25 PSAT Tips: Advice from a Top 1% Scorer

Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT

The PSAT is a key step on the road to college applications. It’s a standardized test taken by many students as juniors, and sometimes by sophomores as well. 

The PSAT is very similar to the SAT, which is one of the two tests (along with the ACT) used for college admissions. The PSAT is a great chance to see how prepared students are for the SAT and get a sense of what SAT scores they might achieve. The PSAT Score Report provides students and families with lots of great data for crafting a personalized SAT strategy.

PSAT scores aren’t used directly by colleges for admissions purposes, but they can be used to win prestigious scholarships and get noticed by colleges for recruitment and other scholarship opportunities. 

Top-scoring students can earn recognition from the National Merit program, which gives students an edge with college admissions and can even result in full-ride scholarships at certain schools.

Princeton University
Princeton University

Back when I was in high school, my high scores on the PSAT won me a National Merit scholarship and helped me get into Princeton. Now I help today’s students to feel more comfortable with the PSAT and other college admissions tests. Here are my top 25 tips for the PSAT!

Download a Free 30-minute Sample PSAT

Before the test

PSAT tip #1: Be familiar with the test

The PSAT may be sometimes known as the “practice SAT,” but avoid taking the PSAT completely cold — this can lead to a negative testing experience, which can increase test anxiety for the SAT and other important college admissions tests.

Spend a few minutes reading our “What is the PSAT?” post and learn about the general structure of the PSAT. Remember that the PSAT is changing significantly in fall 2023, so make sure you’re becoming familiar with the new version of the test!

PSAT tip #2: Take a practice test and set your goals

The best way to get a good sense of the PSAT is to take a practice test. Download our shortened 30-minute sample PSAT for free to get a taste of the test. Then set aside three hours to take a full practice test in simulated testing conditions. (Make sure you’re practicing the new 2023 version of the test.)

These practice tests can reveal valuable information for test-prep strategy. For the PSAT, it’s especially important to know if you have a reasonable shot at a top score. If you score in the top 3% of test-takers, you can win recognition from the National Merit program and earn big scholarships, including full-ride scholarships to certain colleges. If you know you tend to score highly on standardized tests, you should take the PSAT seriously, because there’s significant money and admissions advantages on the line.

If you’re not sure if you might be a top scorer, download our short 30-minute sample and see how you do. We typically recommend that students who score in the top 5% of standardized tests take the PSAT seriously and do more focused prep.

Use your performance on practice tests to determine your strengths and weaknesses. Be strategic about the areas where you can improve the most on the test with a bit of effort. Make a list of the concepts or types of problems to practice — an experienced tutor can help with crafting a strong prep strategy based on practice tests.

PSAT tip #3: Learn concepts you don’t know (strategically)

After taking a practice test and making a list of the concepts you don’t know, set aside some time to learn those missing concepts

Use books and online resources or reach out to a teacher or private tutor for help filling in the gaps in your knowledge.

Be strategicfocus on the concepts that will appear most frequently on the test, like basic grammar rules, algebra of straight lines, and basic operations with exponents. For example, can you simplify these math expressions comfortably?

operations with exponents — a core area tested on the PSAT and SAT

Only once those basics are solid should you work on concepts that appear less frequently, like circle equations or literary devices.

Pro tip: Don’t spend time memorizing SAT vocabulary. Personally, I find vocabulary flashcards to be a waste of time. The likelihood that you’ll successfully memorize the specific words that appear on the test is very low, and your time and focus will yield much greater results if you focus instead on semicolon rules. If you are preparing in advance and want to improve your vocabulary, read books and magazine articles, or listen to podcasts. Ask your local librarian or work with one of our tutors for customized recommendations!

PSAT tip #4: Practice, practice, practice!

The single best way to improve your PSAT score is to practice.

Do focused drills on weak areas or concepts you’ve just learned to strengthen your knowledge.

Occasionally do full timed practice tests — this is important for getting a good sense of pacing on the test. There are free full practice tests available from the College Board and Khan Academy. Make sure you’re practicing the new 2023 version of the test, which will be digital and significantly different.

Know that any practice you do for the PSAT will also prepare you for the SAT, because they are nearly identical tests. The SAT is just a little bit longer and a little bit tougher.

PSAT tip #5: Use up-to-date, high-quality resources

Major changes are coming to the PSAT and the SAT in 2023. The new digital version of the test will not just be taken in a different way (on laptops and tablets instead of with pencil and paper), but it will also have a completely new structure. Some of the types of questions will be significantly changed, and the Reading section will be completely different. Read more about the changes here.

This means that most PSAT and SAT prep resources are going to be out-of-date. It’s going to be important to use recently revised, up-to-date resources, especially for the new Reading & Writing section. Check that resources have been updated since fall 2022, when the College Board released preview material for the new digital PSAT and SAT.

from 2023 PSAT and SAT are digital-only, so make sure you’re practicing the new digital version!

One reliable study resource is the educational non-profit Khan Academy, which has partnered with the creators of the PSAT and SAT to make high-quality online test prep materials. They’re especially great for math resources.

A good test-prep tutor can help students and families make sure that they’re practicing the right version of the test and using the best resources available.

PSAT tip #6: Use a variety of strategies to answer test questions

In addition to learning the underlying concepts being tested by the PSAT, it can be helpful to learn strategies for answering different types of questions found on the test.

Sometimes the most effective or time-efficient method of solving a problem is to work backwards, plug in test solutions, or another “hack.” Some strategies that might not fly in your high school classes (where teachers will often want you to show your work and solve a problem in a particular way) are fine on the test. In the end, the only thing that counts is choosing the correct answer, not how you got there!

Test-prep tutors can help students to learn proven strategies for solving each separate type of question. 

PSAT tip #7: For math problems, draw a picture or diagram

Often a good way to get started on a math problem is to draw a rough sketch of the situation or a quick diagram.

Students should absolutely draw a diagram for any geometry problem that does not already provide one.

Thumbnail sketches can also be very helpful for visualizing problems involving the equation of a line, parabolic curve, or exponential growth curve.

If you feel completely stumped on a problem, drawing a little picture can often help to jog your thinking. Just don’t spend too much time making your drawing exact!

student working on math problem

PSAT tip #8: For grammar questions, read the sentence “out loud”

For grammar questions on the Reading & Writing section, try reading the multiple-choice options out loud. Often you’ll be able to “hear” the right answer — trust your instincts! This strategy is especially helpful for questions about comma placement.

Of course, on the actual test you won’t be able to make noise, so you’ll have to mouth the words silently. This may feel silly, but we still recommend it! Top scorers and National Merit winners read out the options, so it’s not too silly for you.

PSAT tip #9: For Reading questions, avoid answers that distort the scope

One common trap that the test writers set on reading comprehension questions is to create multiple-choice answers that are a little bit right but have a distorted scope.

question from official SAT test prep #1 — option C is close but distorts the scope with the word “all”

In particular, be very careful with answers that use words like “all,” “none,” “never,” “always,” “every,” etc. These are often trap answers and should send alarm bells ringing for you. 

PSAT tip #10: For Reading and Writing questions, think of your own answer first

This tip is especially great for high-scoring students who tend to overthink their answers.

The test writers will deliberately set traps for students. They’ll write answers that echo certain phrases from the text or “sound good,” and once you read these trick answers, you start to believe that they’re a good choice.

A secret hack for avoiding these traps is to ignore the multiple-choice answers at first. Instead, just focus on the question and think of what your own answer would be based on the text, as if it were a free-response short-answer question. 


Once you have that answer fixed in your head, then look at the multiple-choice options. Usually one will closely match your own idea, and that’s the one to choose. Ignore any other options and feel confident in your choice. 

PSAT tip #11: Get help as needed

There’s a lot to manage with test prep, and it can be a good idea to get help as needed.

If you’re struggling with particular concepts, sometimes there are good resources online. Khan Academy is a reliable study platform, especially for math, and students can find YouTube explanations of specific topics.

Some high school teachers may be generous with their time and offer additional help to students, and there are some platforms for free or low-cost peer and community tutoring. When considering group test-prep classes, look for classes with qualified teachers, small classes, and the ability to get additional help from the teachers. Working one-on-one with a tutor will be the most efficient way to prepare for the PSAT and SAT, because an experienced tutor can help a student to focus immediately on the areas where they can gain the most points the most quickly. 

Check out our list of top PSAT tutoring services here.

PSAT test day

PSAT tip #12: The night before the test, sleep — don’t cram

Don’t study the night before the test. The benefit from another few hours of studying or practice is going to be outweighed by the stress hormones and exhaustion that can come from last-minute cramming.

Instead, focus on getting a full night’s sleep. (For most teenagers, this is 8 or 9 hours of sleep.) As much as busy schedules allow, do something that you find enjoyable or relaxing. Eat a healthy, balanced evening meal, avoid caffeine in the evening, and avoid blue lights and screens that can disrupt sleep.

The only exception to this advice is if you haven’t done any prep and have no idea what the test will look like! In that case, spend an hour or so familiarizing yourself with the test format and types of questions you’ll see. Read our “What is the PSAT?” post and download our 30-minute mini PSAT to get a taste of the test. And of course, read this list of top PSAT tips!

student sleeping

PSAT tip #13: Bring the right things to the test

The night before the test, pack your bag with everything you’ll need on test day. Remember, the PSAT is administered in schools on a school day, so it can be difficult to remember that this school day will be different.

For the PSAT, you’ll need to bring:

  • Photo ID
  • Device for taking the new digital test: laptop or tablet with a battery that can last four hours, fully charged, with charger — contact your school if you need to borrow a device for taking the test
  • Two #2 pencils — even if the new test is digital, you’ll still be provided with scratch paper for making notes and calculations
  • Watch (that doesn’t beep) to keep an eye on time: I personally like an old-school watch with a second hand, but some people like a digital watch that has a timer function
  • Calculator that you feel comfortable using (and that is approved by the College Board) with full batteries — don’t try out a new fancy calculator on the day of the test, a surprisingly common mistake!
  • Bottle of water to stay hydrated — water accounts for 75% of your brain mass and dehydration can affect cognitive function 
  • Healthy snack to eat during the break — aim for brain-boosting protein and complex carbs, not sugar
  • Comfortable layers, like a hoodie, in case the testing room is chilly
  • Headphones for listening to pump-up music before the test
pencil for test

PSAT tip #14: The morning of the test, eat breakfast

You’ve heard this one before.

The morning of the test, eat a good breakfast. (Or at least something for breakfast!)

balanced breakfast

Aim for brain-boosting proteins and complex carbohydrates, like oatmeal, yogurt with granola and berries, rice with eggs or fish, arepas de pescado, or whatever you like. These foods will help boost your concentration power and aid you to perform your best. Avoid simple sugars like donuts, sugary cereals, or pop-tarts.

When it comes to caffeine and medications, stick to your usual routine. If you normally drink tea or coffee, go for it — but don’t have more than your usual. Testing day is not when you should experiment or change it up!

iced coffee

PSAT tip #15: Arrive early to the testing location

On testing day, leave plenty of time to get to the testing location. 

Most students will take the PSAT at their school on a school day, which is a great chance to practice for the SAT in a familiar environment.

Plan to arrive a bit early on PSAT testing day. The last thing you want is to flood your body with stress chemicals from something totally unrelated to the test, like worrying about traffic or parking.

PSAT tip #16: Use small hacks to boost confidence

Everyone gets a little nervous for important tests, even the strongest students.

Fortunately, there are a lot of small hacks that can boost your confidence level before and during the test.

Take a note from pro athletes and listen to pump-up music (with headphones) in the morning before the test. Make a playlist beforehand with the music that makes you feel confident, capable, and strong!

student walking while listening to music

Do a little bit of exercise before the test to get your blood flowing and decrease stress. Take a short walk, jog around the block, or do a few jumping jacks. 

Try short power poses, like standing like Superman with your chest puffed out and your chin up. These have been shown to help boost confidence levels! Do them in a bathroom stall if you feel self-conscious, or even do mini versions of them seated at your testing desk.

Engage in positive self-talk before and during the test. You’ve got this, and with the PSAT there’s little to lose.

Just do your best!

PSAT tip #17: Pace yourself on the test

Time management is the #1 challenge for students on the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. 

Budget your time on the test, and keep an eye on the clock. If you’re aiming to answer every question, set a quick halfway goal. For example, you might calculate that by 10:15 you should have about 20 problems done on the Math section.

The best way to practice pacing is by doing timed practice tests and full sections. A good PSAT/SAT tutor will help students improve their pressing.

A good rule of thumb is to spend no more than one minute on an individual question.

PSAT tip #18: Prioritize the easier questions

On the PSAT (and also on the SAT and ACT), all of the questions are worth the same amount of points.

This has a crucial consequence for testing strategies. If all questions are worth the same, then you should absolutely prioritize easy and medium questions over the hard questions. 

Imagine you eventually reach the correct answer on a hard question, but it takes you 2 minutes and you run out time to finish the test. Perhaps in those 2 minutes you could have answered 3 or 4 easier questions correctly. It’s much better to answer more easy questions than a few harder questions!

In fact, if you’re not a top-scorer, then it might be strategic to just guess on the hardest questions and focus your efforts on the easy and medium questions. 

(How do you know if you’re a top scorer and which strategy you specifically should be using? Take a practice test and see your projected score. An experienced tutor will also help you to make a customized plan based on your strengths and weaknesses.)

PSAT tip #19: Use the testing breaks

During the test there will be at least one break.

Use this break to your advantage — don’t just sit at your desk.

If you need to, use the bathroom. Eat your healthy snack, drink some water, and move around. (Exercise or movement will help your body maintain concentration.) Do a few quick power poses to boost your confidence again. Spend a minute doing some deep breathing to calm your nervous system and improve your focus.

healthy snack

PSAT tip #20: Don’t leave any answers blank

This is a very important tip, and a key reason that some students score lower than they should on the PSAT!

There are no penalties for incorrect answers on the PSAT or SAT. (This used to be different, so older folks might give incorrect advice on this one.)

That means that if you don’t know the answer, you should always guess something! Even if it’s a complete guess, you’ll have a 25% chance of guessing the answer correctly. If you can eliminate one or two choices, your chances improve to 33% or 50%. There’s nothing to lose!

Make sure to leave enough time at the end of each section to confirm that you’ve selected an answer for every question.

PSAT tip #21: Calm your body with deep breathing

One of my favorite testing hacks is to use deep breathing to boost concentration and focus. Deep breathing has been scientifically proven to improve test performance!

As humans, our bodies haven’t evolved very much from back when we were hunters and gatherers in the wild. When we get nervous, our bodies send energy away from our brains and stomachs (which aren’t needed for running away or fighting a lion) and towards our legs and other big muscles (for running or fighting).

That’s why when we get nervous, we can’t concentrate properly and our stomachs feel queasy!

Of course, this isn’t very helpful for modern-day challenges like tests.

Deep, slow breaths can hack into our autonomic nervous systems and reset this for our bodies.

Try breathing in for 4 slow counts, holding your breath for 4 counts, and then releasing your breath over 6 or 8 counts.

student breathing

Even a few slow breaths like this will have a surprisingly powerful effect! You can do this before a test, in between testing sections, or even during the test if you feel your brain spinning out and losing focus. The 30 seconds you lose doing 3 deep breaths will be more than outweighed by the gain in concentration if you feel like test anxiety is getting the better of you.

Over the years, our sensitive tutors have helped many students to develop and practice techniques for mitigating test anxiety. We’ve had lots of success helping students to reach their true potential, without nerves getting in the way!

After the test

PSAT tip #22: Learn from your testing experience

After the test, learn from your experience. How was the PSAT for you? What was harder than you expected? Did you feel nervous on the test or experience any test anxiety? 

Only you can know how the test felt for you as an individual. This is very valuable information that can help you to prepare more effectively for the SAT and the ACT, which will be used for college admissions and scholarships! 

A thoughtful tutor can help you to discuss your testing experience and think through customized strategies to improve on future tests.

PSAT tip #23: Use your PSAT results to start making a college list

Students typically receive PSAT results about six weeks after the testing date.

These PSAT results can be a powerful tool for making a college list. They’ll give some initial indications of where students might be a competitive applicant.

A balanced college list will always have a mix of safety schools, target schools, and reach schools. Read our detailed guidance on crafting a great college list here.

Harvard University
Harvard University

If your PSAT scores don’t show that you’re on track to be a competitive applicant to your dream schools, don’t worry! It’s definitely possible to improve your scores significantly with targeted practice and review. Schedule a free short educational consult to explore options for test prep.

PSAT tip #24: Use the PSAT to learn about scholarship opportunities

If you did well on the PSAT, be on the lookout for notifications about scholarship opportunities.

There’s an option on the PSAT to check a box that will allow colleges to view test scores through the Student Search Service. Students can select this on testing day or after the test. 

These PSAT scores aren’t used for admissions purposes, so we recommend choosing this option as there’s nothing to lose. They’re shared with colleges and scholarship programs so that they can recruit students who might be a great fit. High-scoring students can get lots of fun mail and notices of scholarship opportunities!

University of Wisconsin – Madison
campus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

Students who scored in the top 3% may qualify for recognition from the National Merit program, a prestigious honor that can come with big scholarships. These notifications are sent out in the fall of the student’s senior year, nearly a year after the PSAT testing date. Check out past National Merit score cutoffs here to see if your score might qualify.

PSAT tip #25: Use your PSAT results to plan your SAT prep

Your PSAT Score Report is full of great data that can help you to plan your SAT prep effectively. Experienced tutors will know how to interpret this information and can help students to craft a customized test-prep plan suited to their individual goals.

Students can also consider taking the ACT as well, which is the other admissions test. The ACT and SAT are similar but have some key differences, and many students try both tests to see which one will play better to their strengths.

Consider taking the SAT on the earlier side, since this can help to alleviate pressure on students — and give them more time to take the test multiple times if they want to improve their scores. In particular, we recommend avoiding the scheduling crunch of AP tests and semester finals that often happens in the late spring of junior year. Schedule a free short educational consult for more advice.

Next steps

Students can absolutely improve their PSAT scores with the right practice. We recommend downloading our 30-minute micro PSAT to get a taste of the PSAT first. Then get started with studying or set aside a three-hour block to try a full-length practice test.

There is some great free practice material available from the educational non-profit Khan Academy. Their platform is for the SAT, but students can use the same materials to prepare for the PSAT.

Regardless of what program you follow, it’s important to make sure that you’re preparing for the correct version of the PSAT

If you’re taking the PSAT in fall 2023 (and the SAT from March 2024 onwards), you need to use the new digital SAT practice materials. The old paper SAT is going to be out of date!

Remember that if you’re a student who typically performs well on standardized tests (scoring in the top 5%), you’ll want to really focus on the PSAT — you’ve got a real chance of winning big scholarships through National Merit.

Whatever your goals, make a plan for how you’ll practice and strengthen your weak areas with targeted exercises and drills. By practicing with the right materials, we’ve seen students improve their PSAT and SAT scores significantly!

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Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT


Emily graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. She was a National Merit Scholar and has won numerous academic prizes and fellowships. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.