PSAT / NMSQT Exam

What Is the PSAT? How Is It Connected to the SAT?

To start, what is the PSAT test? Cosponsored by the College Board and National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT)—often shortened to PSAT—is a standardized test targeting 10th and 11th graders in the US.

As it stands, the PSAT is heavily connected to the SAT. One of the test's primary purposes is to act as a precursor to the SAT—as the name suggests, as an SAT practice test. Thus, the PSAT and SAT heavily mirror each other in regard to content, structure, and even scoring.

But the two tests aren't identical. Here are some major differences between the PSAT and SAT:

  • The SAT has an optional Essay section, whereas the PSAT does not
  • The PSAT is slightly easier than the SAT
  • There are fewer questions on the PSAT than there are on the SAT

Now, let's jump back to the "NMSQT" part of the full PSAT name. In addition to being a preparatory test for the SAT, the PSAT is a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

In other words, PSAT scores determine students' eligibility for National Merit scholarships. Each year the top 1% of 11th-grade PSAT takers become Semifinalists. Of these, about 7,500 go on to win scholarship money.

Why Do Students Take the PSAT?

10th and 11th graders take the PSAT primarily for the following three reasons:

  • To practice for the SAT: One of the most common reasons students, especially juniors, take the PSAT is to get familiar with the layout and content of the SAT, which is often required for college admission. The PSAT provides students with the opportunity to get a feel for the SAT, and helps them identify potential strengths and weaknesses.
  • To secure a National Merit distinction or scholarship: The other major reason students take the PSAT is to try to win a National Merit scholarship. Each year about 1.6 million juniors enter the National Merit competition via the PSAT. Of these test takers 16,000 will become Semifinalists, and of these Semifinalists 15,000 will become Finalists. In the end, 7,500 entrants will each win a $2,500 scholarship along with the (extremely prestigious) distinction of National Merit Scholar.

What Does the PSAT Cover?

There are three sections on the PSAT: Reading, Writing and Language (hereafter "Writing"), and Math. (As I mentioned, there's no optional Essay section on the PSAT.) Each section appears only once on the PSAT in a predetermined order: (1) Reading, (2) Writing, and (3) Math.

There are two subsections: a No Calculator subsection on which you may not use a calculator, and a Calculator subsection on which you may use a (pre-approved) calculator.

Most questions on the PSAT are multiple choice. The only exceptions are the Math section's grid-in questions. For these questions, you must come up with and write in your own answers. According to the College Board, 17% of PSAT Math, or eight questions, are grid-ins.

Below is the general breakdown of the PSAT. You can see when each section appears on the test, how much time you’ll have for each section, and how many questions there are. For an even better idea of what’ll be on the PSAT, I suggest looking at an official PSAT practice test.

PSAT Section Order on Test Time Allotted # of Questions
Reading 1 60 mins 47
Writing and Language 2 35 mins 44
Math No Calculator 3 25 mins 17
Math Calculator 4 45 mins 31 

How Is the PSAT Scored?

The total PSAT score range is 320-1520 in 10-point increments. This score consists of your Math score and your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score, both of which are scored on a scale of 160-760. (EBRW is a combination of the Reading and Writing sections.) These two section scores are actually your scaled, or equated, scores. But how do you get these scores?

On the PSAT, you start off with three raw scores, one each for Reading, Writing, and Math. A raw score is equal to the number of questions you answered correctly. You do not lose any points for incorrect answers!

Your raw scores for each section are then converted into test scores on a scale of 8-38 through a special equating process

It should also be noted here that these test scores, when combined and multiplied by 2, give you your Selection Index score, which the NMSC uses to determine eligibility for the National Merit competition.

Your Math test score is multiplied by 20 to give you a scaled Math score out of 760. Similarly, your Reading and Writing scores are combined and multiplied by 10 to give you a single scaled EBRW score (also out of 760).

In addition to section scores, you’ll be given subscores and cross-test scores. These scores are the same as those on the SAT and indicate your mastery of specific skills. Subscores have a score range of 1-15, whereas cross-test scores have a score range of 8-38.

Here is a list of the seven subscores on the PSAT test:

EBRW

  • Command of Evidence
  • Words in Context
  • Expression of Ideas
  • Standard English Conventions

Math

  • Heart of Algebra
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  • Passport to Advanced Math

And here are the two cross-test scores on the PSAT:

  • Analysis in History/Social Studies
  • Analysis in Science

At present, the average PSAT score is 1014 for 11th graders

A good PSAT score for you, though, will depend on what your PSAT goals are. If you hope to qualify for National Merit, you’ll need a score that places you in the top 1% of test takers for your state.

A good PSAT score could also be any score in the 75th percentile or higher, or simply any score similar to what you'll need on the SAT to get into the colleges you're planning on applying