Update: Somehow or other, I neglected to notice that PSAT scores were coming out just as I posted this (usually my students flip out about them, but this year everyone seems remarkably laid back about the whole thing, so I apparently I’m the last to know;) Anyway, I wanted to add a couple of things in light of that fact. First, if you’re less than thrilled with your score, don’t panic — a lot of people are in exactly the same situation. A weaker-than-expected PSAT score is in no way a harbinger of doom — it’s simply an indication of the approximate score you would get if you were to take the SAT tomorrow, without any additional studying.

That said, however, PSAT can be a major wake-up call for a lot of people who thought they were going to skate through standardized testing. (I always cringe internally whenever a junior that I know really needs to work on things tells me that the PSAT was “easy;” it’s usually an indicator that they fell into every trap in the book, and seeing scores 100+ points lower than what they expected can be a major blow.) It can be exciting to hit junior year and actually start the whole college process you’ve been hearing everyone go on about forever, but getting a less than stellar PSAT score can suddenly make the whole process get old really fast.

Here’s the thing: your improvement from here on largely depends on your attitude: if you get disgusted with the whole process now and decide that it’s futile to even try to raise your score, you probably won’t. If, on the other hand, you can accept it as what it is — a diagnostic — and use the information it gives you to motivate you and focus your study process, you have the potential to make truly massive gains.

I’m not going to lie: it can be a lot of work, but provided you have the basics in place, it is totally doable. I’ve had students who improved literally hundreds of points from the PSAT to the SAT — and yes, that includes major (150+ point) increases in Critical Reading. Yes, I did help them, but they also put in huge amounts of work independently.

Despite claims to the contrary, what’s tested on the (P)SAT is not some sort of undefinable “aptitude” but rather a set of concrete skills. They may not be tested in quite the same way that you’re accustomed to being tested in school, but that doesn’t make them any less real. And as a result, there are specific steps that you can take to improve them. For that reason, it can be helpful to view your scores not as some sort of ultimate, immutable indicator of your ability, but rather as a general indicator of where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and of what sorts of things you need to focus on improving.

Looking at your score as feedback makes the process more neutral. Yes, of course SAT scores do ultimately count for a lot in the admissions process; I’m not about to deny that. But they’re also a relatively accurate, unbiased measure of where you stand in some key areas — how to recognize the point that an author is trying to make; how to distinguish between what they think and what they think about what other people think (!); and how to read objectively without allowing your own opinion to cloud your understanding of what’s literally being said. It could be that you simply need to practice taking the test or work more carefully, but chances are that there’s a skill or two you need to brush up on — even if it doesn’t seem to obviously correlate with the questions you missed.

Look at it this way: you missed the questions you missed for a reason. Even if you really did know how to do them, there wasn’t some mysterious force that forced your hand to pick up that #2 pencil and bubble in B rather than C. Something in your process went awry, and that resulted in your getting the question wrong. The way to improve your score is to try to identify the problem at its core and deal with it from there.

If, for example, you misread a Math question and solved for x instead of 2x, that’s a sign that you need to read more carefully; it doesn’t matter how good you are at math in school. The Math portion of the SAT is a math-basedreasoning test, not a math test per se, and it asks you to integrate English and math skills simultaneously in the same way that Critical Reading asks you to use logic skills similar to those used in Math. Blaming the test for asking a question in a way that you weren’t expecting won’t help. What will help is putting your finger on the page as you read the question, taking a moment to reiterate for yourself exactly what it’s asking, and, if necessary, scribbling yourself a note so that you don’t forget. Those are important skills too. But that said, pretty much every math tutor I’ve ever talked to has told me that plenty of kids in AP Calc are missing some of the fundamentals, either because they forgot them or because they never really mastered them in the first place. If you’re so convinced that you’re above going back and reviewing the math on the test, you probably won’t get your score up anywhere near as much as you hoped.

Likewise, if you’re a straight-A student in AP English but can’t get past 650 on Critical Reading, it won’t do you any good to get indignant. You need to look honestly and objectively at why you’re making so many mistakes. If your score reflects the fact that you consistently get down to two answers but tend to pick the wrong one, you need to look at why you always pick the wrong one. It could be because you’re not going back to the passage and really checking things out (or are reading too quickly or not extensively enough when you do), but it could also be because you have a tendency to insert your own knowledge and not look closely at what’s actually being said. It could also be that you have trouble recognizing how specific words contribute to the creation of a particular tone, or in decoding particularly unfamiliar types of syntax or phrasing — things that have absolutely nothing to do with your test-taking ability. In that case, you need to spend some serious time reading SAT-level material. One of my students who got himself up 100 points in CR did so in part by devouring Oliver Sacks’ books, passages from which frequently show up on the SAT (it helped that he absolutely loved the books, though); the level of his comprehension skyrocketed.

I recognize that it can be hard to identify just what you’re missing, especially if you’re trying to do it all on your own, and it can be even harder to be brutally honest with yourself about just what you need to work on. But the key is not to take it personally. If you can leave your ego at the door and focus on solidifying some of the fundamentals that got lost along the way, you might even learn something in the process.