The PSAT is an important test on the road to college. Your scores predict how you'll do on the SAT. Plus, top scorers can earn distinctions and scholarships from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).
So how do you know whether your PSAT scores are good? While what counts as a good score varies depending on your personal goals, we can give a more objective answer to this question by considering PSAT score percentiles. But first, let's review how the PSAT is scored.
How Is the PSAT Scored?
The PSAT is scored between 320 and 1520. Math counts for half of the composite score with a range of 160-760. The Reading and Writing sections are scored together (and called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, or EBRW) with that same range, 160-760.
Test takers also get a more detailed score report of each section from 8 to 38. There's an easy trick for converting this section score (also called a test score) to a scaled score. For Math, simply multiply your section score by 20. For Reading and Writing, add your section scores together, and then multiply the sum by 10.
When you take the PSAT and get your score report back, you'll see percentiles along with your scores. By looking at these percentiles, you can determine how competitive your PSAT scores are. In other words, we can answer the question, "What makes a good PSAT score for a junior?" by looking at percentiles.
Percentiles compare your section and composite scores with those of other PSAT test takers. If your Math score falls in the 70th percentile, you've scored higher than 70% of other test takers. (And the other 30% scored higher than you.) Basically, the higher your percentile is, the better you scored will be compared to everyone else.
What's a Good PSAT Score for a Junior?
We can define a "good" PSAT score as one that's higher than the 75th percentile. This means you scored higher than 75% of all other PSAT test takers. For juniors, 75th percentile scores are around 570 to 580 in each section, or about 1140 in total.
An "OK" PSAT score is one higher than the 50th percentile, which means you scored higher than half of other test takers. An excellent score is a score in the 90th percentile or higher (although a 90th percentile score still isn't high enough to qualify for National Merit, as we discuss more below).
The following chart shows the minimum section and composite scores you'd need to reach the 50th, 75th, 90th, and 99th percentiles on the PSAT:
Based on the info in the chart, a good PSAT score for a junior is a composite score higher than 1140, an OK score is one higher than a 1000, and an excellent score is anything higher than a 1270.
What Do PSAT Score Percentiles Mean?
To understand how we chose the scores to represent "good," "OK" and "excellent" PSAT scores, and to understand how you can interpret PSAT scores yourself, you'll need to know more about PSAT percentiles.
As we mentioned above, percentiles show where your scores fall in comparison with the scores of other students in your grade. Your PSAT score report will feature lots of score types and data. Among this data, you'll get not one, but two percentiles comparing your scores with those of other students. These percentiles are called the Nationally Representative Percentile and the User Percentile. We'll focus on User Percentiles, which compare all students in a grade who typically take the PSAT.
Below is a chart showing 11th grade User Percentiles for the entire range of PSAT scores. This chart is sourced from the College Board's 2016 score report, and you can use it to see how your scaled section scores convert to User Percentiles.
|Score||EBRW Percentile||Math Percentile|
As you can see, section scores correspond somewhat differently to percentiles. To make it into the 99th percentile on EBRW, for instance, you'd need to score 730, while to hit the 99th percentile on Math, you'd need a near-perfect 750.
Why Are PSAT Scores Important to Juniors?
There are two main ways that PSAT scores can be important to juniors who take the test.
The PSAT’s most obvious purpose is to help high school students be better prepared for the SAT. The PSAT and SAT have many similarities, so by taking the PSAT early on in your junior year, you’ll get an estimate of how well you’d do on the SAT. You can use this information to figure out which areas you need to improve on the most, create a study plan, and set SAT score goals for yourself.
However, the PSAT isn’t just a way to help you see how well you score on the SAT; PSAT scores themselves can actually be quite important for juniors. The second reason PSAT scores are important is that, if you score high enough, you could qualify for National Merit and the benefits the program offers. Keep reading to learn more.
What's a Good PSAT Score for National Merit?
For high school juniors who take the PSAT and score very well (in the top 1%), there is the possibility of becoming a National Merit Semifinalist, which can give you a serious leg up when applying to colleges and possibly even lead to scholarships.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation uses its own Selection Index to determine who qualifies as Commended Students and Semifinalists. Students who score in the top 3-4% on the PSAT are named Commended Scholars, and students who score in the top 1% are named Semifinalists.
How do you calculate your Selection Index? Just add your three PSAT section scores together and multiply by 2. Let's say you got a 30 in Reading, a 28 in Writing and Language, and a 32 in Math. To get your NMSC Selection Index score, add your section scores together: 30 + 28 + 32. Then, multiply the sum by 2. In this case, your Selection Index score would be 188.
As you can see in the chart below, a Selection Index score of 188 isn't quite high enough to qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist. Instead, you'll need a Selection Index of 209 or higher, depending on where you take the PSAT.
To get a good idea of the score you'll need to become a Semifinalist, look at the chart to see the most recent estimates for state cutoffs for National Merit Semifinalists. These were used to select Semifinalists from the October 2015 administration of the PSAT.
|State||Selection Index Cutoff|
|District of Columbia||222|
As you can see, minimum scores for National Merit vary depending on which state you take the PSAT in. Cutoffs regularly vary a few points between years, so if you haven't taken the PSAT yet and are aiming for National Merit, you should set your target Selection Index about 2 to 5 points higher than the predicted cutoff for your state.
For more information on National Merit and how you can maximize your chances of qualifying, check out our guide for everything you need to know about becoming a National Merit Semifinalist.
How to Prepare for the SAT After Taking the PSAT
You've got your PSAT scores, and now it's time for the next step: taking the SAT. How can you use your PSAT scores and the lessons you learned by taking that test to help you score higher on the SAT? Check out the following four steps in order to be prepared and confident when you take the SAT.
Step 1: Set an SAT Score Goal
Figuring out your SAT score goal is an important part of preparing for the test, and it can help motivate you by giving you a concrete goal to work toward. To figure out what SAT score you should be aiming for, check out our guide on what a good SAT score is.
Basically, you should research the average SAT scores of admitted students for the schools you're interested in applying to. Many schools provide 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles of admitted students. Aiming for the 75th percentile score gives you a good shot at getting in (provided the rest of your application is strong as well), so make a list of the 75th percentile scores of all the schools you're interested in. Then, find the highest score on the list. This is your goal score. If you can meet this score, your SAT scores will likely be high enough for every school you're applying to.
Your PSAT scores give you an estimate of how well you’d currently score on the SAT and where you need to improve. (Note that PSAT scores only goes up to 1520, while the SAT goes up to 1600, since the PSAT is a less challenging exam than the SAT.) So, if you got a 1350 on the PSAT, you could expect to get around that same score if you took the SAT. This means you can use your PSAT scores to determine how much studying you need to do in order to meet your SAT score goal. However, remember that your PSAT scores don't account for improvements you may make while studying for the SAT, which can be significant if you have a smart study plan.
Step 2: Identify and Learn From Your Mistakes
When you get your PSAT scores back, you'll be able to see how well you scored on each section of the test. Look over this information carefully to see if you can spot any patterns. For example, did you score well on the Math section but struggled on Reading and Writing? Then you should spend more of your SAT study time focusing on Math. Learn from your PSAT mistakes so that you can score higher on the SAT.
Additionally, every time you take a practice SAT (see step 4), you should identify each of the problems you answered incorrectly. Then, you should take the time to thoroughly understand the answer explanations and walk yourself back through the problems from step one. You can improve your scores a great deal by breaking mistake patterns and recognizing the way the SAT asks similar questions over and over again.
Step 3: Create a Study Plan
To keep track of when you should be taking practice tests as well as doing other review, you should create a study plan. Mark when you’ll study each week as well as goals you want to achieve every week or month (such as reviewing a particular exam topic or raising your score by a certain number of points).
If you start your study plan early, you can space out your prep to consist of just a few hours each week in order to meet your score goal. Then, you can ramp up your studying in the weeks before you take the SAT.
Step 4: Take Official, Full-Length Practice Tests
Taking timed practice tests is one of the best ways to significantly improve your SAT scores. The College Board has released several free practice SATs, which are the highest-quality practice tests you can take.
When you take these practice tests, be sure to take them timed and in one sitting so that you get the most accurate score results and become used to the SAT's length. Also, remember to review the questions you got wrong, the same way you did with your PSAT results, in order to learn from your mistakes.
Now that you know what makes a good PSAT score, what about on the SAT? Read about good, excellent, and bad SAT scores here.
The PSAT is very similar in content and format to the SAT. Check out our complete guide to the SAT. Once you've familiarized yourself with the test, head over to this guide to learn how to study for the SAT.
Once you've gotten your PSAT scores, what do you do next? This article goes over in detail the steps to take once you've gotten your PSAT scores.
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 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.