The redesigned SAT’s Math Test focuses on algebra, problem solving and data analysis, which could require additional preparation.

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If you’re planning to take the PSAT this fall, throw out your current test-prep books that double as doorstops. Big changes are coming to the PSAT and SAT, nationwide tests offered by the College Board.

The PSAT, co-sponsored with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, is often taken by juniors in high school. This year’s test will act as a shorter preparatory version of the new SAT scheduled for March 2016, and as always, will act as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).

But the exact nature of those changes leaves students, families and test-prep companies searching for answers, at least right now. A full-length redesigned SAT practice exam will not be available until early June, although sample questions are currently available online at collegeboard.org.

Longer, more straightforward

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Based on sample PSAT questions, some test experts note it’s a significantly more challenging exam, with benefits and drawbacks for the current crop of test-takers, says Jed Applerouth, founder of Applerouth Tutoring Services, a national tutoring company with a Seattle office.

“The new PSAT will be 35 minutes longer than the older one, but students will now have a bit more time per question,” says Molly Metz, of PrepNorthwest, a Seattle-area test-prep service. “It will feel more straightforward like an ACT test, than who can think out of the box or get to an answer the fastest, like the current SAT test,” she says.

“The essay is markedly more interesting, with an increased focus on critical analysis and ability to do college-level work, with less focus on advanced vocabulary,” Applerouth says.

But the math, in particular, may pose difficulty. The redesigned SAT’s Math Test focuses on algebra, problem solving and data analysis, which could require additional preparation.

“Some questions will be multistep problems requiring students to apply math in real-world contexts, and questions will ask students to support their answers with evidence,” Metz says.

Certain students may be at a disadvantage, Applerouth says. “If you haven’t had exposure to this math approach, you may be at a loss,” he says. “Someone has to teach students how to do this kind of math.”

In June, redesigned SAT practice materials will be available to all students through the nonprofit Khan Academy, known for its free online lecture series and tools. “These dynamic, interactive study tools can be utilized for PSAT/NMSQT practice because of the exam’s alignment with the SAT,” says Stacy Caldwell, the College Board’s Vice President of SAT and PSAT/NMSQT.

Self-regulating students aware of their weaknesses, strengths and study habits can use books, or Khan Academy’s site, Applerouth says. But students facing difficulties with content areas – like those math problem-solving techniques – may need to sit down with a tutor or in a preparatory class before taking the new SAT.

Why and when to take the PSAT
“The majority of juniors will simply taking the PSAT by showing up at school,” Metz says. “The PSAT is great practice and does not count for admissions. Most high schools offer the PSAT on a Wednesday in mid-October at their schools and students don’t need to sign up for it.”

One reason to participate in PSAT testing is qualification for the National Merit Scholarship Competition, says Kiersten Murphy, founder of Murphy College Consultants. “Approximately the top 3 percent of all test takers actually qualify — roughly 50,000 kids out of 1.5 million — as Commended Scholars. Then, the top 99th percentile are named semifinalists, and about half of those actually become finalists and receive merit money.”

It’s an extremely competitive game, in other words. “Parents shouldn’t get all caught up in it,” she says.

“It takes a higher PSAT score to break into the top 1 percent in Washington than it does in most other states,” says Steve Sandweiss, founder of Seattle’s Sandweiss Test Prep. “We have smart kids here.”

Just one piece of the pie
As long as they’re not competing for scholarships, the PSAT offers a low-pressure introduction to the new SAT, helpful for comprehending changes to the test.

“The PSAT scores kids get this fall are reasonable predictors of how they are likely to score on the SAT coming this spring, if they don’t do any additional preparation,” Sandweiss says, although there isn’t a total correlation. The PSAT is shorter, and lacks the new essay section.

“My advice is that once you get the results, also take a practice ACT, figure out which one you’re better at, and that’s the one you should prepare for,” Sandweiss says. “You won’t need to submit both scores, since all colleges in the U.S. accept either exam without preference.”

Some students are hedging their bets. Sophomore Jamin Zheng, who goes to Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, doesn’t need to take the SAT for another year, but he’s planning to study with a tutor this summer, then take the fall SAT, before it changes. He’ll concurrently take the PSAT as a junior, hoping to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. “People from my school received it a couple years ago,” he says, so he knows it’s possible.

Current sophomores might also opt in for PSAT testing this fall, although it’s not required, Applerouth says, just to start getting familiar with the exam.

But don’t sweat too much over those bubbles. “The SAT and ACT tests are just one piece of the beautiful pie,” Metz says. “Yes, they can help with financial assistance and open some doors. However, no score will necessarily guarantee admittance nor will a score alone necessarily take one out of contention.”