First off, not every student will take the PSAT in sophomore year. Some schools offer it, others don’t. The junior year PSAT is the one that “counts” toward things like National Merit recognition, but the advice below still applies to 11th graders.
Our general recommendation for sophomores (and juniors!) is to avoid spending much time on preparation for the PSAT. Here’s why:
1. The PSAT is nearly meaningless in the college process beyond being a benchmark for preparation.
Colleges do not look at PSAT scores. Admissions officers understand that the PSAT is not the “real thing,” so they’re not concerned with your performance on this test.
The PSAT can be a good benchmark for you, in that it provides a starting score that may help you determine your potential score on future standardized tests. However, if you take the PSAT in fall of sophomore year and begin standardized test prep the following summer or even in junior fall, that benchmark is already old. You learn a significant amount of information in sophomore year that can affect your standardized testing potential.
2. You should not prepare for standardized testing (SAT/ACT) any earlier than you need to.
We don’t promote early test prep for a few reasons. First, starting too early can mean you burn out out before the important tests in junior or senior year. Second, we have seen many students go through the test prep process, and starting before our recommended timeline (sophomore summer or junior fall) just isn’t necessary. Finally, as mentioned above, sophomore year is a time when you’re still learning content relevant to standardized testing, so starting early is not an effective use of your efforts. Instead, devote that time to something meaningful, like an extracurricular activity, or just give yourself a break and relax a little!
3. Significant prep for the PSAT can increase your anxiety, especially if you’re already an anxious or competitive student.
Given that the test itself has low stakes, we want to help you avoid adding extra pressure or stress to your life by worrying about your test results. The ideal approach to the PSAT should be closer to the "I didn't study, so I don't expect to do super well" camp rather than the “I studied so hard and didn’t score as well as I hoped, so my life is over” camp.
If you’re having trouble believing that you really don’t need to stress about the PSAT, here’s a quick FAQ of questions you may be asking right now, and our most helpful answers:
Is there anything I can/should do to prepare for the PSAT?
Well, yes: if you’re so inclined, you could spend a short while familiarizing yourself with the exam (1-2 hours maximum). Here’s what that might look like:
The week before the PSAT, spend 1-2 hours with a sample PSAT exam, looking at the format of the test and the types of questions that will be asked. That way, the exam is not a complete surprise on test day. BUT: if you think this preparation is going to cause you anxiety, let it go. Remember that it’s not vital to your overall standardized testing success.
On test day, we always advise taking the exam seriously. Try to be well rested and in a good headspace. This may mean making a detailed schedule for test day and the night before.
When scores come back, they don’t need to be a huge topic of discussion, especially if you’re prone to anxiety. When standardized test preparation begins after sophomore year, the PSAT report might come in handy, but until then, it’s not worth thinking about or worrying over. If any areas of your score report are of concern, drop us a line and we can review it together.
What about qualifying as a National Merit Scholar?
The PSAT also serves as the NMSQT, which stands for the National Merit Scholars Qualifying Test. As of this post, only junior-year PSAT scores will be considered for the National Merit Scholars competition, which recognizes a tiny percentage of students with the top PSAT scores and gives out a few scholarships to a tiny percentage of that group.
The National Merit Scholars competition does not carry much weight in the college process, and the scholarship amount is relatively small (i.e., it may not be worth the effort/the stiff competition you would face in order to earn one). This is why even in junior year we don’t suggest investing a lot of time preparing for the PSAT: your time could better be spent elsewhere.
Do your PSAT prep recommendations change for juniors?
Yes and no. We recommend beginning your SAT or ACT preparation (choose just one exam) after sophomore year or at the beginning of junior year. If you’re preparing for the SAT, you’ll automatically be preparing for the PSAT as well. You should consider the October PSAT date of junior year a great time to gain practice with the test day experience. However, juniors should keep their focus on SAT prep, rather than studying specifically for the PSAT.
Students who have opted for the ACT instead of the SAT don’t need to spend any extra time studying for the PSAT either, as it won’t significantly affect your college process. Although the SAT and PSAT are more similar in structure than the ACT and PSAT, a good portion of your ACT preparation will still help you out on the PSAT. Despite the different format, students taking the ACT can still treat the PSAT as an opportunity to practice the test day experience.
In conclusion, sophomores don’t need any additional preparation for the PSAT, and even juniors don’t need specific PSAT prep; studying for the SAT or ACT will suffice. This is why we don’t recommend study books, courses, or even tutoring specifically geared toward the PSAT. There are many elements of your high school experience that can meaningfully impact your college application process, but the PSAT simply isn’t one of them. And that’s good news for parents and students alike!