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PSAT 101

PSAT 101

The PSAT (Preliminary SAT) is a standardized test sponsored by both the College Board, who write and administer it, and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Here's what you need to know!

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What is the PSAT?

The PSAT (Preliminary SAT) is a standardized test sponsored by both the College Board, who write and administer it, and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Its content and structure is very similar to the SAT, testing students’ skills in reading, writing, and math, though it contains fewer questions and is slightly easier than the real SAT.

Why do you need to take the PSAT?

As its name suggests, the PSAT is designed to help prime students before they take the SAT. It also is used as the qualifying test to identify National Merit Scholars and determine the recipients of National Merit scholarship money. As such, it is a useful benchmark as you prepare for the SAT, as well as a potential boost to your college admissions experience.

What grades take the PSAT?

Since the PSAT is designed to be taken before the SAT, it is taken primarily by high school sophomores and juniors, though some schools also offer it to freshmen. Note that only juniors who take the test are considered for National Merit Scholarships.

When is the PSAT?

The PSAT is 2 hours and 45 minutes, making it shorter than the real SAT.

How long is the PSAT?

The PSAT is 2 hours and 45 minutes, making it 30 minutes shorter than the real SAT.

PSAT Structure

What is the format of the PSAT?

The PSAT is formatted similarly to the SAT. It has four subsections: Reading, Writing and Language, and two Math subsections, one which allows the use of a calculator and one which does not. The PSAT does not have an essay component of any kind. Most of the PSAT is multiple choice, though each of the math sections includes four grid-in questions as well.

What is on the PSAT?

Like the SAT, the PSAT is meant to test skills that students are learning in school. The reading and writing sections will test things like a student’s vocabulary, their ability to understand and find evidence in passages, their understanding of grammar and punctuation, their ability to interpret data, and their ability to improve the structure and style of passages. The math sections draw primarily upon algebra, data analysis, geometry, and some more advanced material such as trigonometry.

PSAT Sections

Reading

The Evidence-Based Reading section on the PSAT is 60 minutes long. It has 47 multiple choice questions covering five passages, which draw from literature, historical documents, social sciences, and the natural sciences. This section primarily aims to test a student’s reading comprehension, their ability to identify evidence, their command of vocabulary in context, and their reasoning skills.

Writing and Language

The Writing and Language section on the PSAT is 35 minutes long. It has 44 multiple choice questions, primarily drawing from non-fiction passages. This section is meant to test a student’s understanding of grammar and punctuation, as well as how to structure arguments for optimal clarity and logic.

Math

The two math sections together are 70 minutes (25 minutes without a calculator, and 45 minutes in which a calculator is permitted). They have 48 total questions, several of which are grid-ins, but most of which are multiple choice. Topics that may be covered include: linear equations, inequalities, nonlinear expressions, data analysis, functions, geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers.

How many questions are on the PSAT?

There are 139 total questions on the PSAT: 47 Reading, 44 Writing and Language, 17 Math (No Calculator), and 31 Math (Calculator).

PSAT Registration

How to register for the PSAT?

For most students, registration for the PSAT will be managed through their school’s counseling office, either online or in person. This is true for any student whose high school offers the PSAT. For students who cannot register for a test at their school, particularly international or homeschooled students, the College Board offers a school search tool to find schools that are offering the test. If you are planning to take the PSAT at a school other than your own, call the school by May of the year you plan to take the test to discuss registration.

What is the PSAT registration fee?

The PSAT registration fee is currently $18 (not including any administration fees your school might additionally require). Some schools cover the registration fees, and 11th graders who meet income criteria may qualify for fee waivers. Consult the counseling office at your testing location to better understand what fees you are responsible for.

When is the deadline for PSAT registration?

The registration deadline for the PSAT depends on the school administering it. Contact your school (or the school at which you intend to take it) to find out what their registration deadline is. Please note that if you intend to request testing accommodations of any kind, you must contact the school to request these accommodations by the third week of August.

How to cancel PSAT registration?

Cancellation of PSAT registration is navigated through the administering school, so you’ll have to contact your school’s counseling office to determine if you can cancel, and how. Note that if your school allows you to cancel your registration and get your money back, you’ll need to request this before mid-September, since this is the cutoff date for the school to order testing materials.

PSAT Test Day

What to bring to PSAT?

You don’t need to bring much to the PSAT. All you really need is No. 2 pencils with erasers and an approved calculator, and a face covering if the testing school requires it. You might also want to bring a drink or snacks for the break, but you cannot have these out during the test. If you want to bring a watch, make sure it is not a smartwatch and does not have an audible alarm. Similarly, if you have a phone in your backpack, it must be turned fully off.

PSAT Scoring

The band of possible scores for the PSAT is slightly narrower than the SAT, with the highest possible score at 1520. Like the SAT, this total score is a sum of the two major section scores – one for Reading and Writing and one for Math – each of which is in the range 160-760. These section scores are based on your raw score and a scaling system which adjusts for variations in the difficulty of different versions of the test. You will also receive subscores, ranging from 1-15, reflecting your performance in specific skill areas: command of evidence, words in context, expression of ideas, grammatical conventions, algebra, problem solving and data analysis, and preparation for advanced math.

What is an average PSAT Score?

The average PSAT score among 10th graders in the past three school years has been 920, and among 11th graders has been 1010. Scores of above 1180 and 1280 have placed students in 10th and 11th grades, respectively, in the top 10% of test takers in this same time period.

How to get your PSAT scores?

PSAT scores are usually available online 4-6 weeks after you take the test. On the day of the test, your answer sheet will have space for you to provide your email address. If you do so, you will receive a notification email when the scores are available. Whether or not you provided an email address, you can access your scores via your CollegeBoard account.

PSAT FAQ

How many times can you take the PSAT?

You can take the PSAT up to three times total, but only once per year, between your freshman and junior years of high school.

What if you fail PSAT?

There are no significant negative consequences to performing poorly on the PSAT. These scores will not be reported to colleges, so they will not negatively impact your admissions processes. The only downside – if you get a low score in your junior year specifically – is that you will not be considered for scholarships like National Merit, which use the PSAT scores as qualifying metrics. However, you also won’t be considered for these scholarships if you do not take the PSAT, so fear of a poor performance is no reason not to take the test. The benefits of taking it – namely, giving you a good indication of what and how much you’ll need to study for the SAT – make taking the test well worth the experience, no matter how well you do.

What happens if you skip a PSAT?

There are no consequences to skipping a PSAT. Know, however, that the test is only offered once a year, so you have limited opportunities to take it. Furthermore, you must take it during your junior year if you want to be considered for scholarships like National Merit.

Do colleges care if you take the PSAT?

PSAT scores are not reported to colleges, so taking the test does not directly impact your college admissions journey. However, if you do well on the PSAT, you can qualify as a National Merit Scholar, which can be a boost to your applications.

Can you get into college without taking the PSAT?

Absolutely. PSAT scores are not reported to colleges, so taking the PSAT is not a requirement for any college admissions process. That being said, if you plan on taking the SAT, the PSAT is a helpful tool to guide your studying, so taking it can ultimately help your admissions journey.

Does the PSAT affect your GPA?

No, not at all.

​​Can I get scholarships if I do well on the PSAT?

Yes. A variety of scholarship funds, most notably National Merit, use PSAT scores as the metric to determine qualification. What score you need to become a National Merit scholar will depend on the state in which you live, and can vary year to year, as advancing to semi-finalist status is based on the top scoring students in your state. Becoming a National Merit finalist will also depend on your SAT or ACT scores, but performing well on the PSAT is a good indication that you are also prepared to do well on the SAT or ACT.

When should I start studying for the PSAT?

When and whether you should start studying for the PSAT depends on what grade you are in. If you are taking it in your freshman or sophomore year, there is no real need to study, as you will have future opportunities to take it and your scores in these years will not impact your National Merit qualification. We recommend starting to study for the PSAT no later than the summer before your junior year, which will give you a few months to prepare for the PSAT and help prepare you for taking the SAT or ACT later in the school year.

How to study for PSAT?

Learn about the format and the scoring

For any standardized test, it’s a good idea to know what to expect so you don’t run into any surprises on testing day, and so you can understand your scores.

Set goal scores for both the PSAT and SAT

If you’re using the PSAT as a preparatory benchmark for the SAT, it’s good to have an idea of what SAT scores you’ll need to get into the colleges you’re interested in, and what PSAT score would indicate that you’re “on track” for your SAT goal score. Moreover, if you’re pursuing National Merit Scholarship, it’s important to know what scores you’ll need to get there.

Take PSAT practice tests

The best tool for studying for any standardized test is to take official practice tests. This will help you get used to the testing experience, and will be the best indicator of what areas you need to work on.

Understand your mistakes

Remember that failure is a tool for success! As you study and take practice tests, try to analyze why your incorrect answer choices are wrong and how you could determine the correct answer in the future.

Find patterns in your mistakes

Pay attention to what you consistently get wrong. This is a good indicator of what content areas you need to review more thoroughly.

Use SAT practice resources

There aren’t as many official tests or practice resources for the PSAT as there are for some other standardized tests. Luckily, since the PSAT is modeled after the SAT, SAT resources are also a great way to prepare for the PSAT.

Start studying early

Especially if you’re hoping to be a National Merit semi-finalist or finalist, you want to give yourself ample time to prepare.

Study in small, frequent sessions

The best way to consistently and effectively improve is to review often, a little bit at a time.

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