What Is the PSAT?
The PSAT is mostly a practice version of the SAT®, but it can also lead to more money for college. The highest performers on this exam are eligible to earn scholarships, and even just becoming a Commended Scholar can be a helpful addition to your application.
About the PSAT
The Preliminary SAT, also known as the PSAT/NMSQT® (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), is a practice version of the SAT exam. You can only take the PSAT once per year, and many students take the test in both 10th and 11th grade. If you earn a high score on the PSAT your junior year, you could qualify to receive a National Merit Scholarship—$180 million dollars in merit scholarships are awarded to students each year. The PSAT is 2 hours and 45 minutes long and tests your skills in reading, writing, and math. Unlike the SAT, the highest score possible on the PSAT is 1520.
How long is the PSAT?
The PSAT is often taken during the school day, in place of other classes. The test itself takes about 3 hours, including break time.
What are the PSAT sections?
You will receive a composite score, two section scores, and a variety of subsection scores. The test itself includes four timed sections:
Writing and Language
Math (no calculator)
Math (calculator allowed)
Number of Questions
Time to Complete
World Literature, Social Studies/History, Science
80–380 (½ of verbal score)
The Evidence-Based Reading section of the PSAT will test your ability to read a passage, think critically about its main ideas and key details, and answer related questions. These questions will test concepts like command of evidence, words in context, and analysis in history/social studies and science.
Command of evidence questions will provide 4 excerpts from the passage and ask you to determine which one provides the best evidence for the previous question. Questions about words in context will focus on secondary word meanings.
The Reading Test includes passages related to literature, history and social studies, and science. Some PSAT questions will ask you to examine hypotheses, interpret data presented in a variety of ways, and conduct other analysis that is based only on what is either stated or implied in the passage.
Writing and Language
Number of Questions
Time to Complete
Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions
80–380 (½ of verbal score)
The Writing and Language section of the PSAT will test your ability to identify and fix grammatical errors as well as revise words and phrases to improve text. Some of the topics within the Standard English Conventions topic include verb agreement, punctuation use, and parallel construction. In the Expression of Ideas category, you'll be tested on the placement of sentences and the purpose of transition words or phrases within the text.
Number of Questions
Time to Complete
25 minutes (no calc)
45 minutes (with calc)
Algebra, Data Analysis and Problem Solving, Advanced Math
There are 2 math sections on the PSAT: one allows calculator use and one does not. There are both multiple choice questions with 4 answer choices and short answer grid-in questions with answer choices that include digits 0–9, the period/decimal point (.), and the division/fraction bar (/). Some questions include 2 related parts where information from the first part is used to answer the question in the second part.
How is the PSAT scored?
Each correct answer on the PSAT counts as one point toward your raw score. Remember, there’s no penalty for guessing on the PSAT, so answer every multiple-choice question even if you have to guess. Next, your raw score will be converted to your scaled score. This scaled score will range from 160 to 760 for each section, Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math (there is no essay on the PSAT). Your composite score is the combination of this scaled score from each section, so your composite score will range from 320 to 1520.
You will also be shown two percentile ranks comparing you to other students in your grade. These percentiles show how well you did compared to other test takers. If you scored in the 72nd percentile, for example, you did better than 72% of all test takers. The Nationally Representative Sample percentile score compares your scores to those of typical U.S. students in your grade (whether or not they’ve taken the PSAT), and the User Percentile—National percentile score compares your scores to those of typical U.S. PSAT test takers in your grade. Ask your counselor for more information about percentiles or anything else on your PSAT score report.
In addition to your scaled scores, you will receive 3 test scores, 2 cross-test scores, and 7 subscores. The test scores for Reading, Writing and Language, and Math will range from 8 to 38, and these scores are used to calculate your Selection Index for the National Merit Scholarship Program.
The cross-test scores for Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science will also range from 8 to 38. Finally, you will receive subscores ranging from 1 to 15 in the following areas: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math.
The College Board, who administers the test, uses a process called “equating” to make sure the scores are scaled fairly and there’s no advantage for taking the PSAT on a particular day. This means that you can feel confident comparing your scores to someone who took the test on a different day than you. In addition, the correct answer choices are distributed in such a way that answer choices A–D are all equally likely. It’s only a myth that answer choice C is correct more often than the other choices.
You will also see a benchmark for each section and subscore of the PSAT. If you meet or exceed the benchmark, you're in the green range and on track to be ready for college when you graduate from high school. If you’re close to the benchmark but not quite meeting it yet, you're in the yellow range. If you need to strengthen your skills to be ready for college when you graduate, you’re in the red range. The College Readiness Benchmarks are designed to help you focus your future studying and work on your weak areas before starting college classes.
The PSAT score report
You will be able to access your online score reports December 10th–12th this year. Some schools may hand out and explain these score reports to their students during the school day, while other schools may mail these score reports directly to parents. Either way, you should contact your counselor if you have any questions about your PSAT score report.
Although your counselor may provide you with a paper copy of your PSAT score report, you will want to access your online score report to get the most out of your results. This online report will provide you with summaries of your performance related to your scores. In addition, you’ll be able to dig deep and figure out exactly how you performed on individual questions, classified by both difficulty and topic.
Your online PSAT score reports will also help you figure out what you can do to better prepare for both the SAT/ACT and college. Detailed feedback for each question includes the correct answer, your answer, the difficulty level, and the subscore/cross-test scores related to that question. Clicking on the question number will display the question, answer, and a detailed explanation so you can use your performance on the PSAT to guide your studying for the SAT or ACT. The “AP Potential and Coursework” section will include a table listing each AP subject, how well you might do in that subject, and information about which courses your school offers and which courses match the major you select from a drop-down menu.
Before putting away your PSAT score report, make a plan for college admissions test prep. Do some research to find out more about average scores at the colleges you’re applying to by visiting their Undergraduate Admissions website. Compare your PSAT score to these average scores and think about how much time you might need to reach your goal score and get accepted to those schools. It’s common to spend 2–3 months preparing for the SAT or ACT, but most students take the test more than once and prep for each test date.
Once you decide how long you will prep, think about how you want to prep. Some students are successful studying using only a book or a self-paced course, while other students need the intensive support provided by a private tutor, especially if they don’t have a lot of time. Many students enjoy the motivation that comes from working with a live teacher, whether that teacher is in person or live online. The right prep for you will depend greatly on your current PSAT score, your goal SAT or ACT score, the amount of time you have to prep, and your best learning environment. No matter how you prepare, the most important thing is being confident about reaching your goal score when it’s time to take your admissions test.
That depends on where you live. You want to score well on the PSAT because a top score will help qualify you to be a National Merit Commended Scholar or Semifinalist. However, a certain percentage of students are accepted from each state, so the cutoff in your state depends on how others in your grade perform. Your counselor can help you learn more about the cutoffs for your state in the previous year, but even that isn’t predictive since student performance varies from year to year.
So how do I get a scholarship?
PSAT/NMSQT scores are automatically sent to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, the National Hispanic Recognition Program, the National Scholarship Service, and the Telluride Seminar Scholarships. In addition, College Board partners with groups such as 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. For more on these programs, visit College Board’s website.
About National Merit
The most well-known scholarship associated with the PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship. This scholarship, which is offered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, provides almost 10,000 scholarships to students based on their outstanding abilities, skills, and accomplishments. Each year, the top 50,000 scorers on the PSAT get commendation letters from the National Merit program, and 16,000 of those students qualify as Semifinalists based on their performance compared to others in their state. There are three main types of National Merit Scholarships: National Merit $2500 Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored Merit Scholarships.
What score do you need?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one set score that will guarantee you make the cutoff. Each state has a preset number of Semifinalists, so the exact Selection Index used by your state will be whatever score more closely matches this preset number. Once the state has established its cutoff score, the students from that state who have earned that score or higher will become Semifinalists. In addition to varying by state, this number can vary by year. Regardless of the exact cutoff for your state, all of the students who qualify earn high scores—less than the top 1% of high school students advance to become Semifinalists.
The National Merit Application
All Semifinalists will be provided with materials explaining the requirements and next steps for being awarded a National Merit Scholarship. In addition to the requirements relating to taking the test and enrolling in college following high school, Finalists must:
- complete the National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes writing an essay
- have a record of very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12 and in any college course work taken
- be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by their high school principal
- take the SAT or ACT and earn scores comparable to their semifinalist PSAT score
- provide any other documentation and information that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation requests
Corporate sponsors can offer Special Scholarships in addition to National Merit Scholarships, and the same screening process is used for Special Scholarship recipients. In addition to meeting all of the requirements involved in becoming a Finalist, corporate sponsors often have an additional requirement that the Finalist must be a child of an employee (unless the number of eligible Finalists is smaller than the number of available scholarships). College-sponsored Merit Scholarships are offered to Finalists who plan to attend that school.
When is the PSAT offered?
Most students will take the PSAT/NMSQT on Wednesday, October 10. Some students may test on Saturday, October 13 or Wednesday, October 24. There are also some other exceptions that vary by region—check with your counselor to confirm your PSAT test date. 10th graders who will be taking the PSAT 10 can expect to test between February 25 and April 26, 2019.