Students everywhere will be taking the PSATs and SATs. The PSAT, which occurs in the fall, is a preparatory test for the SAT. The SAT (or another test—the ACT) is required by most colleges as part of the application process. There are some important changes this year on the PSAT and SAT that have implications for how to prepare to take them. The changes are in effect now on the new PSAT for 8th and 9th graders as well as the PSAT that 10th and 11th graders take, and begin in the spring on the SAT.

Two very positive changes affect the scores students get. On the old tests, it was not advantageous to guess at answers if you really did not know the answer. A wrong answer was penalized, so if you missed it you would lose points from the ones you got correct. Now, an incorrect answer doesn’t hurt you. You simply do not get the point for that question. Students should take a stab at every question, even if they do not know the answer. In addition, the multiple choice questions have four choices now instead of five! That means there is a greater chance of guessing correctly.

The math part of the PSAT and SAT tests changed considerably. There are a few trigonometry questions that were not asked on the old PSAT and SAT and fewer geometry questions than before. The biggest change, however, is that there are two parts of the math section. You are allowed to use a calculator in one, and you cannot use a calculator in the other. This change—not being allowed to use a calculator—may affect some students more than others.

Our upper-level math teachers frequently report to me that their students do not remember all of the basic math facts. If your child frequently uses a calculator in algebra or another higher level math class, find out whether he is relying on it for simple facts (like 8 x 9, or 56/8). If so, he will have a lot of trouble on the PSAT or SAT when he is not allowed to use a calculator. There are many apps available for drilling math facts. He should spend 10 or 15 minutes every day drilling until they are automatic. It will help him in math class as well as when taking these tests.

To learn more specific information about the PSATs and SATs, go to the ETS website. There are practice tests available there and tips for how to prepare for the tests. It is a good idea to also check out the ACT. Most colleges will accept either test, and students may submit their best score. The tests are very different, and some do better on one over the other. A final thought—students may take these tests more than once. The first time can be a learning experience to prepare for the next time!