Students’ scores on the PSAT, or the Preliminary SAT, do not affect college admissions decisions – but that doesn’t mean the test should be overlooked.
Other than clocking in at 15 minutes shorter – 2 hours and 45 minutes without breaks – there are few differences between the PSAT and SAT. The similarities are deliberate, so that the PSAT can serve as a practice tool for the actual exam. Students can become familiar with the test structure and gain a better understanding of which college placement exam is a better fit for them: the SAT or ACT.
Though students shouldn’t cram for it, there is incentive to earn high marks on the PSAT, including eligibility for college scholarships, Advanced Placement courses and College Board National Recognition Programs, which identify academically exceptional students who are African American, Hispanic American, Latinx or Indigenous, or attend school in a rural area or small town.
“The test should look and feel very familiar” to content learned in the classroom, says Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments at the College Board, the organization that develops the PSAT and other standardized tests and curricula. “It’s really not meant to be a pressure-filled experience.”
Students have the option to take the test once a year from eighth to 11th grade. Eighth and ninth graders take a version known as the PSAT 8/9. The two other preliminary tests in the College Board’s suite of assessments include the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Both tests are open to high school sophomores, but only juniors are eligible for score-related college scholarships as part of the PSAT/NMSQT.
The timed sections cover three subject areas: reading, writing and language, and math. Most questions are multiple-choice, except for a few write-in answers in the math section.
Divided into two parts – calculator and non-calculator – the math section consists of 48 questions in the areas of algebra, geometry and trigonometry. The 47-question reading section evaluates reading comprehension, vocabulary in context and analytic skills. Similarly, the 44-question writing and language section assesses vocabulary in context along with grammar and editing skills.
PSAT test booklets are given back shortly after score reports are released, unlike the SAT in which booklets are not returned. Students can review missed questions and identify strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, if students link their College Board and Khan Academy accounts, they can received personalized practice recommendations based on their scores at no cost.
“When you’re learning the ones you got wrong, you’re obviously going to learn from some of the ones you got right that might have been by accident,” says David Staples, an SAT and ACT teacher at Kaplan, which provides test prep and private tutoring.
Each PSAT section is scored on a 160 to 760 scale, which equates to a potential total score range of 320 to 1520. The reading section and the writing and language section are combined to create the EBRW score, or evidence-based reading and writing. Every correct answer counts as one point toward a raw score – which is converted to the scaled score – with no penalty for wrong answers or skipped questions.
A student’s score report will also include a test score for each section, which is on a scale of 8 to 38. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC, uses those numbers for its own scale – the selection index – to determine scholarship finalists.
As per the most recent data from the College Board, the first chart below reflects percentile rankings based on total scores of high school juniors who took the PSAT/NMSQT or PSAT 10 in 2018-2019, 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. Percentiles change slightly every year based on the scores of students.
Percentiles demonstrate how a student’s score compares to his or her peers. A score in the 50th percentile, 1010, is considered average. Students who scored at least a 1450 fall in the top 1% of test takers, which can put them in the running for national merit scholarships, Staples says.
Additionally, if students’ PSAT section scores meet certain benchmarks, they are considered on track for “college and career readiness,” according to College Board data. For instance, students in 11th grade must score at least a 460 on the math section and 510 for EBRW to be considered on track. The chart below uses color categories to show how students’ section scores compare to the designated grade-level benchmarks.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘bad score’ because everyone can improve at these tests,” says Susan Powers, founder of Woodlands Test Prep in Texas, which provides one-on-one test preparation and academic tutoring.
Red (requires more than 1 year of academic growth to reach the benchmark)
Yellow (likely to reach benchmark within 1 year of academic growth)
Green (meets or exceeds benchmark)
|Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section Scores||160-420||430-450||460-470|
|Math Section Scores||160-470||480-500||510-760|
Benefits of High Marks
Earning a high score on the PSAT does come with benefits, like college scholarships.
To be eligible for the highly competitive National Merit Scholarship Program – which consists of national merit scholarships, corporate-sponsored merit scholarships, corporate-sponsored special scholarships and college-sponsored merit scholarships – students must take the PSAT/NMSQT in their junior year and get a top score on the test.
Winners of the national merit scholarships receive a one-time payment of $2,500, while the corporate-sponsored scholarships offer renewable awards up to $10,000 a year.
There are 8,500 awards available, yet around 1.5 million test takers are screened. To narrow down the finalist pool and determine high scorers, the NMSC uses the selection index – a 48 to 228 scale.
To calculate the selection index, the sum of each student’s reading, writing and language, and math test scores are doubled. If a student received a perfect score of 38 in all sections, for instance, the selection index score would be 228. Qualifying scores vary by state and territory but ranged between 207 and 224 for the 2022 competition.
Beyond scholarships, the College Board offers National Recognition Programs to award academic honors to eligible underrepresented students and connect them with colleges across the country. To qualify, a student must take the PSAT/NMSQT or PSAT 10 and score in the top 10% by state, according to the College Board. There is no scholarship attached to the award.
High school students can also be recommended for certain AP classes, which can lead to college credit, based on their PSAT scores.