How to Succeed on the PSAT Math Exam

The PSAT math test is a 70-minute, 48-question math test that is divided into two sections: Section 3 (No Calculator) and Section 4 (Calculator).

Content Overview

Because the PSAT only has 48 questions with which to assess your mathematical ability, the PSAT won’t be able to test you on every mathematical topic that you’ve studied in school. Instead, according to the College Board, it will test you on problems “designed to mirror the problem solving and modeling you’ll do in college math, science, and social science courses, the jobs you hold, and your personal life.”

For your purposes, that means you can expect to be tested on subjects in three main areas:

  • Heart of Algebra, which focuses on linear equations and systems of equations,
  • Passport to Advanced Math, which features ideas about complicated relationships between variables (like quadratic equations or exponential equations), and 
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis, which centers on ideas like fractions, ratios, percentages, and other quantitative relationships, often in the context of a word problem.

Test-Taking Strategies

Here are ten key strategies you should take with you as you prepare for the PSAT:

  1. On word problems, re-organize important information as you go. Students who rewrite the information in a word problem in short-hand are less likely to skip or forget information when they get stuck. Rewriting the information lowers the chance that you will forget what you were told.
  2. The last step in every problem is re-reading the essential question. This means that before you bubble in your answer, you should be rereading the last part of the question to make sure you’re answering what you were asked. If the question is “What is the value of 6x?”, make sure you’re not picking the value of x as your answer, which will often be a wrong answer choice.
  3. If you read a problem and aren’t sure what to do, re-read the essential question and look for math words. Words like ratio (division), total (addition), sum (addition), product (multiplication), average, probability and percentage can give you crucial insight on how to approach a problem.
  4. It’s okay not to finish the math test. Because the questions are in order, if you run out of time, you’ll usually be skipping the hardest questions, which not many students get right anyway. Often, the best strategy is to take more time with earlier questions and ensure you feel confident about those instead of rushing to the end.
  5. If you don’t finish, make sure you guess. You won’t be penalized for wrong answers, so make sure that if you don’t know how to solve a problem, you try for an answer anyway.
  6. When a problem gives you a linear relationship, it’s usually best to put it into y=mx+b form. This will allow you to see the slope and the y-intercept and usually give you enough information to solve the problem. (If you don’t feel comfortable with slope and y-intercept, then be sure to study them before the test – they come up a lot!)
  7. When a problem describes a diagram but does not draw it, the first thing you should do is draw it out. This includes situations where the problem describes a graph but doesn’t draw it on the provided axes.
  8. If you don’t feel comfortable with function notation, it can help to write down f(x) = y on the page every time you see f(x). This will help you better understand the language that the test is using and better understand the question that you’re being asked to solve.
  9. On the No Calculator section, do arithmetic on the page, not in your head. You should be familiar with the standard algorithms for addition/subtraction and multiplication, and also long division. It also helps to write all decimals out to two decimal places – your brain will more easily understand .40+.55 than .4+.55, for example.
  10. Finally, mark your answers on the page, and only bubble in when you turn the page (unless time is running out). Don’t take yourself away from the test by bubbling after each question — this is likely to slow you down. Work through each problem, solve, CLEARLY mark the answer in the margin next to the answer choices and only bubble when you’re ready to proceed forward. This will also help avoid misbubbling mistakes.