Category Archives for PSAT

How I became a National Merit Finalist, but still paid for college

Most people aim to become a National Merit finalist with the goal of getting free college (or maybe even having colleges pay you to go there.)

That was my original goal also, but the ending to this story is different from most.

Why I Wanted to Become a National Merit Scholar

Back in high school I sat next to an incredibly smart guy in my chemistry class.

This dude ran multiple businesses, completed homework in minutes, and was overall incredibly intelligent.

He missed class one day, and when he came back on the next day he said that he was a National Merit scholar.

I never heard of that before, so I barraged him with questions and somehow he didn't lose his patience and answered every single one I threw at him.

The cutoff score for the finalists in my state was 215 that year, so I set my goal to get 215 the next year and become a finalist.


I went online and found out that some colleges will let you go there for free and even give you a free laptop and $2k/year stipend.

I was in a completely debt-avoidant state at the time, so to me that was the holy grail.

Of course, like any regular high schooler I promptly forgot about this conversation as soon as I left the classroom and didn't remember about it until we had to sign up for the exam next year.

How I Studied​

I've taken the SAT 3 times and the ACT at least 5 before I had to the PSAT, so I wasn't too worried about it.

However, I still felt like I had to study because I wanted that free education dang it!

So I bought an SAT study book and went to work on it.

...for an entire 2 hours.

Then the day before the exam I realized that I still haven't studied much so I went online and looked up "how to prepare for the PSAT."

That's when I was hit with a bunch of BS about how it was impossible to get ready for it and not to worry about it.

Don't worry about it?

​Colleges can pay me to go there and you're telling me not to worry about it?

So I spent the next couple hours reviewing my weakest points (at that time that was vocab and forgotten math. I even got some quick reading strategies review in there and I was set!)

​BOOM! I got exactly a 215!

​Of course I ended up going to a college where I have to get into $17k of debt every year, but that's a completely different story...

Complete List of PSAT Approved Calculators

While a calculator isn't required for the PSAT, we still recommend that you bring one because it will make your life much easier.

All questions can be solved without a calculator, but why waste your time and risk messing up when doing calculations by hand when you can just punch it in you calculator and know you got the right answer?

We have a list of calculators you can use, calculators you can't use, and general info about calculator use on the exam.

Calculators You Can Bring

​These calculators are definitely allowed on the exam, so bring one from this list if you can!

  • Casio
  • HP
  • TI
  • Sharp
  • Radioshack
  • EC-4033
  • EC-4034
  • EC-4037

Other Potential Options:

If a calculator isn't on the list above you still might be able to use it. You just have to make sure that it:

  • ​Doesn't have a QWERTY keyboard
  • Doesn't require a stylus
  • Can't connect to the Internet, has no camera, audio, or video features
  • Doesn't need an outlet to work
  • Doesn't make noise
  • Doesn't have paper tape

You can also always use scientific or four function calculators.

Some Calculator Tips

​We've got a couple calculator tips for you for the PSAT.

  • ​Don't try to use the calculator for every single problem. A calculator might make your life 10x easier on one of them, but it might also make it 10x harder on a different problem. See if there's a faster way to do the problem without a calculator first before trying to use it.
  • Don't share a calculator with other test takers! You might be surprised at this, but so many people come in thinking that they can share calculators and end up either getting their tests cancelled, or have to take the test without a calculator.
  • Make sure you have extra batteries for your calculator and you know how to use it. Don't borrow your friend's latest TI-x9921219 model if you only know how to use the most basic scientific one. It's better to have what you know then try to figure out an advanced model during an exam.

PSAT VS SAT – What’s Different and What’s the Same?


Are you confused what the PSAT, SAT, and other random jumbles of letters mean?

Don't worry. We're here to help!

In this post we will cover:

  1. The different types of exams,
  2. The similarities between the exams
  3. And the differences between them so you don't ever have to be confused again! 🙂

The Types of Exams

There's one SAT exam, but multiple different PSAT exams which adds to the confusion.

1. The PSAT 8/9

You can take this test in 8th (or 9th grade) to check how ready you are for the the next suite of PSAT/SAT exams and what you need to focus on if you want to do well on the SAT.

The sections here are a bit easier than the other exams, and while the scoring is similar to the SAT and PSAT, there's a couple of small differences.


The PSAT (also known as the NMSQT) is the exam you can take your junior year of high school in order to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.

There is also an exam called PSAT 10 which is the exact same as the regular PSAT except for high school sophomores and you can't get the National Merit scholarship when you take it.

This is the test most people refer to when talking about the PSAT and this is the test you should study for if you want to go to college for free.​

It's a bit easier than the SAT, and the score is out of 1520 instead of 1600.​

3. The SAT

​This is the big one that everyone knows.

It measures your college readiness and is the test you most likely will send to colleges with the hopes of getting in.​

Similarities Between the PSAT and SAT

There's a surprising number of similarities between the PSAT and the SAT which makes sense because the PSAT is supposed to prepare you for the real thing and show you how well you'd do on the SAT.

1. The Sections

The exam sections cover the same exact subjects.

For math there's algebra, trigonometry and a dash of statistics.

There's vocab questions, reading questions and other types of questions that are the same on both exams.

​The way the sections are structured is also the same. 

Both exams are divided into reading, writing, and math components, and you will get a subscore for each section.

2. No Guessing Penalties

Both of the exams finally allow you to guess without losing any points!

On the original SAT exams if you put in the wrong answer you would lose .25 points per question. Now the test makers decided to be a bit nicer and you can guess however much you want with no consequences.

Differences Between the PSAT and SAT

With all those similarities between the exams you might think that they're basically the same. While they are quite similar, they also have a couple of important differences that change how you should prepare for both.

1. The Essay Section

The PSAT does not have an essay section while the SAT does.

Aren't you glad you don't have to write an essay for the PSAT? Me too.

2. Difficulty Level​

The ​PSAT is generally easier than the SAT. 

Some of the SAT questions are more abstract while the PSAT tries to focus mostly on concrete analysis and understanding questions. ​

3. The Scores

The score range of the PSAT is 320-1520 while the score range for the SAT is 400-1600.

The range of scores is 1200 for both, but the difference in the maximum scores is there because of the difference in grade level.

This means that if you get a 1520 on the PSAT, you're not guaranteed to get a 1600 on the SAT, because the SAT is a bit harder.​

4. The Timing

The SAT is ​a grueling 3 hours and 50 minute ordeal (if you do the essay), while the PSAT is only 2 hours and 45 minutes. What a breeze, right?

Best PSAT Prep Books 2017

PSAT and NMSQT Prep Barron's Book

Why should you care about the PSAT/NMSQT?

If you're like most high school students, this exam is forced on you by your school and you have no other choice but to take it.

However, did you know that the PSAT can help you get into a great college for free (and colleges might even pay you to go there!) 

How can you accomplish such a crazy feat?

Simple: you study for the PSAT, get a score that qualifies you to become a national merit semifinalist, write a quick essay and then become a national merit finalist. 

If you don't want to be the average college student who finishes college with nearly $40,000 worth of debt, then the PSAT can be your way out.

Anyway, here are the best PSAT prep books you can use to get a high score and have a college pay you to go there.

​PSAT Prep Books Comparison Table



# of Pages

# of practice Tests



Barron's Strategies and Practice





Cracking the PSAT /NMSQT





Barron's Aiming for National Merit


1 + 1 online


Our Ultimate Prep List

This list is completely updated for the 2017-2018 school year. Let us know if you have any questions or concerns ​about the exam or the prep materials.

Also, make sure that you actually put in the time to study and don't just buy the book. 😉

1. ​Barron's Strategies and Practice for the New PSAT/NMSQT

PSAT and NMSQT Prep Barron's Book

​This is hands down the best book to use to prepare for the exam.

It's not nearly as thick as the Princeton Review book, but it doesn't need to be any bigger. You wouldn't want to spend more time on things you already know, right?

​Like most test-prep books it has the usual tips, tricks, and strategies for each specific section of the exam, and while these tips are useful, you'll probably know most of them by now. 

While the tips are good, the 2 full practice exams are the truly outstanding part of this book.

​These 2 exams let you truly understand the feel of the real thing, and if you practice using real test timing (which we recommend) you'll know how fast or how slow you should work on every section to get a great score.

They also resemble the real PSAT better than the Princeton Review books which is important.

Many of the students we work with finish the math section quite quickly, but struggle with the reading sections, but everyone is different so the practice exam is a great way to figure out what you need to improve on.

Before doing the practice exams you should go through the sample questions and practice passages that the book provides, but then you should go on and do the practice exams as it has been scientifically proven that the best way to learn and to improve test scores is to test yourself as often and rigorously as possible.

2. Cracking the PSAT/NMSQT by Princeton Review

PSAT NMSQT Princeton Review 2017 2018

​This book is pretty hefty at nearly double the number of pages of the Barron book, but it isn't as great for getting a high score on the exam.

It has 2 practice exams also, but the questions are of highly mixed difficulty. Some of them are quite easier than the real exam, while some of them are quite harder. 

This means you don't get a good baseline of how long each section will take you and you might end up running out of time on the exam.

They also include tips for each section, general exam-taking tactics, and general time-management tips which might or might not be useful depending on who you are.

There's one specific group of people for whom this book would be better than the Barron book: those who don't like math, haven't been taught math well, or who aren't far enough in the math curriculum yet to get a good score on the exam.

​The book has math drills that target specific parts of the math section, so if you need help with geometry, but are fine with algebra, this book has what you need!

3. Barron's 1520: Aiming for National Merit

Barrons PSAT NMSQT Getting to 1520

​While this book was specifically created by Barron to help you get a perfect score on the PSAT, this isn't the best option for most students.

​The biggest disadvantage of this book is that most of the questions are a bit harder than what they would be on the real exam. This might be good if you are capable of finishing these harder questions in the allotted amount of time, but it might lead you to misjudge the timing on the actual PSAT.

It also only has 1 full-length practice exam, and while they did add an additional online exam recently, the difficulty level is still a bit too high.

The book is also a bit on the long side compared to the original Barron book which is great if you have time, but if you're like most high school students, the less time you need to spend to get results, the better off you are.

Books to Avoid

Many other website recommend books simply for the sake of recommending them, but we don't want to recommend something that won't actually help you which is why we have this section.

PSAT Prep Book 2016 by the PSAT Prep Team

The biggest issue with this book is that it hasn't actually been updated for the new PSAT exam.

The book blatantly lies to you by stating that it's for the 2016 exam when in reality it was written with the older exam in mind.

It also has terrible formatting, a plethora of typos, numerous errors, mistakes, issues, and anything else you can think of.

Here's a couple examples of the errors we found:

  • The writing and language section only has choices A-D, but the answer key marks E as the correct answer for some of the questions.
  • One of the reading sections asks questions about a completely different passage from the one that's given to you.
  • The answer key and the questions don't always match up. A question might ask about a specific number, the but the answer explanation might talk about probability percentages.​

Don't be fooled by the glowing Amazon reviews. Most of those people received the book for free and haven't actually had to take the PSAT. 

Kaplan PSAT/NMSQT 2017

This is another book that looks good based on the cover, but is terrible in reality.

​Some of the questions and answers don't match up, and while Kaplan promised to fix it in the new version of the book, the new version isn't out yet so we can't talk about whether they're telling the truth or not.

They also have blatant editing errors, answers that don't match up to any of the questions in the book, and overall the book feels like a mess.

They do offer a free online test, but you have to give them quite a bit of information when registering. This might not be an issue for some, but we don't like giving out our information unless we absolutely have to.

All in all, this book wasn't what we expected from a great publisher like Kaplan.​


​We know that you might have a ton of questions about the PSAT, so here are the answers to some of them!

How long is the exam?

​The new PSAT is 2 hours and 45 minutes which is 35 minutes longer than the old exam.

How is the PSAT scored?

There are 2 section scores of 160-760, which means your total score will be between 320 and 1520.

How many times can you take the PSAT?

You can take the exam in 10th and 11th grade. Your junior year scores count towards National Merit qualifications, and for many schools you are forced to take it your junior year. Most people don't take it their sophomore year, so it's up to you whether you want to see what it's like or if you'd rather use books to study. 

How many hours should you study for the PSAT?

Depending on how well you already know the material anywhere between 2-20 hours should be enough.

If you have to learn new material that number can increase greatly, but if you're just reviewing then about 10 hours should be fine.​

What is the National Merit cutoff Score?​

Each state has a specific cutoff score that changes year to year. For very competitive states like California, the cutoff score might be ​1470, while for less competitive states like Alaska, the cutoff score might be 1400.