This fall, many high school juniors––and even some sophomores––will take the PSAT. In all likelihood, this will be their first experience with standardized college admissions exams. You may have heard that students’ PSAT results “don’t count” and “don’t matter.” While it’s true for most students that college admissions committees won’t use PSAT scores to gauge their college readiness (that is, after all, what the SAT and ACT are for), the view that the PSAT doesn’t matter at all is both shortsighted and counterproductive. In truth, PSAT scores can provide valuable insight into your strengths and weaknesses; when used correctly, the results can help students take a big first step toward success on the SAT and ACT.
But what do we mean when we say
used correctly? There are several ways to take advantage of your scores, some more practical and valuable than others. Here are three tips for getting everything you can out of the data on your PSAT report.
Don’t get too distracted by the overall section scores; instead, focus on the detail. The highest-level scores provided by your PSAT report will be in the form of two numbers, each out of 760: your Math score, and your Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (ERW) scores. (Note that on the SAT, both of these are scored out of 800.) Students and parents tend to obsess over these scores, forgetting about the other numbers the PSAT report provides. While they do suggest something about overall performance, these numbers are not terribly revealing. Instead of focusing on your 540 in Reading & Writing and your 580 on Math, pay closer attention to your
subscores, listed on a scale from 0 to 15. These scores reveal more specific areas of strength and weakness. For example, let’s suppose you do score a 580 on the Math. That number alone tells you that you are “above average” (average for juniors is around a 510), but not much else. The subscores, however, can reveal where that 580 came from. Perhaps your “Problem Solving and Data Analysis” subscore was a very strong 12 out of 15, but your “Heart of Algebra” score was an 8. This immediately reveals that you need to direct your focus toward reinforcing your algebra skills, which include interpreting, creating, and rearranging equations and expressions.
Make a list of topics you need to work on; use the test to isolate examples. It will be easier for you to formulate a prep plan if you translate the information within your PSAT score report into your own summary. Use your subscores to assemble a list of topics that disproportionately impacted your score. Furthermore, take a look at the answer sheet provided on the final page of the report to isolate the specific questions you found difficult. You’ll have your test booklet, so you will be able to see the exact questions you could not answer or that you answered incorrectly. Consider taking pictures of these questions with your phone, or even printing them out and pasting them into a notebook. Now, you have a suite of problems and questions that will form the basis of your prep. And by the way, even if you’re planning on sticking to the ACT, know that the (P)SAT and ACT share lots of content: the subscore categories presented by your PSAT report are just as likely to reveal potential strengths and weaknesses on the ACT.
Use the scores to establish a baseline and formulate goals. Realistic expectations and goals are are both very important. Assuming you put in a decent effort while taking the PSAT, your scores reflect where you stand without any concerted prep. Now, you can use the report to begin planning. How many topics must you focus on to increase your scores? How much time are you prepared to dedicate to SAT or ACT prep? Do your initial scores suggest you may benefit from a prep course setting (students who score around average are more likely to benefit from multi-student group courses than are students whose scores are on the extremes), or would small-group or private tutoring be more productive? Is your goal to increase your score by 50 points, or by 300 points? On which section can you focus to maximize the points earned for the time spent studying? The answers to all of these questions lie within your report: you simply have to use the data at your fingertips.
Remember: though the PSAT may seem inconsequential, the information it provides can be extremely helpful in raising your scores. Using the PSAT to develop positive and proactive momentum can mean the difference between productive, meaningful prep and last-minute frantic cramming. So take advantage of all the PSAT report has to offer––when all is said and done, you’ll thank yourself for doing so.