SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

About the PSAT/NMSQT: Expert Guide

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Jun 24, 2016 2:00:00 PM

PSAT Info and Strategies



If you think the PSAT is just a practice test, then you're missing a key part of the story. The Preliminary SAT / National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, more commonly known as the PSAT/NMSQT or just the PSAT, is also essential in the competition for National Merit distinction and scholarships. Plus, it can help you figure out exactly how to study for the SAT.

This guide's dedicated to the PSAT/NMSQT, from its overall structure to how it’s scored to what kind of questions show up in each section. Before putting the test under the microscope, let’s go over the purpose of this test. What is the PSAT NMSQT for, anyway?


What’s the Purpose of the PSAT/NMSQT?

The PSAT/NMSQT, which I’ll sometimes just refer to as the PSAT so I don’t have to keep typing out all those letters, is automatically administered to most high school juniors. If you attend one of the many participating high schools, then you’ll be taking the PSAT one October school day in 11th grade. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT NMSQT test dates are predetermined; in 2016, schools are encouraged to give it on October 19.

Younger students can also elect to take it as practice, but they’ll have to make a registration request to their school counselor. College Board has recently offered other versions of the PSAT, the PSAT 8/9 and the PSAT 10, for younger students, as well. Depending on your grade level and academic readiness, you can decide which test, if any, would be most useful for you to take before junior year.

Whenever you take the PSAT NMSQT, you’ll find that it’s useful practice for the SAT. The two tests are extremely similar; the main difference is that the PSAT doesn’t have an optional essay section. They’re even scored on a similar scale, with PSAT/NMSQT scores shifted down 80 points to account for the fact that it’s a slightly easier test. Your PSAT score report will give you detailed feedback on your performance with a bunch of section scores and subscores. You can use this feedback to direct your studying for the SAT.

The PSAT’s other main purpose is to qualify for National Merit distinction and scholarships. Only 11th graders with PSAT NMSQT qualifying scores are eligible. Students who score in the top 3-4% are named Commended Students while those who score in the top 1% are named Semifinalists. The majority of these Semifinalists, about 15,000 out of 16,000 students, are then invited to apply to become Finalists, also called National Merit Scholars. Finalists may receive scholarship money from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation or a participating college.

If you’re looking to achieve top scores on the PSAT and ultimately earn scholarship money, then the PSAT/NMSQT becomes a very important test on your road to college. Even if you’re not, the PSAT is still highly useful as practice for the SAT.

Now that you have a sense of when and why students take the PSAT/NMSQT, let’s examine the test itself, starting with its overall structure.



The PSAT/NMSQT is almost identical twins with the SAT. It just has a few key differences and slightly easier questions overall.


How's the PSAT / NMSQT Structured?

The PSAT NMSQT is a time intensive test, clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes. It has four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, and Math with Calculator. The names and order of these sections match that of the SAT. The only difference, as mentioned above, is that the PSAT doesn’t offer an optional essay section.

The chart below shows the order and length of the sections, along with the number of questions in each and approximate time per question. 

Order Section Time in Minutes # of Questions Time per Question
1 Reading 60 47 76 seconds
2 Writing and Language 35 44 48 seconds
3 Math No Calculator 25 17 88 seconds
4 Math Calculator 45 31 87 seconds
  Total: 2 hours, 45 minutes    


You’ll get a five-minute break after about each hour of testing. There will be a break after Reading and a break after Math No Calculator. Before checking out the content of each section, let’s go over how the PSAT is scored.


How's the PSAT/NMSQT Scored?

Your PSAT score report will break down your performance with a bunch of different score types. One of the most important is your total score, which will fall between 320 and 1520.

This total score represents the sum of two section scores, one for Evidence-based Reading and Writing and one for Math. Notice that certain test sections are combined to bring you two section scores, rather than four. These two section scores range between 160 and 760.

In addition to these section scores, you’ll get three “test scores” that tell you how you did on the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math sections. Essentially, these test scores separate out the Reading and Writing and Language sections so you can see how you did on each individually. These test scores will range from 8 to 38. Test scores are also important for the PSAT NMSQT Selection Index, which is another scoring scale that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation uses to determine who makes Semifinalist.

If these score types weren’t enough, you’ll also get “cross-test scores” and “subscores” between 1 and 15 that tell you how you did in certain skill areas. All of this detailed feedback can actually be really useful in telling you how to prep for the SAT. You can even calculate all these score types yourself on PSAT/NMSQT practice tests and use them to figure out your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker.

Finally, it’s important to note that the PSAT/NMSQT uses rights-only scoring. You’ll get one point for every correct answer, and no points for wrong or skipped answers. There aren’t any point deductions as there were in past years, so it’s in your best interest to answer every question.

Now that you know how the PSAT NMSQT is structured and scored, your next step is to learn about the content and skills tested in each section. Let’s start with Reading.



Rights-only scoring means you might as well roll the dice and give every question your best guess!


PSAT Reading: Structure, Skills, and Study Tips

The Reading section on the PSAT is all about reading comprehension. You’ll read passages and answer questions about their meaning. To cover every nook and cranny of this section, let’s start by reviewing its structure, then take a look at some sample questions, and finally go over some of the best PSAT/NMSQT approaches to studying.


PSAT Reading: Structure

Every question on the Reading section of the PSAT is multiple choice and based on a passage or a set of paired passages. You’ll get one passage from US and World Literature, two from History/Social Studies, and two from Science, for a total of five passages. One or more passages may accompany a graphic, like a graph or chart.

The chart below further describes the passage types you’ll encounter on the SAT, along with an estimate of how many questions you’ll answer about each type.

Passage Description # of Questions
1 US and World Literature Prose passage selected from a work of US or World Literature 9
2 History / Social Sciences (or 1 passage and 1 passage pair) Passage based on US founding document or selected from work in economics, psychology, sociology, or related field 18-20
2 Science (or 1 passage and 1 passage pair) Focused on Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics 18-20


You’ll get a total of 47 questions in the Reading section. Read on to learn what these questions will ask.


PSAT Reading: Skills and Sample Questions

The reading section asks you to read passages from a variety of genres, including prose, argument, and nonfiction narrative, and comprehend their meaning. You might be asked about the meaning of the passage or a paragraph as a whole, a particular sentence or detail, or even just a vocabulary word or phrase.

By analyzing the test, we’ve picked out eight main question types: big picture/main, little picture/detail, inference, vocabulary in context, function, author technique, evidence support, and data interpretation. To give you an idea of what these look like, here are some representative sample problems of each question type. For the complete test, check out College Board's official PSAT practice test.

1. Big Picture/Main Point: These questions ask about the main purpose of a passage.


2. Little Picture/Detail: These questions refer you to one or more specific lines within a passage and ask you to interpret their meaning.


3. Inference: These questions ask you to make some sort of reasonable inference from a line or paragraph. 


4. Vocabulary in Context: These questions ask about the meaning of a word or phrase.


5. Function: These questions ask what one or more lines accomplish within the passage. Why did the author choose to include them?


6. Author Technique: These questions often ask about an author's style, tone, or some other technique.


7. Evidence Support: These questions tend to refer back to a previous question. They ask for the reason behind your last answer.


8. Data Interpretation: These questions ask you to read the data in a graph or chart. They often ask about the relationship between the graphic and the passage.



Again, the above are not official categories, but rather based on our analysis of official PSAT/NMSQT tests. As for the official categories that College Board defines, there are four: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Analysis in History/Social Studies, and Analysis in Science.

The "evidence support" and function questions you read about above tend to fall into the Command of Evidence area, while questions on vocabulary in context and author technique tend to fall into the Words in Context skill area.

Many of the above question types could be considered Analysis in History/Social Studies or Science; they tend to be the ones that follow the history and science passages. For instance, here’s an example of an Analysis in History/Social Studies question, followed by an Analysis in Science sample question.

Analysis in History/Social Studies Sample Question


Analysis in Science Sample Question


The first example, you might notice, falls into the "big picture/main point" category mentioned above. The second one is more like a "little picture/detail" question.

None of the Reading questions require you to have any pre-existing knowledge on a topic. Instead, all of your answers should be entirely based on information present in a passage. The questions should go in chronological order alongside the passages, so you should be able to locate information with some efficiency.

To some extent, this section tests the reading skills you’ve accumulated throughout all your years of schooling. However, there are still ways you can prepare to do well on the Reading section.  



On your mark, get set, read!


PSAT Reading: Study Tips

The Reading section is a challenging part of the SAT. A lot of students have the reading comprehension skills to do well on this section, but they still need to prepare specifically for the unique question types and fast-paced nature of the test. Below are a few tips for studying for the Reading section of the SAT.


Read, read, read!

One key way to improve your reading comprehension is to read a lot! Make it a point to read works from various genres and pay attention to their main point, tone, and style. Note how certain words and phrases take on different meanings depending on context.

If you’re reading fiction, consider what the characters do and say to move the plot forward. If you’re reading an argument-based text, take notes on how the author structures the piece and uses details to support her point. Taking the time to really engage with a work of literature or nonfiction will allow you to build your reading comprehension skills across genres.


Take Timed Practice Tests 

While reading in and out of class should help you develop your reading skills, you should especially focus on passages from PSAT practice materials. Take timed PSAT/NMSQT practice tests and try out various reading strategies, like skimming the passage for key points or reading the questions first. Through practice, figure out which strategy works best for you.

By scoring your tests and analyzing your results, you can figure out where you most need to improve. You can also learn whether you need to brush up on certain skills or improve your time management. Taking timed practice tests will gradually turn you into a test-taking rock star.


Learn About Each Question Type

Just as this guide does, make sure your study materials break down each Reading question type so you can recognize exactly what each question is asking you. The data interpretation questions are a relatively new addition. Practice reading graphs and charts to make sure you’re prepared for these unusual question types.

Since the Reading section doesn’t require you to have any preexisting knowledge of a topic, make sure that your answers are based completely on a passage. The evidence-based question types are a useful reminder that your interpretations should be entirely based on the information before you.

As you read above, your Reading score will eventually get combined with your Writing and Language score to form one Evidence-based Reading and Writing score. Read on to learn how the two sections are different.



Get out your red pen! It's time to proofread some messy papers. (Not actually, though. Only No. 2 pencils are allowed on the PSAT.)


PSAT Writing and Language: Structure, Skills, and Study Tips

The Writing and Language section asks you to be an editor. You’ll read some passages that have errors in word choice and problems with organization. Your job is to identify and fix these issues. This section’s technically called Writing and Language, but you’ll probably hear it shortened to Writing.  


Writing Section: Structure

Just like in the Reading section, all of the questions in the Writing section are multiple choice and based on passages. Another similarity between the two sections is that the sources of the passages are pre-determined. You’ll get one that has to do with Careers, another with History/Social Studies, a third with Humanities, and the fourth with Science. You’ll answer 11 questions on each passage for a total of 44 questions.

As you saw in the Reading section, some of your questions will refer to graphs or charts. In the Writing section, this kind of data interpretation question may ask you if the passage accurately reflects the graph or where you could add a data point to strengthen a passage’s argument.

You won’t find any prose in the Writing and Language section. All of the passages will be argument-based, informative, or nonfiction narrative. The chart below describes the passage types in greater detail.

Passage Description # of Questions
1 Careers Passage may deal with trends or debates in major fields of work, such as information technology or health care. 11
1 History/Social Studies Passage based on US founding document or selected from work in economics, psychology, sociology, or related field 11
1 Humanities Passage explores arts or literature 11
1 Science Focused on Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics 11


So how does the Writing section ask you to edit for grammar, organization, and meaning? Read on to find out.


Writing Section: Skills and Sample Questions

What exactly do I mean when I say the Writing section asks you to be an editor? The questions ask you to edit the passage for meaning and clarity in a few ways. They may ask you whether or not a specific word is the best choice in a sentence. They might ask you to reorganize the order of ideas. You might also have to add or delete a sentence, along with explaining the reason behind your change.

Most questions give you the option of, “No Change,” meaning there might not always be an error. Not only will you have to recognize whether or not there’s an error, but if there is, you’ll have to find the correct or improved revision.

According to College Board, 20 of the 44 questions ask about Standard English Conventions. These questions ask about concepts like grammar, usage, and punctuation. You might need to insert or delete a comma, fix an apostrophe, change a verb tense, or ensure subject-verb agreement. Here's a straightforward sample question about apostrophe rules in singular vs. plural nouns. This question, as with all the Writing questions, refers to a passage (not pictured here).


The remaining 24 questions fall into an umbrella category that College Board calls Expression of Ideas. These questions ask you to make larger structural changes to improve the flow of ideas and organization of paragraphs. Just like in the Reading section, some of these questions have to do with the skill areas, Command of Evidence, Words in Context, and Analysis in History/Social Studies and Science.

This sample question, for example, asks you to how to choose the best introductory sentence for a passage.


This next sample question is focused on evidence, or the reason why a writer should or shouldn't add a sentence to improve clarity. 


In this example, you can see a portion of the passage to which the questions refer. Both of these questions can be classified as Words in Context questions, since they ask you to improve word choice.


Finally, these next couple of questions ask about data interpretation. These ones are an example of an Analysis in Science question.



College Board classifies these questions in a variety of ways, and these categories can get blurry since some of them appear on both the Reading and Writing sections. One way to keep them straight is to divide them into "little picture" and "big picture" questions.

  • Little picture questions ask you to apply a grammar rule or fix punctuation.
  • Big picture questions ask you to reorganize ideas, provide evidence for a change, or interpret data.

Altogether, the questions ask you to fix a passage and make it better with editorial revisions. Now that you have a sense of what’s tested in Writing, read on for a few study tips for mastering this section.


Writing Section: Study Tips

If you've written a paper, email, or even just a text message, then you've surely done some editing to make sure you're communicating exactly what you want to say. Below are a few tips to develop the kind of editing skills that will help you succeed on the Writing section of the SAT. 


Study Grammar Rules

As mentioned above, you can think of the Writing section as containing two main types of questions - those that have to do with little picture changes, like grammar and punctuation, and those that ask about big picture changes, like sentence order and organization of ideas.

To prepare for little picture questions, you should review all the relevant rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage. Some of these rules include subject-verb agreement, parallel structure, and comma and apostrophe use. Your prep materials should break down each rule and pair it with sample questions so you can see how the PSAT tests each one.


Read With an Eye for Structure 

As for the big picture changes, you should practice active reading on argument-based, explanatory, and nonfiction narrative texts. As you read SAT passages and other works that you may be assigned in school, keep an eye on structure, how ideas are introduced, transitions between sentences and paragraphs, and introductions and conclusions. Engage with a work and think about why the author chose to present the information in a certain way.

It may also help to pay attention to teacher and peer feedback on your own writing. Similarly, you should take the time to edit your writing and, if possible, that of a peer. Through practice, you’ll develop your editorial eye!


Take Timed Practice Tests

Taking timed PSAT/NMSQT practice tests is a key part of your prep for all the sections. After you take a test, make sure you thoroughly go through the answer explanations and analyze your results.

You might also calculate your subscores and cross-test scores to see how you fare on certain question types. For instance, you could calculate your cross-test score for Analysis in Science questions to see how you do on these questions across both Reading and Writing and Language. By targeting your weak spots, you can focus on improving them and thereby bringing up your scores.



Don't worry too much about the Math No Calculator section. Rumor has it, some people did math before calculators were even invented.


PSAT Math No Calculator: Structure, Skills, and Study Tips

This Math No Calculator is new to the PSAT (and SAT) this year. It’s very similar to the Math with Calculator, with one clear difference: you’re not allowed to use a calculator on any of the questions.

Don’t worry, though - the questions won’t require very complex calculations. They’re meant to test your conceptual understanding, rather than your ability to write out complicated arithmetic by hand. Read on for the structure and skills tested in the Math No Calculator section, followed by some suggestions for your prep.


PSAT Math No Calculator: Structure

The Math No Calculator is the shortest section on the PSAT at 25 minutes. You’ll answer 17 questions: first, 13 multiple choice and then 4 grid-ins, or student-produced responses.

The questions fall into three major skills areas, as you’ll see below.


PSAT Math No Calculator: Skills and Sample Questions

The Math No Calculator section asks questions that fall into three main skills areas, as defined by College Board: Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional Topics. The chart below shows how many questions test each skill area.

Content Area Number of Questions % of Test
Heart of Algebra 8 47%
Passport to Advanced Math 8 47%
Additional Topics 1 6%


Questions that fall into the Heart of Algebra questions ask about, as you might have guessed, algebra. You might find word problems or questions that ask you to solve for variables in linear equations or inequalities. Here’s one example of a Heart of Algebra question.



Passport to Advanced Math
problems may ask you to work with quadratic functions and equations or exponential functions and equations. You may also solve for variables in nonlinear expressions. Here’s an example of this question type:


The vaguely named Additional Topics contains all the concepts that don’t fit in the other categories. These include some geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers questions. Here’s an example:


Read on for a few study tips to keep in mind as you prep for the PSAT NMSQT Math No Calculator section. 


PSAT Math No Calculator: Study Tips

While you may feel nervous about not getting to use a calculator on this section, rest assured that none of the problems require especially complex calculations. There may be a few that ask you to write out addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division, so you should brush up on your arithmetic skills and ability to write out problems by hand.

The most common mistakes here are simply rushing through and making a calculation error, so work on writing out these problems efficiently. Make sure your study materials break down each concept and try lots of practice questions in addition to taking timed practice tests. A thorough conceptual understanding of the tested concepts is essential for doing well in this section.



Finally, you can take out your trusty calculator and use it for the rest of the test. You might find, though, that you don't actually need to use it on too many questions.


PSAT Math with Calculator: Structure, Skills, and Sample Questions

The Math with Calculator section doesn’t look all that different than the Math No Calculator section apart from two key differences. First, of course, you can use a calculator throughout. Second, over half of the questions in this section fall into a new skill area, Problem Solving and Data Analysis. Read on to see how this section works.


PSAT Math with Calculator: Structure

The Math with Calculator section asks 31 questions. The first 27 are multiple choice and the remaining four are grid-ins. A couple of these grid-ins may be related to each other in what’s known as an Extended Thinking question. Read on for a more detailed breakdown of the requisite skills, along with sample questions in each skill area.


PSAT Math with Calculator: Skills and Sample Questions

About half of the questions in this section are similar to the ones in the Math No Calculator section. They cover Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional Topics. The other half cover Problem Solving and Data Analysis. Here’s the exact breakdown:

Content Area Number of Questions % of Test
Heart of Algebra 8 26%
Passport to Advanced Math 6 19%
Problem Solving and Data Analysis 16 52%
Additional Topics 1 3%


You saw an example of a Heart of Algebra above, but here’s one taken from the Math with Calculator section. You don’t really even need to use your calculator here, though you could if you wanted to plug in numbers to check your answer.



This Passport to Advanced Math question asks about functions. Again, you don't really need a calculator, even though you have the option of using one.


As you read above, half the questions involve Problem Solving and Data Analysis. These questions may ask you to calculate ratios, rates, or percentages or work with scatterplots and graphs. Here’s are two sample questions:

Sample Question #1


Sample Question #2


Finally, Additional Topics covers geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers. The following is a sample geometry question from the Math with Calculator section on the PSAT/NMSQT.


While most of the tips you read above will help you on both PSAT math sections, read on for a few tips specific to the Math with Calculator section.


PSAT Math with Calculator: Study Tips  

In addition to studying all the algebra, geometry, and trigonometry concepts you need to know for both sections, you should focus on Problem Solving and Data Analysis problems. These questions involve word problems, graphs, scatterplots, percentages, rate, and ratios. Make sure you can work in these areas, since they make up half of the questions in this section.

Another consideration for this section is the idea of calculator fluency. Just because you can use a calculator on every problem doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. There are plenty of problems here that don’t require a calculator at all; using one might end up costing you time. As you study, make note of when a calculator is a useful and productive tool and when it’s not helpful for the work at hand.

If you’ve made it this far, then you should have a good sense of the content and structure of all four sections of the PSAT/NMSQT. Let’s conclude with some final thoughts about the test and why it’s important for high school students.



If you're a U.S. citizen taking the PSAT/NMSQT in 11th grade, then you're in the running for National Merit distinction and scholarships!


Final Thoughts About the PSAT/NMSQT

Most students take the PSAT/NMSQT in October of 11th grade. Some may ask to take it earlier for practice. Let's review the two important functions of the SAT: National Merit distinction and preparation for the SAT.


Taking the PSAT/NMSQT for National Merit

While taking the PSAT NMSQT as a younger student can be valuable test-taking experience earlier than 11th grade, you won’t be eligible for National Merit until you take it as a junior. Juniors who score in the top 3-4%, or 96th to 97th percentile, are named Commended Scholars. Those who earn top 1%, or 99th percentile, scores get named Semifinalists.

Most of these Semifinalists can then apply to become Finalist and potentially gain scholarships. Even if you don’t ultimately get National Merit scholarship money, having that distinction on your college application is an impressive achievement.

If you’re aiming for National Merit, you should set aside time to prep in the months leading up to the test. Familiarizing yourself with the test, as you did if you got this far in the guide, is a first great step. Then you can go on to review the tested concepts, take timed practice tests, and analyze your results to figure out how you can improve.

All of this studying will also help you get ready for the SAT, the other important benefit of taking the PSAT/NMSQT.


Taking the PSAT/NMSQT to Get Ready for the SAT

Studying for the PSAT/NMSQT will not only help you earn your target scores, but it will also help you get ready for the SAT! The two tests are very similar, so any studying you do for one will help on the other. In fact, the two tests are almost identical, with the SAT featuring slightly more advanced questions, as well as an optional Essay section.

If you're running low on PSAT prep materials, you could use SAT practice tests or other prep guides to help you get ready. Once you get your PSAT/NMSQT score report, you can use it to figure out your specific strengths and weaknesses and go from there.

The PSAT NMSQT helps break the ice for test-takers. Rather than going into the SAT cold, you can feel more experienced because you already sat through a very similar College Board test. Whether or not you’re aiming for PSAT NMSQT scholarships, the PSAT is great practice for the SAT and an important landmark on your road to college!


What's Next?  

If you made it through this guide, it might be safe to assume you're getting ready for the PSAT! Check out this guide to find official PSAT practice tests and tips for how to make the most of them.

While you now have a sense of how the PSAT is scored, you might be wondering what scores are considered good. Check out this guide to figure out what makes a good score on the PSAT/NMSQT.

Are you aiming for National Merit scholarships? This guide is for high scorers looking to achieve top scores on the PSAT!


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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