Sitting your first exam? 3 things I wish I knew...
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The PSAT is split into 3 parts: Evidence-Based Reading, Writing and Language and Math.
The Evidence-Based Reading section is the longest part of the exam and it is also worth the most marks. For that reason, it is worth dedicating a large part of your preparation time on this section. Don’t worry about memorizing facts, figures or dates – this section is all about your ability to comprehend and draw out meaning from the author’s point of view and tone. You won’t have seen the passage before, but a good way to prepare is to take a chunk of past PSAT papers and have a look at what style of passage previous students were given. Test yourself in different ways answering those past questions to get train the art of responding to these types of questions. Remember, when competing against thousands of other students, the key will be to stand out from everyone else. While extra reading won’t be applicable here, make sure your answers are clear, succinct and to the point. Most importantly, the answer will be in the passage and doesn’t require outside history knowledge – the key is to find the answer in the passage quickly and accurately!
The Writing and Language section will test your ability to work out where errors are made in the passage and choose from a list of necessary revisions. As this section is relatively short, it’s important to move through quite quickly. Often in test situations we can second-guess ourselves, and our first instinct is often the right one. Be confident in whatever your first response is as it is usually correct! With 44 questions to cover in 35 minutes, you’ll only have about 45 seconds per question. Try be strict with yourself by keeping to the time allotted for each question. If you glide through some questions quicker than others, than you’ll bank some time for later in the section to come back to the harder questions, but try not to spend too long on each question. Grab the easier marks where you can first, and then move on to the harder ones.
The Math component requires about 90 seconds to be spent on each question. There will be a large number of questions that require two or more steps to solve. These will purposely trick a lot of students and the key is to read the question very carefully before beginning to solve it, and then showing clear working out where necessary. Algebra questions will be prominent in this section, so there’s plenty of preparation that can be done in the lead up to the PSAT in terms of familiarizing yourself with these types of questions. Problem solving questions can be a bit trickier for some students – the trick is to break down the question into its component parts, visualize it through a picture or diagram, and then turn it into a math equation.
When it comes to the SAT, the challenge isn’t just working the math: It’s also answering all the questions in the time that you’re given! Time management is a major issue for many students who sit the SAT, and with less than 90 seconds per math question, strategies are crucial for completing the questions right and done on time. To help you move through this section quicker, look for the underlying trick or pattern based on the logic of the math concept. If you find yourself doing a lot of number crunching, you missed the point of the question.
There really is no penalty for guessing, so even if you don’t know the answer make sure to fill everything out. The multiple choice section is one part you can truly prepare for beforehand by knowing all the important definitions, concepts and formulae that may come up. Keep in mind, the general rule of thumb is that the first few questions in the multiple choice section are the easier questions, so don’t dwell on these questions for too long. Trust your ability to work simple math. You don’t need the calculator for everything. If something seems complicated, don’t get too involved in extensive calculations that will take up lots of time – try rule out any obviously incorrect answers first to narrow your choices down. If you’re really stuck on a question, circle the question number (in your test booklet, NOT the bubble sheet), take a guess, and come back to it at the end.
When approaching the sentence completion section, a strong strategy is to complete the sentence in your mind using your own words before you look at the answers. That way, you’re not swayed by the different options. If any of the words in the sentence seem totally unfamiliar, try to use the context of the sentence to piece together what it really means. Try not to be fooled overlooking the reversing effects of certain words such as ‘not’, or prefixes such as ‘un-‘.
For the reading comprehension section, always answer the easy questions first. Pick off these easy marks and come back to any harder questions later. When skim reading, pay super close attention to the first and last sentences of each paragraph, as these will generally be the most important sentences that will give you a good contextual feel for the paragraph. Don’t forget to confine your answer to what is stated (or implied) in the passages for the reading comprehension – there’s no need to go beyond these paragraphs to decipher the answer, stick to what is given!
The written essay component is actually very short, with only 250-300 words to write a persuasive essay on a specific topic. For that reason, use your time and words wisely. Using the 5 paragraph format to structure your response, try allocating 5mins before you begin writing to planning your response and thinking about the question rather than just diving in. Set up very clearly in your introduction what your position is and how you intend to argue your response. Try to limit your position to no more than 3 or 4 key points which support your argument.