The PSAT® at a Glance

The PSAT/NMSQT (or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is a preliminary version of the SAT. Not only does the PSAT help prepare students to take the SAT or ACT, a great score on the PSAT can also open the door to National Merit Scholarships and other awards. With $180 million dollars in scholarships awarded to students that achieve high scores on the PSAT, how you perform on this exam can help you earn scholarship dollars that change the direction of your college planning. The PSAT is much more than a practice test.

In the fall of 2015, students will see a new version of this exam, which will be fully aligned with the new SAT debuting in March 2016. For more test change resources, visit our SAT Test Change Resource Center.

The new PSAT, launching in October 2015, is 2 hours and 45 minutes long and tests your skills in Reading, Writing, and Math. The highest score possible on the PSAT is 1520.

Test Length Question Type
Evidence-Based Reading 60 minutes 9 U.S./World Literature
18-20 Social Studies/History
18-20 Science
Writing & Language 35 minutes 24 Expression of Ideas
20 Standard English conventions
Math 25 minutes: No Calculator
45 minutes: Calculator
16 Heart of Algebra
13 Data Analysis & Problem Solving
16 Passport to Advanced Math
2 Additional Topics in Math

The PSAT Evidence-Based Reading Test

Length Question Types
60 minutes 9 U.S./World Literature
18-20 Social Studies/History
18-20 Science

There are 5 reading passages or paired passages:

  • 1 U.S./World Literature passage
  • 2 Social Studies/History passages (or 1 passage + 1 passage pair)
  • 2 Science passages (or 1 passage + 1 passage pair)

The Evidence-Based Reading section of the PSAT is the longest, single section of the exam lasting 60 minutes and covering 47 questions. That’s approximately 75 seconds per question, not including the time needed to read each of the 5 word passages or passage pairs, each between 500-700 words.

This section of the exam is aimed at testing your ability to draw supported conclusions from the passage details and/or make inferences based on the author’s point of view. In short, your ability to read, comprehend, and choose effectively against the given answer choices is key.

Passage topics include U.S. or World Literature, Social Studies, History, and Science and are sourced from high-quality, previously published sources. Passages do not rely on outside knowledge, meaning you do not need to remember the difference between an ion and a proton, rather you are tested on your ability to comprehend and infer meaning from the author’s tone and point of view. For Science and Social Studies/History, you will read paired passages and will be asked to draw connections between the two. Additionally, you will encounter passages accompanied with charts, tables, and graphs. Questions related to these passages will test your ability to incorporate information in the passage with information presented graphically to answer a question, for example, to identify which of the given answer choices supports information presented in a graphic.

Reading comprehension questions will test your ability to identify the meaning of words and phrases in context. Some will ask you to draw a logical conclusion, and then also ask that you select the text that led you to that conclusion. Other questions may ask you to synthesize information using the passage and a related graphic to draw a logical conclusion, or identify how a word choice influences the overall passage’s meaning and tone.

KAPLAN TIP: ask yourself questions and take notes as you read the passage. Remember, the answer is in the passage and does not require outside science, social studies, or history knowledge! The key is to find the answer in the passage quickly and accurately.

The PSAT Writing & Language Test

Length Question Types
35 minutes 24 Expression of Ideas
20 Standard English conventions

The Writing & Language section of the PSAT is 35 minutes long and covers 44 questions. That’s approximately 45 seconds per question, not including the time needed to read each of the 4 word passages, each between 400 and 450 words.

This section of the exam is aimed at testing your ability to identify and correct areas where the passage does not comply with standard English conventions, such as grammar, usage, and punctuation. In short, your ability to identify errors in the passage and determine the necessary revision among the answer choices is key.

Passage topics include Careers, Social Studies, History, Humanities, and Science. At least one of the four passages will include an informational graphic, where you will be asked to harmonize the information presented in the graphic into the passage, by completing a sentence in the passage.

KAPLAN TIP: with only 35 minutes, you don’t have much time on this section. You’ll need to quickly identify where the passage does not comply with standard English conventions and eliminate answer choices that do not address the issue you’ve identified.

The PSAT Math Test

Length Question Types
25 minutes: No Calculator
45 minutes: Calculator
16 Heart of Algebra
13 Data Analysis & Problem Solving
16 Passport to Advanced Math
2 Additional Topics in Math

The Math section of the PSAT is 70 minutes long and covers 47 questions. That’s approximately 90 seconds per question. For the first 25 minutes, you’ll be required to answer questions free-hand, without use of a calculator to support your work. For the remaining 45 minutes, you will be allowed the use of a calculator.

This section of the exam will focus on algebraic problems and your ability to analyze and interpret a set of data. Many questions will require two or more steps in order to solve them. In short, your ability to eliminate answer choices when applicable is key.

You will see two kinds of question formats in this section: grid-in questions or ones where you’ll be asked to enter an answer; and multiple-choice questions where you’ll have 4 answers choices to choose from.

Heart of Algebra problems will test your ability to create, solve, and analyze equations, systems of equations, linear equations, inequalities, and functions. Problem-Solving and Data Analysis problems will focus on real-world problems that include concepts in proportional relationships, percentages, complex measurements, and data interpretation and synthesis. Passport to Advanced Math will test your ability to understand and analyze the structure of advanced expressions as well as complex equations, including quadratic and higher-order equations.

KAPLAN TIP: multi-step problems require careful reading of the problem and the question; do not begin solving until you’ve read the question in full.