Most schools in New York City automatically register 11th graders for the October PSAT exam, which is given in school during regular class time. In other words, the test is more or less mandatory. About 1.6 million 11th graders take the PSAT every year in the U.S. With nearly 4 million 11th graders in total across the country, this equates to roughly 40% of students taking the PSAT nationwide.
Many schools are now also giving the PSAT in the 9th grade and 10th grades. Students who have taken the PSAT two or three years in a row without studying for it, may find it interesting to see their progress throughout the years. This should happen naturally, even without any prep. But the 11th grade PSAT is the “real” thing (not practice for the PSAT which is what taking the test in 9th or 10th grade really is) and that’s the one we’ll be discussing below.
So here's everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask ... about the PSAT!
What is the PSAT?
You may have heard the PSAT also called the NMSQT and wondered what’s that’s all about. Is it the practice SAT? Is it graded the same way as the SAT? Let’s take a look.
PSAT stands for, “Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test” and NMSQT is, “National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.” They are the same test. Compared to the SAT, they are slightly shorter and have a slightly different scoring system, which we’ll get into in a moment. The test is multiple choice and there is no penalty for selecting an incorrect answer by trying or by guessing. Test-takers get a point for every question they get right and no points for questions they skip or get wrong, so it’s in their best interest to bubble in every single question with a response, even if it’s a guess. Calculators may be used on specific portions of the Math section with the other, no-calculator questions tending to be easier.
Besides the fact that the PSAT is a good practice test for the SAT, it is also the test that determines whether you might be a National Merit Scholar. Less than 1% of students who take the PSAT/NMSQT become National Merit Scholars, but rest assured there are many other ways to earn merit-based scholarships by performing well on the SAT or ACT later on.
Does the PSAT matter?
The 11th grade PSAT matters if you think you can score in the top 1% and qualify for a National Merit Scholarship (more on that here) and it also matters as a benchmark for your progress. Because SAT and ACT scores are still a key component of the college application at most colleges and universities, it’s important to get a benchmark score to see where you are now vs. where you want your score to be by the beginning of 12th grade (at the latest!), when college application deadlines start to roll in. It happens all too often that fantastic, 4.0 GPA students are not the best test-takers, so while they may be aiming for top tier and Ivy League colleges and universities given their grades, these students can be shocked to get a PSAT score that does not seem to “match” their GPA. It’s good to know if there is a discrepancy between a students' grades and test scores as soon as possible so they can start learning to be better test takers.
One last way that the PSAT matters is if a student wants to apply to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer programs (more on that here), which accept PSAT scores as a qualifier for entry.
Every year, our tutors work with students for whom the skill of test-taking doesn’t come naturally and turn them into test-taking whizzes. It’s a skill that can be learned and learning that skill as early as possible will help for future exams in college and even when applying to grad school. We're also pros at working with high-performing test takers to raise scores to the high 1500s and even get a perfect 1600.
What is the National Merit Scholarship Corporation or NMSC?
NMSC is a nonprofit organization that is not affiliated with the government or with the College Board. It was established in 1955 as a competition to identify the brightest students and match them with funding to attend top colleges and universities. While National Merit Scholarships contribute only $2,500 per year in actual money, they are VERY prestigious and being a National Merit Scholar really makes an application stand out. Besides the $2,500 grant, NMSC also facilitates scholarships through certain philanthropic companies and through colleges themselves. Between finalists, semi-finalists and special grants, NMSC gives about 10,000 grants annually. With less than 1% of students who take the PSAT becoming National Merit Scholars, students will likely have to start studying for the test in 10th grade or in the summer between 10th and 11th grade to make the cut.
Can I get scholarships if I do well on the PSAT?
Most students won’t become a National Merit Scholar, but that’s definitely not something to feel beat up about! By preparing for the PSAT, students can do very well (for example, be in the top 5% or top 10%), then work hard to keep that score or improve it for the actual SAT or ACT test. High scores on these real deal tests will open the door to eligibility for many other merit grants. It’s important to note that the College Board also sends high scores to the National Hispanic Recognition Program, the National Scholarship Service, and the Telluride Seminar Scholarships, as well as other groups, like the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the Cobell Scholarship (awarded by Indigenous Education, Inc.), and The Jackie Robinson Foundation to connect test takers with scholarships based on their test scores. You can read more here.
Can you fail the PSAT?
No. Students may be overjoyed by scoring in the top 10%, even if they are not great students in school. Or they may be disappointed if their PSAT score doesn’t match their abilities or GPA, but there is no failing (or even passing) the test.
How is the PSAT graded?
It’s commonly known that the SAT is graded out of 1600 points. The PSAT, however, is graded out of 1520 points and the test itself clocks in at 2:45, a little shorter than the 3-hour SAT. The PSAT score report that students get in December (after taking an October test) is unfortunately a bit confusing. Once logged into the College Board website, students will see scores for the 2 main sections (the Math section and the Reading/Writing section), with further breakouts for the subsections of each. The results also provide very useful percentile rankings to see how performance compared to all students who took the test nationwide.
We recommend students first focus on the main section scores (each out of 760) and at the percentile rankings to get a sense of overall performance. The subsection scores are useful mostly for understanding where exactly students need to put in more time studying in preparation for the ACT or SAT.
Can you predict your SAT score using your PSAT score?
Since the PSAT is very similar to the SAT (just a little shorter), it is, in fact, a very good predictor of SAT performance as of the time the PSAT was taken. It’s important to note that students who start with a lower PSAT score most often show the biggest improvement after studying for additional PSAT tests and especially for the SAT or ACT. There are many factors at play in explaining that phenomenon. Students who start with a lower score may be more motivated to prove themselves later, for example. But the important thing is that the data tells us this phenomenon is true. So fear not: a PSAT score that is lower than expected initially is statistically likely to yield a larger improvement than a higher initial score. To see a real-world comparison, we have provided a table below to convert a PSAT score to a roughly equivalent SAT score.
What is a good PSAT score?
To understand how “good” a PSAT score is, we recommend looking at the percentiles associated with each of the 2 main scores: Reading/Writing and Math. Each of those sections has a maximum of 760 points. Everyone has different goals, but generally above 50th percentile is a good place to start. This equates to 500-550 on each section, or 1000-1100 total if performance is lopsided between the two sections. Being in the top 25th percentile is great (560-610 on each section or 1120-1220 total). And being in the top 10th is terrific (over 620 on each section or 1240 total), equating roughly to a 1340 SAT score. But again, in our experience, starting with lower scores is often a predictor of bigger improvements down the line.
What to consider once the PSAT results are in...
Above all else, the PSAT is great practice for taking either the SAT or ACT and a strong indicator of performance without further studying or instruction. Over the 17 years we have been coaching students on college entrance exams, we have found that a crucial first step is determining which test - the ACT or SAT - is the best fit for a particular student. Students should have at least some experience with the SAT and ACT before deciding which test to prep for.
We offer students a unique SAT vs ACT diagnostic test at the beginning of their test prep journeys. The results of our diagnostic generate a 9-page report analyzing a student’s strengths, weaknesses, and which test the student is naturally better at. We believe students should prep for the test on which they have the highest score to begin with, because that means less time studying to reach their goal scores and less time wasted on studying for the less suitable test.