The mission: a perfect score on the PSAT. The method: serious test prep. Achieving a perfect score is no easy feat, but with the right study plan and materials, you can master this important exam.
This guide will go over what makes for a perfect score on the PSAT and how you can prep to conquer the test. Read on to learn how to succeed in your mission to get a perfect PSAT score, should you choose to accept it.
Feature image: Paramount Pictures
What's a Perfect Score on the PSAT?
The PSAT, which was redesigned in 2015, uses a different score range than that used in past PSATs. The composite range is 320-1520. The Math section accounts for half this score, while the Reading and Writing sections together account for the other half. (When combined, Reading and Writing are called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, or EBRW.) Both Math and EBRW are scored between 160 and 760.
To break it down even more, you'll get a score between 8 and 38 on each section: Math, Reading, and Writing and Language. These are your test scores (the scores you get before they're converted to scaled scores).
To convert your Math test score to a scaled score, simply multiply your test score by 20. A Math score of 30, for example, would convert to a final scaled score of 600 (since 30 x 20 = 600).
The Reading and Writing sections are a little trickier. Since they're combined, you have to add your section scores together and then multiply the sum by 10. If you got a 30 in Reading and a 34 in Writing, your scaled EBRW score would be 640 (since (30 + 34) * 10 = 640). To learn more about PSAT scoring, check out our in-depth guide.
With this score range, a perfect score on the PSAT is 1520, with 760 on Math and 760 on EBRW. A 1520 doesn't necessarily equate to a perfect 1600 on the SAT, since the SAT is a somewhat more difficult test, but it still predicts a very strong SAT score.
In past years, the grading curve on the PSAT was not very forgiving: you had to get every single Math and Reading question right to get a perfect score. On the Writing section, you could get one question wrong and still get full points.
These days, since Reading and Writing are scored together, there is a little more flexibility on these sections. However, you still have to answer every Math question correctly to get a perfect score on that section.
If you're able to answer almost every question correctly and achieve a full 1520, what does this accomplishment mean in terms of your college planning?
What Does It Mean to Get a Perfect PSAT Score?
For one, getting a perfect PSAT score is a big testament to your dedicated prep and mastery of the math, reading, and writing skills you'll need for college. A top PSAT score is a rare achievement—one that shows you took the test seriously and acted effectively in pursuit of your goal. All that studying also predicts excellent SAT scores, especially if you keep up the effort!
In addition to feeling a great sense of personal achievement, getting a perfect PSAT score qualifies you for National Merit recognition. The top 1% of scorers, usually about 16,000 students across the US, are named National Merit Semifinalists. (In fact, a perfect 1520 would exceed even National Merit expectations!) You then have the opportunity to go on to be named a National Merit Finalist and win scholarship money.
Some colleges offer their own merit-based scholarships to National Merit scholars. The University of Idaho and University of Oklahoma, for example, offer incredible financial aid to scholars. Even if your school doesn't offer financial aid, having the National Merit distinction on your application is an impressive credential.
You've probably noticed that I've mentioned preparation as a key component to getting a full score on the PSAT. While the test does require you to have specific skills in math, critical reading, and grammar, having a strong academic record in class will only get you so far. The PSAT tests these concepts in unique ways with question types specific to the test.
The content isn't necessarily all that advanced, but questions are often worded in new or unusual ways. What this means is not just that studying is extremely useful for doing well, but also that students of all levels can get strong scores with the right approach.
Let's take a closer look at how you can put forth your best efforts to get perfect scores on the PSAT.
How to Get a Perfect Score on the PSAT: 4 Tips
Getting a perfect score on the PSAT means answering just about every question correctly. In past years, you had to answer every question right on the Math and Reading sections to get the maximum score, whereas on Writing you could get one question wrong before your scaled score started to decrease.
Nowadays, the PSAT still has a reasonably tough curve, especially with Math, since it counts for half your total score. There might be a little more leeway on Reading and Writing, but you should aim to get every question right on these sections so you can get a full 1520.
Unfortunately, there isn't a ton of practice material out there for the current PSAT. But don't worry! Our guide offers links to free resources for PSAT practice, including full-length practice tests (for both the current and old versions of the PSAT). You can also use the official PSAT sample questions on the College Board website.
Before starting your prep, it's a good idea to set your intention. You can then refer back to it over the next few weeks and months to help you stay motivated and focused on your goal.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's take a look at our top four tips for PSAT prep—and getting that elusive perfect score!
#1: Define Your Goals
Achieving a perfect score on the PSAT is a rare accomplishment. You have to really want it.
Whatever your reasons are, you need passion and motivation to fuel your studying. Even if you'd rather be watching TV or playing video games, it's important to keep your eye on the 1520 prize and connect your daily actions with your future goal.
Before diving into your study plan, I recommend defining your reasons for wanting to achieve a perfect score. What's going to keep you studying with all the other work you have to do? What will pick you up when you're feeling discouraged? A large part of this is believing that you can do it, even if you're not achieving perfect scores just yet on your practice tests.
Rest assured—studying and analyzing your mistakes will help you improve. In fact, it's entirely possible to conquer the PSAT and familiarize yourself with the test to the point that you'll know exactly what kind of content and question types you can expect on test day.
In his article on how to get a perfect SAT score, Allen Cheng details his test-prep journey. He shares advice on how to identify those factors that will keep you disciplined and offers suggestions on why you should treat the test as if it's a game to win or a problem to be solved.
Once you've written down your reasons for wanting a perfect PSAT score, post them on your wall or somewhere visible. If you ever feel frustrated, try to think back to your original objective and the optimistic mindset you had when you first set it.
After you've committed yourself and got your head in the game, you can work on gathering the materials that'll best help you achieve a perfect PSAT score.
Stock up with PSAT practice questions for test season.
#2: Use High-Quality Practice Materials
As I mentioned, there isn't a ton of official practice material available for the current version of the PSAT. At present, the College Board offers two full-length practice tests as well as a handful of practice questions. There are also eight SAT practice tests, which closely resemble the PSAT (the only big difference is that they're slightly longer and a little tougher than the PSAT).
Don't worry about not having enough PSAT practice tests, though. Since the fundamental concepts and skills tested didn't change much with the 2015 redesign, you can still use old practice tests and sample questions to prep effectively. Moreover, by studying these changes, like no more Sentence Completion questions, you'll become even more familiar with the PSAT format.
Besides practice tests, you can use Khan Academy's free SAT prep program to help you study for the PSAT. This website works in conjunction with the College Board, so all of its SAT questions are official—making them particularly useful for PSAT prep, too! You can also watch tutorial videos to learn key SAT (and PSAT) concepts or to brush up on material you previously learned. For tips on how to use Khan Academy effectively in your test prep, check out our step-by-step guide.
To master the PSAT, you must focus not only on mastering content skills, such as algebra and rules of grammar, but also on understanding the format of the test, such as timing constraints and "distractor" answer choices. Because it's a nationally administered standardized test, it repeats certain question types over and over. The more practice you have, the faster you'll be able to recognize a question and what it's asking you to do. You can then apply the same tried and true steps you used on practice problems to get to the correct answer quickly and efficiently.
#3: Find and Analyze Your Strengths and Weaknesses
In addition to using high-quality materials and keeping a critical eye on question structure, be sure to customize your PSAT study plan so you can target your individual strengths and weaknesses.
If you're consistently acing algebra problems, there's no point in spending a lot of time on algebra review. Instead, you should allocate your prep time where it will have the biggest payoff. So if you're struggling to answer reading questions in time, focus on reading comprehension review and strategies. If you're often relying on what sounds right to answer grammar questions, take the time to learn specific grammar rules.
Before designing your PSAT study plan, you need to get a specific sense of what your strengths and weaknesses are. One way to do this is to take a practice test and be thorough in scoring it and finding your mistakes. Analyze your results and try to figure out why you got a question wrong. Was it confusion over the material? A timing issue? A careless mistake?
Next, write down your mistakes and the reasons for them, and then drill those areas so you can get them right next time. The key factor here is to not just spend time studying your results—try to analyze why you missed a question and then take steps to fix the problem. If you can root out the reason behind a mistake, you can stop it from becoming a pattern.
Once you have a clear understanding of what you specifically need to work on, you can maximize the effectiveness of your studying. In other words, you'll have to be meticulous and laser-focused about drilling certain content and practice questions.
#4: Be Your Own Drill Sergeant
Not to get too intense about prep, but getting a perfect score on the PSAT requires, well, perfection. As mentioned above, you can't miss any Math or Reading questions, and you can only miss about one Writing question. If you're aiming to answer every question correctly on the PSAT, you'll want to work up to answering every question correctly on your practice tests. This takes time and a lot of work, but ultimately it's the goal you want to attain.
To get to this point, you must dedicate yourself to drilling your mistakes and reviewing material and question types to the point of becoming a PSAT expert. Don't let any mistakes pass you by; keep studying and retesting until you're answering every question correctly. Although the specifics and wording will be different on the actual PSAT, the questions should essentially be ones you've seen and answered before.
All of this studying—taking practice tests, analyzing your mistakes, drilling your weak areas—takes time and diligence. So how much time should you set aside to study for the PSAT if you're aiming for a perfect score?
What Should Your PSAT Study Plan Look Like?
To a large extent, the nature of your PSAT study plan will depend on the level at which you're starting out. That's why it's a good idea to take a practice test right away and measure your skills. As discussed above, your individual needs—namely, your academic and test-taking strengths and weaknesses—largely determine your approach.
If you're scoring very highly right off the bat and are only looking to improve by 100-200 points, 40 hours might be sufficient. Again, this depends on the nature of your mistakes—whether you're having, say, content or timing issues—and how effective your overall prep is.
If you're looking to raise your score by a few hundred points, you might need 60-80 hours of prep. For larger improvements of 300-500 points, it's possible you'll need to commit to 150+ hours. This might sound like a ton of time, but as long as you start early and space out your studying, it'll all start to look a lot more reasonable.
Let's say you start thinking about the PSAT at the beginning of your sophomore year. Setting aside three hours a week adds up to more than 100 hours by the end of the year. This time doesn't include the summer before 11th grade, which might be when you have the most time to prep for the PSAT. You might also consider taking the PSAT 10 in 10th grade or the PSAT 8/9 in 8th or 9th grade to help you get ready.
Make sure to review content, take a practice test, analyze your results, and design your study plan based on how many points you need to improve by and what specific areas you need to focus on. Write out a schedule, taking care to set aside a specific day or amount of time each week.
More importantly, be patient with yourself. It'll take time before you're seeing perfect scores. At the same time, if you find your approach isn't working too well, feel free to readjust to something more effective.
While getting a full 1520 requires a lot of effort, you can achieve this goal with careful planning and an early start. Breaking down this goal into small, manageable steps not only helps make it attainable but also reduces any stress and pressure you might feel about the PSAT.
Want to improve your PSAT score by 150 points? We have the industry's leading PSAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so that you get the most effective prep possible.
Check out our 5-day free trial today:
How to Handle PSAT Pressure and Stress
Speed reading isn't the only strategy you should learn to excel on when it comes to the PSAT. You also want to find strategies to reduce stress and deal with test-taking pressure. Not only will this help you feel happier in general, but being able to clear your mind and direct your energy into the test should improve your overall performance.
Experiencing some nerves on test day isn't necessarily a bad thing, but too much anxiety or perfectionism is unpleasant and could distract you from the task at hand. When you're studying, be patient with yourself and take breaks to re-energize. Exercise and meditation can also go a long way toward reducing stress and improving concentration.
The PSAT is a strictly timed test, but try not to psych yourself out if you get held up on a question. Don't waste too much time on it or let it ruin the rest of the section for you. In your prep, you'll learn what questions are easiest and most difficult for you, what you find distracting, and how to keep up your energy level so you can focus for several hours straight. As you review content and learn strategies for improving your PSAT score, take time to learn about your own needs and try out different ways to deal with stress and pressure.
If you do get held up by a few questions, remember that you don't need to get a perfect score to get National Merit distinction. While a full 1520 would be a great feat and accomplishment, you don't actually need perfection to achieve National Merit or make it into the top 1% of scorers.
Key Points: Getting a Perfect PSAT Score
To sum up, let's go over the most important takeaways when it comes to achieving excellent scores on the PSAT:
- A perfect score on the PSAT is 1520—that's 760 on Math and 760 on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW).
- In past years, the curve was not very forgiving. You had to get every question right on Math and Reading for full points, and could only miss one question on Writing.
- Use official PSAT practice tests when you study, along with the College Board's sample PSAT/SAT questions.
- Take time to analyze your mistakes and shape your study plan around the areas where you most need improvement.
- Start early and write down your study plan. Setting aside a few hours each week will add up to significant prep and improvement.
- In addition to mastering the content and test-taking strategies, you must master the mental game to achieve a perfect score. Find ways to deal with pressure and stay focused on the material at hand.
Achieving a perfect score on the PSAT is a testament to your effort and ability to stay focused on pursuing your goals over time. Not only is it a rare feat that would certainly lead to National Merit recognition, but it might also predict a perfect SAT score for your college applications!
The PSAT/NMSQT is not just important for National Merit—it also predicts your SAT scores. Read about how your PSAT performance can predict your SAT scores in our guide.
Once you get your PSAT score reports, what are your next steps? Learn how to get your PSAT score report and what to do next.
Are you a 9th grader wondering whether you should take the PSAT? Check out this article before making your decision. If you do take the test, you'll probably want to know what a good PSAT score for a freshman is.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
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.