What Is the PSAT? A Complete Guide

A practice test for the SAT, the PSAT is also used to award National Merit Scholarships. Discover what the PSAT entails and how to maximize your score.

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by Blake Weil

Updated September 12, 2022

Edited by Danika Miller
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What Is the PSAT? A Complete Guide
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The PSAT helps you prepare for the SAT by testing your math, reading, and writing skills. Beyond practice, high-scoring students can earn national recognition, including a National Merit Scholarship.

There are a few key differences between the SAT and PSAT, including difficulty and cost. Knowing what to expect on the PSAT can help you earn a high score on test day and eventually on the SAT as well.

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What Is the PSAT?

The PSAT/NMSQT stands for the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

The exam is typically offered through your high school. Some schools offer the PSAT 8/9 in eighth and ninth grades and the PSAT 10 in 10th grade. However, when referring to the PSAT, most people mean the PSAT/NMSQT, which students normally take in 10th or 11th grade.

While colleges do not require the PSAT, many high schools do. Since the PSAT helps prepare students for the SAT, many schools will encourage or require their students to take the test their junior year.

Each PSAT exam booklet costs $18. Many high schools cover all or part of this cost for students.

If your high school doesn't plan to offer the PSAT, you can apply to take it at a different local school through the College Board website.

When Do You Take the PSAT?

You can take the PSAT every fall. This year, the College Board will administer the PSAT beginning in mid-October on three dates. If your school offers the PSAT, it will inform you which date you can take it. Your school may offer it on any dates designated by the College Board, but most offer it on the first test day.

Typically, students take the PSAT that corresponds to their grade level. In grades 8-9, you'll take the PSAT 8/9. In 10th grade, you may choose to take the PSAT 10 or the PSAT/NMSQT. And in 11th grade, you'll take the PSAT/NMSQT. Note that not every high school offers all three versions of the test.

Taking the PSAT/NMSQT your junior year determines your eligibility for a National Merit Scholarship.

If your own school doesn't plan to offer the PSAT, you can search for a nearby school administering the test using the College Board's school search tool.

PSAT Test Dates 2022
PSAT Test Day Date
Primary Test Day Wednesday, October 12, 2022
Saturday Test Day October 15, 2022
Alternate Test Day Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Source: College Board

How Many Times Can You Take the PSAT?

You can take the PSAT every year from 8th through 11th grade. However, only the PSAT/NMSQT taken in 11th grade will count toward the National Merit Scholarship competition.

Taking the PSAT several times can help you prepare for the SAT. Many students take the SAT the same year as the PSAT. These scores can help determine what areas to focus your SAT prep on.

How Long Is the PSAT?

The PSAT takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete. The timing of each section varies, with Reading being the longest section at 60 minutes and Math — No Calculator the shortest at 25 minutes.

Test-takers should use their time wisely to ensure they have enough time to answer all questions. While you'll have at most 88 seconds per question for Math, you should aim to answer questions in 50 seconds or less to allow time for you to read the questions.

PSAT Timing
PSAT Section Length Number of Questions Time per Question
Reading 60 minutes 47 questions 77 seconds
Writing and Language 35 minutes 44 questions 48 seconds
Math — No Calculator 25 minutes 17 questions 88 seconds
Math — Calculator 45 minutes 31 questions 87 seconds
Total 2 hours 45 minutes 139 questions N/A

What Is on the PSAT?

The PSAT has four sections covering reading, writing, and math. The first two sections (Reading and Writing and Language) test reading comprehension and writing, language, and grammar. The second two sections (Math — No Calculator and Math — Calculator) cover math.

Reading

  • Questions: 47
  • Time: 60 minutes
  • Subscores: Command of Evidence, Words in Context

The PSAT Reading section tests your ability to understand and analyze the main ideas of a passage. These passages come from fiction, the social sciences, the physical sciences, and political documents like the U.S. Constitution.

You need to describe how the author uses evidence, understand the meaning of words using context clues, and interpret and analyze various concepts.


Writing and Language

  • Questions: 44
  • Time: 35 minutes
  • Subscores: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions

Writing and Language requires you to read and analyze narrative and argumentative passages. Some questions contain charts or graphics that you'll need to interpret alongside the written portion.

The PSAT tests your ability to improve the quality of a writer's message, answering how the argument or narrative can be better developed, organized, or written. You also need to correct errors in style, tone, and wordiness, as well as identifying issues in grammar, usage, and mechanics.


Math

Questions Length Subscores
Math — No Calculator 17 25 minutes Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math
Math — Calculator 31 45 minutes Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math

Students are not allowed to use a calculator for one section of the math test. Most questions are multiple choice, but some ask you to enter your answer in a grid.

Math questions primarily test your understanding of linear algebraic equations, problem-solving, and manipulating complex equations. A few questions also cover topics in geometry and trigonometry.

How Is the PSAT Scored?

The PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1520. Students start with a raw score for each section (Math, Reading, Writing and Language). Your raw score is simply the number of questions you get right, with no penalty for incorrect answers.

The College Board then calculates test scores on a scale of 8-38. This equating process is used to account for slight differences in difficulty across PSAT tests.

The last step is converting your test scores into section scores ranging from 160 to 760. You'll receive a combined section score for Reading and Writing (called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing) and a separate score for Math. These scores add up to give you a final PSAT score out of 1520.

You'll also receive seven subscores, which each use a scale of 1-15:

These subscores demonstrate your areas of strength and those needing additional work, helping you focus your SAT studying.

Finally, you'll receive two cross-test scores:

Cross-test scores range from 8-38. These test your ability to apply social studies and science topics to a variety of passages and questions in reading, writing, and math.

What Is a Good PSAT Score?

A good PSAT score is generally anything above the 75th percentile, which is a relatively competitive test score on the SAT. However, what counts as "good" can vary depending on your goals. National Merit Scholarships are highly competitive, and many colleges require high SAT scores.

Percentiles compares your PSAT performance with those of other test-takers. For example, if you scored in the 80th percentile on the PSAT, that would mean you did better than or equal to 80% of test-takers (and worse than 20%). Specific scores for each percentile change slightly each year.

Your PSAT score report highlights scores that meet or exceed the academic benchmark in green, scores close to the benchmark in yellow, and scores below the benchmark in red.

Your PSAT score can help predict your SAT score since these tests cover similar topics. Any additional prep beyond taking the PSAT can boost your SAT score.

PSAT Score Percentiles
Percentile PSAT Total Score (10th Graders) PSAT Total Score (11th Graders)
99+ 1430-1520 1490-1520
99 1370-1420 1450-1480
95 1250-1260 1360-1370
90 1180 1280-1290
85 1130 1230
80 1090-1100 1190
75 (good) 1060 1150-1160
50 (median) 920 1010

Source: College Board

When Do PSAT Scores Come Out?

PSAT scores typically come out 6-8 weeks after you take the PSAT. This year's PSAT scores will be released Dec. 5-6, 2022. The exact date your scores will come out depends on what state you take the test in.

You'll receive your PSAT score report online or directly from your school. If you qualify as a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist or winner, your scores may be shared with the media. Note that colleges do not see your PSAT scores.

What Is the National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Program is an academic competition among high school juniors. National Merit Scholarship qualification is determined by 11th grade students' PSAT scores, converted into a Selection Index score. While qualifying scores vary, the national average is a Selection Index score of 207.

Each year, qualifying test-takers are narrowed down to 16,000 semifinalists. Those who don't become semifinalists will be noted as commended students and given letters of commendation sent to them through their high schools.

Ninety-five percent of semifinalists move on to become finalists after confirming they meet all qualifying criteria. From those finalists, around 7,500 will receive a scholarship, as determined by their PSAT scores, essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities. Additionally, around 1,000 additional special scholarships will be awarded from the pool of all qualifying applicants.

Scholarships range in value from $500 to $10,000. Some scholarships are renewable.

How to Prepare for the PSAT

Students wanting a high score should begin preparing for the PSAT well in advance. The best tools for preparing for the PSAT are official PSAT practice tests. These PSAT practice tests are written by the same team that writes the actual PSAT.

You can also prepare using SAT prep books. Because the SAT has similar content and structure to the PSAT, SAT prep books will be useful in helping you get ready for the PSAT.

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