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Acing the PSAT: The Insider's Guide

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Updated on May 28, 2013

The SAT and ACT aren't the only tests that matter when it comes to getting into the right college and securing scholarships. Scores from another test, the PSAT, don't count on college applications. But they can help your child begin a relationship with college admissions offices and become eligible for thousands of dollars in financial aid.

The PSAT, also known as the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is administered by the College Board every October. It lasts for two hours and 10 minutes, assessing students' math, writing and critical reading skills. The maximum total score is 240.

One benefit of taking the PSAT is that colleges use its results to search for possible applicants. Your child might be contacted by several colleges she wasn't aware of, only to find out that these colleges might be a perfect fit. The National Merit Scholarship Corp. also awards scholarships to juniors who do especially well on the test.

Besides the aid distributed through the National Merit program, schools, companies and private organizations award scholarships to students who do well on the exam. "There are millions and millions of dollars out there that are going to be distributed based on PSAT scores," says Colin Gruenwald, a national faculty manager for Kaplan Test Prep.

National Merit only counts the scores of high school juniors who take the test. Still, some high school sophomores take the PSAT for practice. However, you and your sophomore may or may not decide taking the test is worthwhile.

"The PSAT is essentially the warm-up," says Stu Maleeff, owner of a Huntington Learning Center franchise in Philadelphia, adding that test matters little for students who haven't reached 11th grade.

But tutor and educational consultant Heidi Waterfield advises high school sophomores to take the PSAT for practice. It isn't necessary the following year unless a student has a reasonable chance at a National Merit scholarship, she says. Sophomores who normally test well or earn a great score on the PSAT should consider taking it as juniors.

And Gruenwald says taking the PSAT at least once can boost your teen's SAT score. Kaplan figures show that teens who take the PSAT during their junior years of high school average an extra 100 points on the SAT. Those who take it in 10th and 11th grades average a 200-point jump. That's nothing to sneeze at!

So how should your teen get ready for the PSAT, and what can you do to help? Experts provide these seven tips:

  • Start preparing in the summer. The bulk of your teen's PSAT preparation should take place the summer before she plans to take it. "When the school year comes you can do a little review, but you've done most of the prep already," Waterfield says.
  • Learn how the exam works. Gruenwald says high school students are used to learning specific material in class and being assessed a few weeks later on how well they've absorbed it. The PSAT is different because it tests students' logic, critical thinking skills and how they react to new information. Waterfield notes that students are penalized for wrong answers on the PSAT, so guessing isn't a good idea unless your child can confidently choose between two answer choices.
  • Take practice tests. You can find practice PSATs and questions in books and online. Some are free. Waterfield stresses taking timed practice tests. Professional tutors provide personalized instruction. Focus your child's preparation on the gaps in her scores on practice exams.
  • Help your child set up a test-prep schedule. Careful planning will allow your child to fit in PSAT preparation along with his homework, school activities and social life. Waterfield suggests hiring a tutor or setting aside a specific time each week for PSAT work.
  • Encourage your child to read. The more your student reads, Maleeff says, the more words will be in her vocabulary. Reading for pleasure counts, along with reading for homework. Your child should look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. "Read as much as possible, Maleeff adds. "That will help you on any of these standardized tests."
  • Don't let your teen throw out old math notes. Reviewing notes from past math classes will help your child earn a higher score. Maleeff says many students score lowest on questions that test skills from earlier math classes because they haven't used this knowledge for a few years.
  • Research scholarships. Some colleges offer guaranteed scholarships to students who earn certain PSAT scores. Urging your student to look for these scholarships can help him set a specific goal, Gruenwald says.

Maleeff says your teen's best strategy is to build preparation for the PSAT into her preparation for the SAT and ACT exams. After his PSAT scores arrive, she should analyze them to search for specific weaknesses. Based on this knowledge she can focus more energy on the sections where she scored lowest and sign up for classes in school that address those areas.

Overall, teens who review for these important exams and practice taking them will be in better shape when test day arrives. "They're going to gain familiarity," Gruenwald says. "They're going to gain confidence."

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