Students who took the PSAT in October 2018 recently received their scores. Many high schools are distributing hard-copy score reports and original test booklets to the juniors (and, in some cases, sophomores and freshmen) who took the test two months ago.
The detailed score report and the test booklet (the very same test booklet that you used during the test, with your name written on the front cover) will offer valuable insights into your current strengths and development needs and help determine the specific steps you need to take to perform better on the SAT and/or ACT than you did on the PSAT.
If your school does not hand back your test booklet, speak to your counselor to request the booklet. (If your counselor informs you that your school will not be distributing test booklets, you can still do meaningful review and analysis of your PSAT performance; my next blog post will include instructions on how to do this using the access you have to your test questions online, when you log in to your College Board account.)
Don’t squander this important opportunity to (a) understand the types of errors you are making and (b) develop a custom-tailored plan to strengthen your skills and develop more effective habits. Test prep is simply a great excuse (or excellent motivation) for learning the skills and habits that will help you perform at your best throughout your life, especially in high-pressure, challenging situations.
I strongly recommend that you do the following when you receive your scores:
STEP 1. Look at the scaled scores printed on the score report. Don’t pay too much attention to the percentiles. The numbers that really matter are the scaled scores; each of the overall sections (Math (M) and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW)) is scored on a 200-760 scale that corresponds to the SAT scoring scale (200-800). Thus, your score on a given section of the PSAT represents your likely score on that section of the SAT if you were to take the SAT without any additional preparation.
STEP 2. Give your score report and the test booklet to a sibling or parent; ask him/her to use a colored pen to circle in your test booklet the NUMBERS of the questions you omitted or answered incorrectly on each of the four subsections of the test: reading, writing (grammar), math without calculator, and math with calculator. Make sure your sibling or parent does NOT make any marks indicating what the right answer to each question is. This is critically important.
STEP 3. Now, do your “second shots” on the PSAT, untimed (in multiple sittings, if you wish). Second shots are your attempts to answer correctly (on your second try) the questions you missed the first time around. Grab a colored pen (don’t use pencil—your second-shot work should be easily distinguishable from the work you did on test day in October) and work through the questions that your sibling or parent just circled. Use your colored pen to do all of your second-shot work, including circling the letter of your new answer choice in the test booklet for each question.
Here is a summary of recommended techniques:
Reading: Underline key terms in each question; make sure you clearly understand what is being asked. Underline relevant evidence in the passage(s). Come up with an answer in your head (your hypothesis). Revisit and reconsider all the answer choices (other than your original incorrect answer choice, if that’s visible in your test booklet) as you look for the answer choice that most closely matches your hypothesis. Slash the letters of answer choices that you are ruling out. Consider underlining key terms in each of your last two (“finalist”) answer choices, to make sure you are noticing and correctly interpreting each element of each answer choice. Look for a word or phrase that disqualifies one of the last two answer choices you’re evaluating; consider drawing a slash through any disqualifying word or phrase.
Writing (grammar): For usage/mechanics questions (e.g., punctuation, subject-verb agreement, parallel structure, faulty comparison), read the full sentence out loud, slowly and carefully. Try to identify the problem (if any) and correct/edit the original underlined portion BEFORE looking at the answer choices on the right. For “rhetorical skills” questions (questions about transitions, sentence/paragraph order, etc.), underline key terms in the question (if applicable) and pretend you are working on a reading passage; look before and after the underlined portion to take the full context into account. You may also wish to underline key terms in or key differences between answer choices. For both types of questions (usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills), slash the letters of answer choices that you are ruling out.
Math: Underline key terms in each question. (Getting math problems right starts with correctly reading and fully processing the information in the question.) Use a pause/resume approach to reading each question; pause after reading a given chunk of the question to process and jot down relevant information, and only then resume reading (read the next chunk and do the same). Circle what you are being asked to solve for (e.g., “the length of the fence, in feet”). Do plenty of scratchwork, making sure to think on paper. Do not skip any steps, including the writing-out of your final answer before you circle the matching answer choice. Draw graphs or diagrams if appropriate; label existing graphs or diagrams with additional information as needed. Use plenty of space (don’t squish your scratchwork or diagrams into a tiny portion of the space provided; use a light-colored sticky note if you need extra space to do your second-shot scratchwork). On Section 4, do not use a calculator unless absolutely necessary (e.g., to do a complicated computation/calculation). Remember: the calculator cannot think for you.
You don’t need to do all of your second shots in one sitting, though you should work through in one sitting all the questions that pertain to one particular reading passage (or pair of passages) or that pertain to one particular grammar passage.
STEP 4. After you finish your second shots, compare your second-shot answers to the correct answers listed on your detailed score report. Place a check mark next to each second-shot answer that is correct; put an X next to each second-shot answer that is wrong. If your second-shot answer is wrong, you have the option of putting away the score report and returning to the test booklet to attempt a “third shot,” if your mind isn’t tainted by the memory of what the right answer is. (Alternatively, you could have a sibling or parent score your second shots so that you preserve the option of doing third shots.)
A student who gets most or all of his second shots right is in a stronger position than a student with the same scaled score who gets most or all of his second shots wrong: though both students achieved the same scaled scores, they have different levels of understanding and knowledge, as well as different habits and mindsets (e.g., attention to detail), and they will need to take different paths forward to attain higher scores.
STEP 5. Analyze each of your errors and omissions. Which ones were due to carelessness (e.g., a bubbling error or forgetting a negative sign in a math question), and which ones were unavoidable because you simply did not understand the material? Write “CE” next to each careless error and “LOU” next to each question that you got wrong or omitted on the original test because of a lack of understanding.
Analyze every error carefully. Did a lack of tenacity (you gave up on a math question as soon as you couldn’t see a clear path to the answer, or you didn’t spend enough time scrutinizing a reading passage) or a logical fallacy lead you to get something wrong that you could have gotten right? What patterns or tendencies do you notice? Perhaps you tend to get easy questions wrong (are you rushing through them without doing enough scratchwork or without looking back at the passage for evidence?) and hard questions right (does the difficulty make you sit up straight and work carefully and conscientiously through the question?). Perhaps you ace almost all the usage/mechanics questions on the grammar section, but you miss quite a few rhetorical skills questions because you’re taking a cursory approach to them and not thinking of them as more serious reading-comprehension questions. Perhaps you are surprised to discover that you performed better on grid-in math questions than on multiple-choice math questions—if so, it’s probably because you did more scratchwork and original thinking on the grid-ins, since there were no answer choices to consider and lean on.
As you can see, doing second shots is an essential component of any practice-test work and an essential component of PSAT score review. (You should also do second shots when your teachers hand back quizzes or tests in school.)
STEP 6. Figure out what your score on each section would have been if you had not made any careless errors or any other errors that prevented you from demonstrating your true abilities and the full extent of your skills on the test.
First, write down how many questions you would have answered correctly on each section if you hadn’t made any avoidable mistakes (e.g., “without CEs: 44/47 on PSAT Reading”).
Then, calculate the resulting scaled subscores and scores for each section. The College Board has provided scoring tables and conversions for the 2018 PSAT here. (Recent and estimated future National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs by state appear here.) Write down what your “without CEs” scaled score would have been on each section of the test. Let that current best-case scenario sink in; feel the (sometimes devastating) impact of your careless errors. Then ask yourself what you’re going to do about it.
STEP 7. Use the insights you’ve gained to make a comprehensive list of the things you need to do differently on each section in the future. Be as specific and concrete as possible.
Don’t just say, “Read more carefully.” What does that mean? Do you need to slow down when reading the passages, when reading the questions, when reading the answer choices—or all three? Do you need to underline more—in passages, questions, or answer choices (when you’ve eliminated all but the last two answer choices and you’re ready to choose one)? Do you need to underline more thoughtfully and judiciously? Mouth the words as you read them? Keep your pencil hovering above whatever you are reading at any given moment during the test?
Likewise, don’t just tell yourself, “I need to do more scratchwork on math questions.” Do you need to write down every step, making sure to “think on paper,” as I tell my students to do? Do you need to mark up the graphs, diagrams, and charts more? Do you need to draw graphs or diagrams when they are not provided, making sure to draw graphs and diagrams that are big enough to be easily labeled and contemplated? Do you need to “map out” or somehow lay out the information presented in the question before jumping into the problem-solving process? Do you need to write coherent, sequential lines of scratchwork instead of flinging seemingly random numbers and expressions, unconnected by equal signs or arrows, all over the space provided, often in a diagonal orientation? (I call this rather common phenomenon “helter-skelter scratchwork.” It’s the math equivalent of writing seemingly random words all over a page instead of writing sentences and paragraphs, or at least bullet points, and it often leads to wrong answers.)
One good way to ensure that the items on your “do differently” list are as specific as possible is to ensure that each “do differently” item is an action item you could video-record (e.g., “underline key terms in questions” instead of “be more careful”).
You may wish to write each “do differently” in the test booklet itself, next to each question you answered incorrectly or omitted. You can note, for instance, that you got #5 wrong because you neglected to notice that the question asked you to solve for “y+2” instead of “y”—and, in turn, the reason you didn’t notice the “y+2” was that you didn’t underline or circle it.
After you write these unique “do differently” items, customized for each question, you should compile lists of things to do differently, organized by section. These lists could be handwritten on separate sheets of paper or typed into a Google Doc; you will continue adding “do differently” items to these lists as you continue your test prep and take additional practice tests.
You should also create and keep a running list of topics or skills that you need to review substantively—e.g., functions, comma splices, semicolon usage, difficult vocabulary. I suggest that you “harvest” all unfamiliar vocabulary words anywhere in the test.
An essential part of your test prep will be reviewing the questions you missed on past tests, re-reading your lists of what to do differently, and addressing each skill gap enumerated in your substantive-review list. (For vocabulary study, see my suggestions here.)
In general, students who did not score stratospherically will need to spend almost as much time reviewing a given test as they spent taking the test. Most of the value associated with taking a test arises from the post-test process of extracting as many insights into your strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and habits as you can, and translating those insights into concrete next steps. Students often seek my help in analyzing their errors and ask for my recommendations regarding different approaches or techniques; my “prescriptions” for self-study work; and an overall game plan for the period of time before the next test.
What you learn from doing all of the above, and from test prep, properly approached, will enable you to perform better not only on future standardized tests, but also in school (both tests and homework) and in other areas of your life. If you start to cultivate greater attention to detail, for instance, you will probably find that you are paying closer attention to the little things in areas of your life other than test prep and test-taking. If you strengthen your grammar skills, you will become a better writer and editor. Working on math problem-solving skills can make you a more flexible and creative thinker, and so on.
Visit my website to learn more about my coaching work, most of which I do via Skype.
[Note: This post is an update to my 2014 post regarding post-PSAT analysis for the previous version of the PSAT.]