Cheat Sheet

PSAT/NMSQT For Dummies Cheat Sheet

From PSAT / NMSQT For Dummies

By Geraldine Woods

Yes, this is a cheat sheet . . . but you wouldn’t even think about cheating when you take the PSAT/NMSQT or any other test. Here you find tips on how to prepare for the exam; hints to help you navigate the test’s writing, critical reading, and mathematics sections; and some test-taking techniques that will help you conquer the PSAT/NMSQT.

Tips for a Stress-Free Test Day

To be successful on the PSAT/NMSQT — or any test — it’s essential to be prepared. That means studying the subject matter and doing practice problems, of course, but it also means arriving on test day ready to go, mentally and physically, with everything you need in hand. The exam is stressful enough; don’t compound your stress by being unprepared!

  • The night before the test, gather everything you need:

    • Accommodations letter (if you have one)

    • Approved calculator

    • Number two pencils with erasers

    • Photo ID (optional, but a good idea)

    • School code number (if you’re not taking the test at your own school)

    • Social Security number and e-mail address (optional)

    • Watch

  • Know the route to the testing center.

  • Get a good night’s sleep.

  • Eat breakfast.

  • The night before and the morning of the exam, don’t talk to friends about the test.

  • Stretch out your muscles if you feel tense.

Tackling Different Types of PSAT Test Questions

Test-writers aren’t explorers; they don’t like moving into new territory. Sad for them (they’re probably bored!), but good for you, because after you know where test-writers are comfortable, you can focus on those areas. Here’s a map to the questions and topics likely to show up on the PSAT/NMSQT.

  • Things to look for in writing questions:

    • Verbs: tense, agreement (singular or plural forms)

    • Pronouns: case (they or them or their and so forth), agreement (singular or plural), logical and clear meaning

    • Sentences: completeness (no fragments or run-ons), parallel structure (elements with the same role in the sentence have the same grammatical identity), proper punctuation

    • Descriptions: clear, close to the word described

    • Comparisons: logical and complete

    • Nonstandard expressions: no slang — proper English only!

    • Logical structure (in paragraph-improvement questions): unified paragraphs, logical movement from one idea to another, good introduction and conclusion, specific instead of vague, general statements

  • Helpful hints for critical reading questions:

    • Sentence completions: Underline key words. Mentally insert your own word into the blank and look for a match in the answer choices. Check both blanks of a two-blank question before settling on an answer.

    • Passage-based questions: Skim the introductory material and question stems. Read the passage, jotting notes in the margin and underlining key points. Answer the questions.

  • Techniques to remember for mathematics questions:

    • Use your calculator for basic operations (adding, dividing, square roots, and so forth), but don’t forget to apply logic and formulas as needed to determine an answer.

    • Sketch diagrams for geometry, time/rate/distance, and other problems.

    • Grid-in decimals or fractions but not mixed numbers (3-1/2 will be read as 31/2). Don’t round off an answer (bubble .338, not .34).

    • Plug in a number to check your logic. For example, in a percent problem about a sale price, plug in $100 for the original price and work from there.

    • Ballpark the answer by thinking about what may be a reasonable answer. Then check the answer you came up with by working on the problem. If your answer is out of the ballpark, recheck. For example, if you ballpark a 10% discount and calculate a 90% discount, something may be wrong.

    • Back-solve by inserting answer choices into the question, starting with Choice (C). Move to a smaller or larger answer choice depending on the results of that calculation.

    • Use the process of elimination to cross off obviously wrong answers.

Setting Your PSAT Test-Taking Strategy

Every correct answer you bubble on your PSAT/NMSQT earns exactly one point, whether the question is super easy or horrendously hard. Your goal is to harvest the maximum number of points from a large field of questions — within the time limit! To do so, you need a strategy. Check out these tips, which explain what to skip and what to answer.

  • What you shouldn’t skip:

    • Grid-ins: You lose no points for wrong answers, so take a stab at all of them.

    • Vocabulary-in-context: These are usually the easiest passage-based questions. Try them all!

    • Questions with three possible correct answer choices: You lose no points for a skipped answer but a quarter point for a wrong answer. If you can eliminate two or more wrong choices, guess! Your chances of gaining a full point are better than your chances of losing a quarter point.

    • Questions at the beginning of a section: Except for passage-based questions in reading and paragraph improvement, the questions go from easy to medium to difficult. Try for everything on the easy end of a section, even if you skip some later questions.

    • Introductory material for reading passages: Sometimes knowing the author or type of material helps you choose an answer.

  • What you should skip:

    • General directions: You should know the directions ahead of time.

    • Questions with vocabulary you don’t know: If every answer choice puzzles you, cut your losses and move on.

    • Questions at the end of a section, except for passage-based questions: Because the questions get tougher toward the end of a section, the last few in a section may stump you. If you can’t eliminate any answer choices, leave a blank. (If you can cross off an answer or two, guess.)