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SAT and ACT Prep

How to Study for the PSAT

How to Study for the PSAT

Pass that dreaded PSAT with tips from Apex Learning Virtual School Instructors 

Exam season isn’t exactly the most exciting time for students, but it is necessary! The PSAT (preliminary scholastic aptitude test) is the precursor to the SAT exam. Students typically take it their sophomore year in October. Basically, it's a practice exam to get students ready for the SAT, which they should take for the first time in their junior year. Additionally, the exam is a requirement for students looking to apply for some scholarships and awards like the National Recognition Programs. However, if the PSAT doesn’t affect college admissions or final scores, do students really need to prepare for it?

The answer is yes!

A good study plan for the PSAT will help students build their confidence, decide on the most effective study methods, and understand the format of the actual SAT. The PSAT also gives students a gauge of their potential SAT scores, so they can identify areas that may need improvement.

In this article, we delve into the world of the PSAT — what to expect, how to set up an effective study schedule, test prep strategies, and tips to reduce stress.

Understanding the PSAT Format 

The PSAT is designed to be very similar to the final SAT. However, the PSAT is 15 minutes shorter and doesn’t include a final essay question. It’s also generally a bit easier than the SAT.

There are three different PSAT exams that may or may not be offered in your state. So, it’s always worth checking. These are:

The PSAT is a 2-hour and 14-minute test consisting of 98 questions. It’s broken down into different subjects as follows:

Reading and writing 


Time allocated

64 minutes

70 minutes

Number of questions



Topics covered


Data interpretation

Understanding words in context


Sentence structure




Data analysis


Advanced math concepts

Students can take practice PSAT tests through the College Board by downloading the Bluebook app

As of Fall 2023, the PSAT is no longer a pencil-and-paper exam. It is now offered in a digital format, making it easier for students to navigate the test and answer the questions to the best of their ability. Both the English and math sections are scored on a scale of 160-760. Therefore, a perfect PSAT score is 1520.

Effective Strategies for Studying for the PSAT 

The more familiar you are with the layout and structure of the PSAT, the more confident you will be when it comes to the real thing. 

Below are a few tips to help you get started:

Approaching the Reading Section 

The reading section will be the first portion of the reading and writing part of the PSAT. 1-2 short passages of text are followed by a question related to the text. A few questions may also have bullet-pointed lists of information or a graph relating to a certain topic. 

Students need to read through the information to answer the questions, which can be about the context, comparisons, or the ideas inferred in the text. So, it’s a good idea to ensure you are a confident reader and have a strong grasp of comprehension before taking the PSAT.

Before you dive into answering the questions, bear these things in mind:

Conquering the Writing and Language Section 

In this section, students need to use their editing skills to answer questions on subjects such as punctuation, sentence structure, and pronouns. These are usually multiple choice questions that require students to edit and improve passages of text. Attention to detail is vital in this section, as well as knowledge of grammar. 

When studying, it’s well worth reading through various books, articles and newsletters with a critical eye to prepare you for this part of the PSAT. Some of the errors in the text may be subtle so plenty of practice is needed, depending on your confidence in the topic. 

Navigating the Math Section 

The math section of a PSAT covers various concepts such as linear equations, ratios, probability and trigonometry. Many of the questions are multiple choice. However, around 25% of the questions in this section require the student to write down their own answers (called student-produced responses). 

It’s always best to read each question thoroughly before determining your answer. Don’t assume you understand a question as soon as you see it! If you find yourself using complicated, long-winded strategies to work out the answer, you likely misunderstood the question. Look for patterns in math questions so you can come up with more time-saving strategies.

Importance of Reviewing Practice Tests

When it comes to practicing the PSAT (as well as the actual SAT!), use the structured Kaplan method. This will ensure you answer every question in a consistent way, potentially boosting your overall score. For example, The Kaplan Method focuses on three main steps to practice for the math portion of the PSAT:

  1. Read the question 2-3 times, identifying and organizing key pieces of information as you go.
  2. Choose the most efficient strategy to answer the question.
  3. Review your answer.

For the writing and language portion of the exam, The Kaplan Method recommends the following three steps to prepare: 

  1. Read the passage and identify the issue. 
  2. Eliminate answer choices that don’t address the issue. 
  3. Plug in the remaining answer choices and choose the most correct, concise, and relevant one. 

Perform all practice tests in a quiet environment that reflects the setting you will be in when doing the real test. When you’re done, go through the test and analyze any mistakes. Did you miss key points when answering any of the questions? Are there any patterns in your mistakes? Do you struggle with any particular skills or content areas? All this information will help you to improve.

Many students slip up on exams because they only skim through the questions, leading to mistakes when answering. Although you need to make sure you finish the test within the set time limit, you also need to fully understand the question to get to the right answer. Analyze every question so you understand what you need to look for or work out.

On the other hand, don’t get stuck for a long time on one particular question. If you find yourself struggling, simply skip the question and carry on with the test. Then you can circle back to the ones that require more time. There are no penalties for giving wrong answers. So, try to answer every question. 

Sharpen Skills with Prep and Practice Materials 

Make concept practice materials part of your PSAT prep strategy. There are a few reputable PSAT prep materials available online to help you not only practice for the test, but sharpen your skills for test day, some free examples are: Khan Academy and College Board Resources. ALVS also offers SAT prep tutorials which can be used to help students prepare for the PSAT. In fact, one study showed that Apex Learning SAT® Tutorials significantly improved student performance across reading, writing and language, and mathematics for three straight years. The average gain for reading was 62%, writing and language at 63%, and math 54%. See the Impact of Apex Learning SAT Tutorials on Student Achievement.

Maintaining a Healthy Study Schedule 

The last thing you want to do when preparing for the PSAT is panic and try to cram all your prep into a short period of time. Setting up a structured schedule will build confidence, stamina, and resilience, which are all essential skills for exams.

Here are a few tricks to help maintain a healthy study schedule: 

Balance PSAT prep with schoolwork — Don’t neglect schoolwork when you’re preparing for the PSAT. Set up a realistic routine so you can feel productive without experiencing too much stress, and stick to it. Information given in your textbooks and lessons will also improve your understanding of vital concepts that are likely to come up on test day.

Take regular breaks — Everyone works differently. So, the amount of time one student can continue to revise may be very different from someone else. Therefore, the idea is to find what works for you. As a general guide, you should be taking a short break every 1-2 hours, lasting anywhere from 10-20 minutes.

Don’t worry about memorizing — The PSAT is designed to gauge your skills and knowledge in certain areas. All formulas and facts will be provided in the test booklet so you don’t need to memorize these. Just focus your efforts on understanding different concepts. 

Ask a friend to be a study partner — Finding a study partner will help to keep you on track. Peer support is also a great way to improve motivation and confidence because you are both going through the same thing. You can even set goals together like a specific target score. If you need further support, you can attend PSAT prep classes.

Look after yourself — As much as it’s important to study, it shouldn’t take priority over your physical and mental health. Get plenty of rest and make sure you still have time to do the things you enjoy. This way, you will be in a much better headspace to tackle the PSAT on test day. 

Stress Management Techniques 

A recent study showed that 66% of high school students report feeling stressed about exams and grades, making it a very prominent issue among young people. Fortunately, there are many quick and easy tips to help reduce stress levels: 

High school is a stressful time for most students, even without the additional pressure of the PSAT. However, these exams are a great way to improve your focus, confidence, and future career prospects. So, get your textbooks out and don’t forget to use the tips in this article to improve your results. Good luck!

Frequently Asked Questions 

What is the best way to study for the PSAT? 

The PSAT is designed to test math, writing and reading skills. So, these should be your main priorities, focusing on the specific skills that you’re not overly comfortable with — ALVS SAT tutorials are a great resource to help you prepare for the exam. Lastly, have a designated study area and create a schedule that you can realistically maintain. 

How many hours should you study for the PSAT? 

Every student works differently. So, it’s important to set up a schedule that works for you. Try to aim for a couple of hours of study every week, starting 3-4 months before the actual test. Make sure you focus the most effort on areas where you need more practice.

What are some strategies for studying for the PSAT? 

First and foremost, you need to be realistic with your expectations to prevent too much stress. The best thing to do is study the format of the PSAT so you feel comfortable with the layout and what is expected of you. You can access free PSAT practice tests through the College Board website, and you can take advantage of ALVS’ PSAT tutorials. After each test, review your answers and identify any areas that need improving.

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