Using SAT Books for PSAT Prep


describe the imageI had a call from a parent of a sophomore last week who was worried about the lack of PSAT materials available at his local book store. “Why are there so many SAT books and so few PSAT books?” he asked.

As far as I’m concerned, there shouldn’t be any PSAT manuals on the book shelves. For the most part, they are a rip-off because the PSAT is nearly identical in content to the SAT. Some less honorable companies publish both PSAT and SAT books, but if you compare the books side by side, you’ll see most of the content is identical, aside from one chapter on essay writing and possibly a page or two on higher-level Algebra II. Unsuspecting parents are often duped into buying both books, when the SAT version can prep their students for BOTH tests. 

Let’s look at a side-by-side comparison of the SAT and PSAT:




 Math Sections

Two 25-minute sections

Two 25-minute sections
One 20-minute section

 Math Concepts

Arithmetic, Algebra I, Geometry, Data Interpretation

Arithmetic, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Data Interpretation

 Math Questions

28 multiple choice
10 grid-ins

44 multiple choice
10 grid-ins

 Reading Sections

Two 25-minute sections

Two 25-minute sections
One 20-minute section

 Reading Concepts

Sentence Completion, Passage-Based Reading

Sentence Completion, Passage-Based Reading

 Reading Questions

48 multiple choice

67 multiple choice

 Writing Sections

One 25-minute section

Two 25-minute sections
One 10-minute section

 Writing Concepts

Identifying Sentence Errors, Improving Sentences & Paragraphs

Identifying Sentence Errors, Improving Sentences & Paragraphs

 Writing Questions

35 multiple choice

49 multiple choice}
1 essay

The PSAT has three main differences that set it apart from the SAT:

  1. It’s shorter. The PSAT has one less multiple choice section in all three subject areas than the SAT.

  2. It’s essay-free. The PSAT does not include an essay section.

  3. It’s function-friendly. The PSAT tests functions; the SAT tests functions AND advanced functions. To be perfectly honest, though, no one seems to be able to pinpoint the difference between the two. 

So, then, how should students study for the PSAT? First, determine how many practice tests you want to take. If it’s just one, you can get a free test in the PSAT registration booklet in your counselor’s office. Note that this is the ONLY official practice test available. If you feel like you need more practice with real questions, then buy The Official SAT Study Guide making sure to eliminate the essay in Section 1 and the shorter sections in Sections 8, 9, and 10. Of course, these last three sections provide additional practice sets but they should be completed without a timer, as the timing is different in these than in the sections on the PSAT. Keep in mind that this is the only book with real SAT questions, so be sure to save at least half of the practice tests for your SAT preparation.

Next, find a reputable SAT textbook (I’m partial to the SAT Bible Trilogy for obvious reasons). Most texts will include a guide for using the book in preparation for the PSAT. But if not, it shouldn’t be too difficult to determine which pages to eliminate. For example, in the SAT Writing Bible, I would advise you to eliminate Chapter 12 (Essay Mastery). But I would recommend reading all of the SAT Reading Bible and even all of the SAT Math Bible, since there is a fine line between functions and advanced functions questions.   

Once the PSAT is behind you, you can store your textbooks on a shelf and pull them back down again when your SAT is approaching. Of course, I’d much prefer it if you continued studying vocabulary words and reviewing concepts at least once a week, but I’m guessing you’d much prefer never thinking about these tests again, so we can compromise.