on their PSAT scores.

If national recognition is not one of your goals or the scores required are outside your reach, we still recommend that you consider taking the PSAT test. It’s great practice for the SAT and ACT tests.

When should you start studying for the PSAT test?

Typically, students want to start studying for the PSAT test no later than the summer before junior year. This will give time to prepare for the PSAT test in the fall and the SAT or ACT test in the winter or early spring. We suggest students complete their testing by the end of junior year. This will allow for time to focus on applying to colleges during the fall of senior year.

How many hours should you study for the PSAT test?

Dedicate a couple of hours each week to study, starting several months before the test. Remember, the PSAT test covers a lot of information and will be different from the tests you’ve taken for your high school courses. You need plenty of time to invest in subject areas where you need more practice and learn testing strategies that will help you become a more efficient and effective test taker.

8 Study Tips for PSAT Prep

1. Know What to Expect with the Test Format

Before test day, become familiar with the PSAT format. You want to develop a good understanding of the test question structure, the average length of time to allocate for each question, length of reading passages, math formulas you’ll need to memorize, and the content areas for each section.

Below you’ll find a helpful chart highlighting a few important components of the PSAT test.

psat section breakdown

2. Take a Diagnostic Test

Before you begin studying, it’s important to first identify your strengths and weaknesses. You can do this by taking a diagnostic test. A diagnostic test is a practice test taken at the beginning of your test prep journey that serves as a benchmark for measuring progress. This will give you a clear picture of where you need to focus your time when studying. It will also help you understand the types of questions that you need to practice the most.

At KD College Prep, our students take a diagnostic test when they first sign up for our programs. If a student has already taken the PSAT, SAT, or ACT tests, we use his/her previous scores from the official tests to help measure progress.

3. Set a Target Score

When it comes to preparing for the PSAT test, avoid setting vague goals. (E.g. I want a high PSAT score; I want to increase my PSAT score). Instead, follow the SMART goal method when setting a test score goal. One way to do this is to select a target score you want to achieve. We recommend that you choose this score based on the SAT score ranges for the students admitted to colleges to which you plan to apply. If you want to compete for the National Merit Scholarship, you will need to be in the top 0.5% of your state.

The chart below gives you a general breakdown of the percentile you’d rank in based on your score. The College Board bases this data on student scores within the last three years.

psat score percentiles

4. Create a Study Schedule

You’ll be more consistent with your test preparation if you set aside specific time to study. Evaluate your schedule and determine the best time to study each week (E.g. Thursday afternoons or Saturday mornings). The key is to select a time that works for your schedule and stick to it. Treat this PSAT study time as a mandatory aspect of your weekly routine.

5. Determine Your Focus Areas

An individualized study plan will help you be efficient and effective in your test preparation. Create a plan for yourself based on the results from your diagnostic test. You want to cover all content areas while studying but try to dedicate more time to topics that you struggle with. Spend time reviewing areas you’re strongest in. Then complete exercises and drills in your weaker content areas.

6. Regularly Take Practice Tests

Practice, practice, practice! Research shows that the most effective way to study is to take practice tests. They’ll help you become more comfortable with the test format, question structures, allotted time, and content. This can also help improve your test-taking efficiency. You’ll begin to understand how the questions are worded and what to look for when reading passages.

One benefit of KD practice tests is that each test comes with a score report and follow-up test review. We want our students to learn from their mistakes and understand how to find the correct answer.

Quick Tip for the PSAT and SAT tests: Answer all the questions! You’re not penalized for wrong answers on either test, so always select an answer. It’s best to choose one answer choice that you’ll use for each question that you don’t know the answer. For example, you might use answer choice B anytime you have no idea what the answer is.

7. Attend Test Prep Classes

If you prefer to have more guidance, structure, and support when preparing for the PSAT test, consider attending test prep classes. Some students struggle with knowing where to start when preparing for the PSAT test. Classes allow students to learn from experienced instructors in an in-person or live online classroom environment.

At KD College Prep, we offer a variety of test prep programs designed by our experienced team of test prep instructors and curriculum writers. Our programs prepare students for the PSAT test, in addition to the SAT and ACT tests. Unlike many test prep companies, KD offers test prep classes year-round, with convenient activity schedules in the evening and weekends during the school year. Our full-time advisors also provide comprehensive support as students work towards their target score goals, answering questions along the way.

8. Spend More Time Reading

Increasing the amount of time you spend reading each day is one way to help improve your score. Reading challenging material enhances your literacy skills and helps you prepare for the advanced verbal concepts you’ll find on the test. Furthermore, reading often helps you increase your reading speed, which will come in handy when comprehending passages found throughout the verbal section of the test.

Ready to get a jump start on studying for the PSAT test?

KD College Prep offers a variety of programs to meet your needs, including online and in-person classes for 7th-12th grade students. No matter where you are in your test prep journey, our team of experts is here to help. Schedule your free consultation today to learn more about our programs.

Taylor Cameron is a blog writer for KD College Prep.

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“I shifted toward taking practice tests and going to workshops because I felt those were the best ways to apply the concepts (I was) learning in class. I started applying the tips and tricks that the teachers were showing me in class. In conjunction, those two things helped me raise my score a lot because I was not a math kid before KD or high school. The repetition and being able to practice in a non-stressful environment and simulating that testing experience is something that was very beneficial for me... “The college counseling team was super patient and honest about the work I was submitting. I know for a lot of kids, it’s hard to articulate who you are through 250-300 words. It was definitely... Read more...
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"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."
"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."

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Nina H. – Class of 2020

"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."
"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."

Morgan D. – Class of 2020

"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."
"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."

Tiffany – Son, Class of 2021

"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students wanting an edge on their national test scores!"
"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students... Read more...

Daniel J. – Class of 2020

"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."
"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."

Sam H. – Class of 2020

"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the help from amazing teachers and staff. I am so grateful for KD!"
"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the... Read more...

Matt K. – Class of 2020

"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."
"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."

Thomas D. – Class of 2019

"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."
"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."

Piper F. – Class of 2020

"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."
"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."

Kathy – Son attends Mizzou

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“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure out a personal plan that would work for her and were always available for our questions and helping her reach her goals. Every employee from the managers to the students working at their locations are top notch.”
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure... Read more...

Tracy – Daughter, Class of 2020

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

Prema – Daughter attends Rice