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What Is the PSAT Test? Everything You Need to Know

Posted by Hannah Muniz | May 8, 2017 12:00:00 PM

PSAT Info and Strategies

 

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Most students know what the SAT is, but what is the PSAT? Sure, it's got "SAT" in its name, but is the PSAT actually connected to the SAT? More importantly, how does the PSAT test work and what is its purpose?

In this article, we’ll answer your most pressing question: what is the PSAT test? First, we'll explain the meaning of PSAT and why students typically elect to take the PSAT and then go over the logistics of the test and how scoring works. After, we'll culminate our analysis with a brief discussion about how important PSAT scores actually are for students.

 

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 across the U.S. Every year approximately 3.5 million students take the PSAT test at various high schools. But why take it at all?

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 — essentially, as an SAT practice test. Thus, the PSAT and SAT heavily mirror each other in regard to content, structure, and even scoring.

But they're not identical. Here are some of the major differences between the PSAT and SAT:

  • The SAT contains 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 PSAT's name. In addition to acting as a preparatory test for the SAT, the PSAT serves as 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 percent of 11th-grade PSAT takers become Semifinalists. Of these students, 7,500 go on to win scholarship money.

Finally, what about the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9? The main purpose of these two tests is to prepare students for the PSAT/NMSQT and eventually the SAT. Nearly identical to the PSAT/NMSQT, the PSAT 10 is only offered in the spring and is specifically geared toward 10th graders, making the PSAT 10 slightly easier than the PSAT/NMSQT. Additionally, because only 10th graders can take the PSAT 10, this test cannot qualify you for National Merit.

The PSAT 8/9, on the other hand, targets even younger folks — you guessed it: eighth and ninth graders — and is administered in the fall and spring. Unlike the PSAT 10 or PSAT/NMSQT, the PSAT 8/9 uses a different scoring scale and is both shorter and easier than the PSAT 10.

 

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Why Do Students Take the PSAT?

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

1. To practice for the SAT. One of the most common reasons students, especially juniors, take the PSAT is to familiarize themselves with the layout and content of the SAT — a test whose scores are often required for college admission. Therefore, the PSAT offers students an early opportunity to get a feel for the SAT and also helps them identify potential strengths and weaknesses.

2. 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.

3. To prepare for a second attempt at the PSAT (if taking it as a sophomore). The final reason students take the PSAT is to practice for the PSAT as sophomores before taking it again as juniors. Although sophomores aren’t eligible for National Merit consideration, taking the PSAT early can increase your shot at later getting a high PSAT score — and thus a National Merit scholarship.

One thing should be noted, though: at some high schools, the PSAT is mandatory for certain grade levels or groups of students. This means that some students will take the PSAT simply because they have to. Even if the test is required by your school, though, your PSAT score will never affect your GPA or your chance of getting into college.

 

Where and When Is the PSAT?

Unlike the SAT, you do not get to choose your test center; rather, you register for and take the PSAT test at your own high school (or a nearby school, should your school not offer it). If you’re uncertain whether your school will be administering the PSAT, or if you'd like to look for a list of schools in your area that will be administering it, you can use the College Board’s school search tool.

So when can you take the PSAT? The PSAT is administered every autumn, usually starting in early or mid-October, on three dates: a primary date, a Saturday date, and an alternate date. Again, you do not get to choose when you take the test. Instead, your school will decide on which date it will administer the PSAT. By far the vast majority of schools hold the PSAT on the primary date. To confirm your school's PSAT test date, consult your counselor.

Here is this year’s official PSAT testing schedule:

Primary Date

Saturday Date

Alternate Date

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Source: The College Board

 

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How Much Does the PSAT Cost?

The PSAT currently costs $16, but this price varies depending on the school. Some schools may cover all or part of this fee, making the test free for students, whereas others may require students to pay more so as to compensate for the hiring of test proctors.

Your school (or the school at which you're taking the PSAT test) should give you instructions on how to pay for the test and by when you'll need to submit your payment. Most schools request PSAT payments from students by around September. Note that you will never need to pay the College Board directly (that’s the school’s job!).

If you can’t afford the test fee, you may be eligible for a PSAT fee waiver. Fee waivers are typically available to low-income 11th graders only. To see whether you qualify for a waiver, consult your counselor. Only schools — not students — may request fee waivers from the College Board.

 

What Does the PSAT Cover?

The PSAT, which underwent a redesign in 2015 to accompany the 2016 SAT redesign, is extremely similar to the SAT in both form and content. There are three sections on the PSAT: Reading, Writing and Language (hereafter “Writing”), and Math. (As I mentioned before, there is no optional Essay section on the PSAT.) Each of these sections appears only once on the PSAT in a predetermined order: Reading, Writing, Math.

Similar to the SAT Math section, the PSAT Math section is divided into 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 grid-in questions on Math. For these questions, you must come up with and write in your own answers. According to the College Board, 17 percent 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 clearer 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 

 

 

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How Is the PSAT Scored?

The total PSAT score range is 320-1520 in 10-point increments. This score comprises a Math score and an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score, both on scales 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 for Reading, Writing, and Math. A raw score is equivalent to the number of questions you answered correctly. (You do not lose any points for incorrect answers.)

Your raw scores are then converted into test scores for each section on a scale of 8-38 using a special equating process described in detail in our guide to PSAT scoring (coming soon). 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 your eligibility for the National Merit competition.

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

In addition to section scores, you’ll also 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 use a score range of 1-15, whereas cross-test scores use a score range of 8-38.

Here is a list of the seven subscores:

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:

  • Analysis in History/Social Studies
  • Analysis in Science

At present, the average PSAT score is 1009 for 11th graders and 933 for 10th graders. A good PSAT score for you, though, depends on what your PSAT goals are. If you’re hoping to qualify for National Merit, you’ll need to get a score that places you in the top 1 percent of test takers for your state. A good PSAT score could also be any score in the 75th percentile or higher, or simply a score similar to what you'll need on the SAT to get into the colleges you're planning on applying to.

But in the end, does your PSAT score really mean anything?

 

Does Your PSAT Score Actually Matter?

The truth is, your PSAT score is far less important than your SAT (or ACT) score. This is mainly because the PSAT isn't used for college admissions like the SAT and ACT are. Moreover, your PSAT score has no effect on your GPA, so if you really don’t want to take the test, you don't actually need to (unless it’s mandatory at your school). The only major function of PSAT scores is to win  scholarship money and the honor of National Merit Scholar. But unless you’re actively aiming for National Merit status, your PSAT score isn't actually that important.

Nevertheless, if you’re hoping to eventually secure a high SAT score, approaching the PSAT with diligence will be critical for your success. Why? You see, PSAT scores directly translate into SAT scores. So a 1400 on the PSAT equals a 1400 on the SAT, a 900 equals a 900, etc. In short, your PSAT score acts as a predictor of your SAT score.

Of course, your PSAT score doesn’t take into account any of the additional time you’ll spend studying for the SAT, so it's not likely going to be 100-percent accurate. But what your PSAT score does offer is a clear idea as to where you’re currently scoring and how much of an improvement you’ll need to make in order to hit your SAT goal score. In other words, you can use your PSAT score as your baseline SAT score, making it a fairly useful (and thus important) score.

 

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Summary: What Is the PSAT? Is It Important?

The PSAT/NMSQT, or PSAT, is a practice test for the SAT that's offered every fall for 10th and 11th graders. It also serves as a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which awards $2,500 scholarships annually to high-scoring 11th graders.

You must register for the PSAT test at your own school (or a nearby school) and take it on the test date chosen by your school. The test fee is $16, but this cost varies depending on the school. Fee waivers are usually available to low-income juniors.

The overall structure and content of the PSAT is similar to that of the SAT. There are three sections (Reading, Writing, and Math) that combine for a total score on a scale of 320-1520. PSAT scores directly correspond to SAT scores, meaning a score on the PSAT will always equal the same score on the SAT.

Ultimately, how important your PSAT score is depends on what you plan to do with it. If you want to qualify for National Merit or eventually get a high SAT score, it's critical you get a good PSAT score. But if not, your PSAT score won't hold much significance for you or anyone else. In any case, your PSAT score will always be far less important than your SAT (or ACT) score!

 

What’s Next?

Want to learn more about the PSAT? Check out our expert guide to the PSAT for an extensive overview of everything you'll need to know about the test and what's on it.

Confused about PSAT scores? Our in-depth analyses of PSAT scoring (coming soon) and the PSAT score range (coming soon) take a close look at how the PSAT is scored and explain how you can use this knowledge to your advantage.

Ready to register for the PSAT? Follow our step-by-step guide (coming soon) to learn how the PSAT registration process works as well as how it differs from the SAT registration process.

 

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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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in English and East Asian languages and cultures. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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