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What's a Good PSAT Score for 2016? Expert Analysis

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Oct 28, 2016 9:00:00 AM

PSAT Info and Strategies

 

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If you took the PSAT in October of 2016, then you don’t have long to wait to find out how you did. You’ll get scores back in mid-December, just before winter break.

Your PSAT score report will give you a few different score types, including your total scores, section scores, and Selection Index. With all this data, how can you sort through the numbers to figure out what is a good PSAT score?

This guide will go over the full scoring system of the PSAT so you know exactly what makes a good score. Let’s start with a quick glossary explaining the various types of PSAT scores you’ll see on your score report in December.



Types of PSAT Scores: A Glossary

At first glance, your PSAT score report can look pretty confusing. You’re going to see all sorts of scores describing how you did. If you don’t understand what each type of score means, then you’ll be left with little understanding of how you performed on the PSAT.

There will be six main pieces of data on your PSAT score report, your scaled total scores, section scores, raw scores, subscores, Selection Index, and percentiles. Here’s what all of these terms mean:

Scaled total scores: your total scores on the PSAT that range between 320 and 1520. Half of the total score comes from the Math sections, and the other half comes from Evidence-based Reading and Writing (i.e., the Reading and Writing and Language sections together).

Scaled section scores: two scores, one for Math and one for Evidence-based Reading and Writing, both of which fall between 160 and 760.

Section (test) scores: three scores, one for Math, one for Reading, and one for Writing and Language, all of which fall between 8 and 38.

Subscores: seven scores that all range between 1 and 15. Subscores tell you how you did on certain types of questions, some of which appear across two or more sections of the PSAT. You’ll get a subscore for questions that fall into these seven categories: 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.

Raw scores: three scores, one for each PSAT section, that represent the number of questions you got right. The ranges for raw scores vary by section. You can get a maximum raw score of 48 for Math, 47 for Reading, and 44 for Writing and Language.

Selection Index: one score that ranges from 48 to 228. Your selection index is the sum of your three section scores between 8 and 38 multiplied by 2 ((section score + section score + section score) x 2). The National Merit Scholarship Distinction uses Selection Index to award Commended Student and Semifinalist status.

Percentiles: your ranking, represented as a percent, compared to other test-takers. Percentiles tell you what percentage of other students you scored the same as or better than. If you score in the 80th percentile, then you scored the same as or better than 80% of other test-takers. 

So, there you have it, all of the data on your not-so-straightforward PSAT score report. Out of all of these different score types, are any more important than others?

 

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If you find yourself confused about the different types of PSAT scores, scroll back up to review the definitions above!

 

Which PSAT Scores Are Most Important?

All of these PSAT score types are useful in different ways, but the most important ones for understanding how you did are your scaled total and section scores. As you saw above, you can score a max of 1520 on the PSAT or 760 in each section.

While the Reading and Writing and Language sections are separate when you take the PSAT, they’re combined to bring you one scaled section score. Because these two sections unite, your total scores are made up of half math and half verbal.

The other important piece of data for students competing for National Merit distinction is the Selection Index. NMSC sets a different cutoff for each state to decide who becomes Commended Student and Semifinalist. The top 1% of scorers in each state are named Semifinalists, and they could move on to become Finalists and win scholarship money.

Finally, your non-scaled section scores, raw scores, and subscores are most useful for giving you detailed insight into how you did on the PSAT. These scores reveal how you did on each section and question type.

This kind of understanding is especially helpful when you go on to study for the SAT, as they show your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker. By looking at these scores, you can figure out where you most need to improve, whether, for instance, you need to work on the Writing and Language section or more specifically, “Command of Evidence” questions.

By the way, your section scores and scaled scores aren't totally unrelated. You can easily convert your section scores between 8 and 38 to your scaled scores between 160 and 760. To get your verbal scores, add your Reading and Writing and Language section scores together and multiply by 10. To get your math scaled scores, simply multiply your section scores by 20.

To get your total scores, add your two scaled section scores together. Consider this example, where the student got a 28 in Reading, a 32 in Writing and Language, and a 34 in Math.

Test Section (Test) Score Scaled Section Score Total Score
Reading 28
(28 + 32) * 10 = 600
600 + 680 = 1280
Writing and Language 32
Math 34 34 * 20 = 680

 

The different score ranges aren’t completely random, but rather are related to one another. Now that you have the tools to sort through your PSAT score report, let’s go back to our original, million-dollar question: what makes a good score on the PSAT? Read on to find out.

 

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As you can see, the different PSAT scores aren't totally unrelated. They fit together like pieces in a puzzle. 

 

What Makes a Good Score on the PSAT?

Before we can answer the question of “what’s a good score on the PSAT,” we first need to define what we mean by “good.” Good is a subjective term, and everyone will have their own personal goals for the PSAT.

To help us find some answers, let’s define good in three ways. First, “good” can mean that you scored better than 50% or more of other test-takers. Based on this definition, we can use percentiles to figure out what makes an above-average PSAT score.

Second, we can define “good” PSAT scores as scores that qualify for National Merit. Actually, qualifying for National Merit means that you got excellent, amazing, near-perfect PSAT scores. We’ll discuss what you need to get in greater detail below.

Finally, we’ll consider what colleges are looking for in terms of SAT scores. The PSAT is a very similar test to the SAT, so your score can help you figure out whether you’re on track to getting the scores you need for your colleges of choice.

Starting with our first set of criteria, let’s consider PSAT percentiles. How do PSAT scores correspond to percentiles?

 

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One person's favorite activity could be another person's nightmare. What makes something good, like a PSAT score, can be subjective. 

 

How Do PSAT Scores Correspond to Percentiles? Full Chart

Percentiles compare your scores to those of other test-takers. If you score in the 75th percentile, then you scored the same as or better than 75% of other students. The remaining 25% scored better than you.

The highest possible percentile on the PSAT is the 99th percentile. You don’t have to get a perfect PSAT score to land in the 99th percentile. We don’t yet have percentile data for the October 2016 administration of the PSAT, but we can look at percentiles from the 2015 PSAT. They don’t change much, if at all, from year to year.

Here’s the full chart that shows how PSAT scaled section scores compare, using percentiles.

PSAT Section Score Reading and Writing Percentile Math Percentile
760 99+ 99+
750 99+ 99+
740 99+ 99
730 99+ 98
720 99 98
710 99 97
700 99 97
690 98 96
680 98 96
670 97 95
660 96 94
650 95 93
640 94 93
630 92 92
620 91 90
610 89 89
600 86 88
590 84 86
580 82 83
570 79 80
560 77 78
550 74 74
540 71 70
530 67 66
520 63 61
510 59 59
500 54 55
490 50 50
480 47 45
470 43 39
460 39 36
450 35 33
440 32 27
430 28 23
420 25 19
410 23 16
400 21 14
390 18 11
380 15 8
370 11 6
360 9 5
350 7 4
340 5 3
330 4 1
320 2 1
310 1 1
300 1 1
290 1- 1
280 1- 1
270 1- 1
260 1- 1
250 1- 1
240 1- 1
230 1- 1-
220 1- 1-
210 1- 1-
200 1- 1-
190 1- 1-
180 1- 1-
170 1- 1-
160 1- 1-

 

As you can see, percentiles work slightly differently for Math and Evidence-based Reading and Writing, with Math being a little more competitive at most score levels. For instance, a verbal score of 700 ranks in the 99th percentile, whereas you’d need a 740 in math to score in the 99th percentile. This variation happens because more students get top scores in the math section than they do in the verbal section.

For the most part, though, the two section scores correspond to percentiles in a similar way. Using this chart, let’s pick out what you have to score in each section to get a “good” PSAT score in a higher than average percentile.

 

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Using percentiles is a competitive, but useful way of figuring out what makes a good score on the PSAT.

 

What Is a Good PSAT Score Based on Percentiles?

If we define a good score as one that's competitive, we can use percentiles to figure out out what scores rank higher than the majority of other test-takers. To rank in the 50th percentile, you’d need a 490 in both sections.

What about to rank in the 70th, 80th, 90th, or even 99th percentiles? Here are the section scores you’d need to score higher than the majority of other students.

Percentile Reading and Writing Score Math Score Composite Score
70% 540 540 1080
80% 580 570 1150
90% 620 620 1240
99% 700 740 1440

 

Oddly enough, you’d have to score slightly higher in the verbal section than the math to make it into the 80th percentile. To make it into the 99th percentile, though, you’d have to score 40 points higher in math than in verbal.

If you’re a strong test-taker aiming for National Merit, then a good PSAT to you would be one that qualifies for Commended Student or Semifinalist. Read on to learn what is a good PSAT score for National Merit distinction.

 

What’s a Good PSAT Score for National Merit?

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation distinguishes students who get top scores on the PSAT. Students who score in the top 3 to 4% are named Commended Students, and students who get top 1% scores are named Semifinalist.

NMSC doesn’t rely on percentiles, though, but on its Selection Index. Each state has its own Selection Index cutoff that students need to make to qualify for National Merit. Before showing you all of the cutoffs, let’s review how your Selection Index score is calculated so you understand where it comes from.

 

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Being named a National Merit Commended Scholar or Semifinalist is a very impressive distinction to have on your college applications.

 

How Is Selection Index Calculated?

You can easily calculate your Selection Index score once you know your section, or test, scores between 8 and 38. You simply add your section scores for Reading, Writing and Language, and Math together, and then multiply the entire sum by 2.

Let’s say you got a 35 in Reading, a 32 in Writing and Language, and a 37 in Math. Here’s how you would figure out your Selection Index.

Section Score Sum x 2 Selection Index Score
Reading 35
(35 + 32 + 37) x 2 =
208
Writing and Language 32
Math 37

 

Once you add together and double your section scores, you get a Selection Index of 208. Does this score qualify for National Merit Semifinalist? That all depends on where you live. Keep reading for the full chart that shows the qualifying cutoff scores for National Merit in each state.

 

Qualifying PSAT Scores for National Merit, State by State

This chart shows the Selection Index score you need to qualify for Semifinalist in every state. While National Merit Scholarship Corporation hasn’t released the full list of cutoffs, they do tell interested individuals what scores they need for their own state.

This list, therefore, was crowdsourced from individuals across the country. If you think any cutoffs are in error, let us know in the comments! You can also verify your own state's cutoff by calling NMSC at (847) 866-5100.

Here’s the full list of state cutoffs to qualify for National Merit Semifinalist.

State PSAT Cutoff for NM Semifinalist
Alabama 215
Alaska 213
Arizona 219
Arkansas 213
California 221
Colorado 218
Connecticut 220
Delaware 218
DC 222
Florida 217
Georgia 219
Hawaii 217
Idaho 214
Illinois 219
Indiana 217
Iowa 215
Kansas 217
Kentucky 215
Louisiana 214
Maine 214
Maryland 221
Massachusetts 222
Michigan 216
Minnesota 219
Mississippi 212
Missouri 216
Montana 210
Nebraska 215
Nevada 214
New Hampshire 216
New Jersey 222
New Mexico 213
New York 219
North Carolina 218
North Dakota 209
Ohio 217
Oklahoma 213
Oregon 219
Pennsylvania 218
Rhode Island 217
South Carolina 215
South Dakota 209
Tennessee 218
Texas 220
Utah 215
Vermont 215
Virginia 221
Washington 220
West Virginia 209
Wisconsin 215
Wyoming 209
Average score 216

 

On average, students need a Selection Index of 216. If you live in Washington, DC, Massachusetts, or New Jersey, then you need to meet the highest cutoff of 222. 

If you haven't taken the PSAT yet and are aiming for National Merit, then I'd recommend setting your target scores at least two to five points higher than your state's cutoff on this list. The cutoffs can fluctuate a bit from year to year, depending on how students do on the PSAT. 

Once you’ve found your state’s cutoff, how can you figure out what scores you need to qualify for National Merit?

 

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Your Selection Index cutoff for National Merit depends on where you live in the country.

 

How to Calculate Your Target Scores for National Merit

This section is for students that haven't taken the PSAT yet and are aiming for National Merit. You read above how to convert your PSAT section scores into the Selection Index. If you know what Selection Index you’re aiming for, all you need to do is work backward to figure out your target section scores.

Remember how you needed to add your section scores together and then multiply by two to get your Selection Index? Working backward just means dividing your Selection Index by two and then further splitting that quotient into three.

Let’s say you live in New Hampshire. To qualify for National Merit, students who took the PSAT in 2015 needed a Selection Index of 216. Our first step, then, is to divide 216 by 2.

216 / 2 = 108.

Now you know that your section scores in Reading, Writing and Language, and Math need to add up to 108. You could split 108 into three to reveal that you need a section score of 36 in each of the three sections.

108 / 3 = 36

However, not everyone is equally strong at math and verbal sections. You might aim a little higher in math and a little lower in Reading and Writing and Language. As long as your section scores still add up to 108, you’ll still get a Selection Index of 216 and potentially qualify for National Merit.

Once you understand what total section scores you need, you can distribute your target scores among the three PSAT sections however you want. Set realistic goals for yourself based on your own math, reading, and writing skills.

Of course, only a small group of students are aiming to become National Merit Semifinalist. Only 16,000 of the 1.6 million who take the PSAT will receive this distinction.

A good PSAT score is also one that shows you’re on track to achieving your SAT goals and getting into college. Let’s consider our third and final piece of criteria for defining a “good” PSAT score by thinking about your own personal college goals.

 

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Qualifying for National Merit is like getting a gold medal in the PSAT.

 

What Is a Good PSAT Score for College?

The PSAT is extremely similar to the SAT, and your performance can help predict how you’ll do on the SAT. Almost everyone improves when they take these tests more than once, so the PSAT is a useful trial run. You'll likely score higher on the SAT than you would if you'd never taken the PSAT.

You can use your PSAT score report to see your current scoring level and find out where you can improve to hit your target SAT scores. To figure out your target SAT scores, you should do some college research. Find schools that you’re interested in, and look for the average SAT scores of accepted students. This piece of data will help you set your own SAT goals.

Once you know what scores you need to get into your colleges of interest, you can use your PSAT score report to design a study plan. Pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses, and write down a personalized SAT study plan that targets your weak areas.

You can set aside a certain amount of time for studying depending on how many points you’re seeking to improve. Here’s an estimate of how many hours you need to study to achieve various score improvements.

  • 0-50 SAT composite point improvement: 10 hours
  • 50-100 point improvement: 20 hours
  • 100-200 point improvement: 40 hours
  • 200-300 point improvement: 80 hours
  • 300-500 point improvement: 150 hours+

If you’re already scoring close to your target SAT scores, then you can feel satisfied with your PSAT scores. If you fell below by a few hundred points, then you need to kick your test prep into gear and devote several hours a week to getting ready for the SAT. If you have months to prepare, then you can definitely see a big improvement in your scores and skills as a test-taker. 

Your PSAT score report offers a useful starting point for your SAT prep. Whether or not you think you got a good score on the PSAT, you can still achieve a good score on the SAT with enough commitment.

In closing, let’s go over the key points you need to remember about what makes a good score on the 2016 PSAT.  

 

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What scores do you need to be a competitive applicant to your dream school? The PSAT can help you work towards them.

 

2016 PSAT Scores: Key Takeaways

If you took the PSAT in 2016, then you will get your scores back in mid-December. Your PSAT score report might look confusing at first glance, but now you understand what all of its scaled scores, section scores, and subscores mean. Any students aiming for National Merit will also search out their Selection Index score to get a sense if they qualified. If you haven't taken the PSAT yet, you can use the cutoffs to set goals for your scores.

Everyone has their own definition for what is a “good” PSAT score. You might think a good score is one that is higher than that of most other students. You can use percentiles to figure out what makes a good score on the PSAT.

If you’re a highly achieving student who has spent time prepping for the PSAT, then good to you might mean receiving National Merit distinction. National Merit is extremely competitive and only goes to the top scorers across the country.

Finally, scoring well on the PSAT relates to your plans for taking the SAT and getting into college. You might have a certain goal based on your eventual college applications. Even if you fall short of it, you can spend boost your SAT performance through studying.

Taking the PSAT is a valuable experience that will help you get ready for the SAT. In the end, you decide what makes a good score for you based on your own personal goals and plans.

 

What’s Next?

If you are named National Merit Semifinalist, how do you move on to become Finalist and win scholarship money? Check out this full guide to learn how to become a National Merit Finalist.

How many hours should you devote to SAT prep? This guide will help you figure out how long you need to study for the SAT.

What’s the best way to prepare for the SAT? Check out our ultimate SAT prep study guide for the best resources to get ready for the test.

 

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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Free eBook: 5 Tips to 4+ Points on the ACT

 

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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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