You wouldn't go for your driver's license test before ever getting behind the wheel, right? You would practice your three-point turns and parallel parking first, so you're ready and know what to expect when the real test comes.
Just as you suspected, this scenario's an analogy for the PSAT. Rather than sitting for it junior year without a practice run, you can improve your performance if you've already taken it in 10th grade. Taking the PSAT as a sophomore is a great, low-pressure way to familiarize yourself with the test, gauge your level, and figure out where you need to improve.
With this in mind, let's look at what PSAT scores are good for sophomores and how to improve them even more for junior year. First, let's consider how the PSAT is scored.
How Is the PSAT Scored?
The new PSAT is scored between 320 and 1520. It will give you two scaled scores between 160 and 760, one for Math and the other for Reading and Writing combined. You'll also get to see how you performed in each of the three sections with a test score between 8 and 38. This scale differs from the old one of 20 to 80 for three separate sections of the PSAT.
The new PSAT scoring scale helps you predict your SAT scores. If you score a 1500 on the PSAT, then you're likely to achieve a similarly high score on the SAT. The scale is shifted about 80 points lower than that of the SAT (which has a score range of 400 to 1600), because the PSAT is a slightly easier test. Therefore, you can only compare the scores up to about 1520; beyond that, you can't equate a perfect PSAT score with a perfect SAT score.
Your score report on the new PSAT will tell you lots of data, including your scaled scores, section scores, and "skills subscores" that further break down your performance. For the sake of figuring out what makes a good PSAT score as a sophomore, we'll consider another important piece of data: your percentiles. Percentiles simply compare your section and composite scores to those of other test-takers. If your Math score falls in the 80th percentile, then you scored higher than 80% of other test-takers. The remaining 20% scored higher than you. Basically, the higher your percentile, the better you scored compared to everyone else.
Read on to learn about percentiles and how they can help us answer our question of what's a good PSAT score for a 10th grader.
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What's a Good PSAT Score for a Sophomore?
We can define a "good" PSAT score for a sophomore as one that's higher than the 75th percentile. This means that you scored higher than 75% of other sophomores who took the PSAT. For sophomores, 75th percentile scores are around 530 to 540 in each section, or about 1070 total.
An "OK" PSAT score for a sophomore is one higher than the 50th percentile, which means you scored higher than half of other test-takers. An excellent score is one higher than the 90th percentile. This chart shows estimates for the minimum section and composite scores you would need to make it in the 50th, 75th, 90th, and 99th percentiles.
Reading and Writing Score
Based on that reasoning, a good PSAT score for a sophomore is a composite score higher than 1070, an OK score is one higher than a 920, and an excellent score is anything higher than a 1170.
What Do PSAT Score Percentiles Mean?
To understand how we chose the scores to represent "good," "OK" and "excellent" PSAT scores, as well as how you can interpret PSAT scores yourself, you'll need to understand PSAT percentiles. This section will give you a more in-depth look at PSAT percentiles and the information you can get from them.
The new 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 to those of other students. These percentiles are called the Nationally Representative Percentile and the User Percentile.
The reason behind using two percentiles remains vague, and some educators have suggested that College Board uses the Nationally Representative Percentile as a way to inflate students' scores and make the PSAT appear less competitive than it is. Regardless of the reason, we'll focus on User Percentiles, which compare all students in a grade who typically take the PSAT (as opposed to the other percentile, which includes all students in a grade, even those who don't take the PSAT. Weird, I know.).
Below is a chart sourced from College Board's 2016 score report that shows PSAT user percentiles for 10th graders. As you look through the data, take note of how the same scores translate to slightly different percentiles. In past years, Math tended to be categorically more competitive than Reading and Writing. Here, the comparisons are less straightforward. Check out the data, and then read on for further interpretation of how the sections compare.
10th Grade User Percentiles for the PSAT
|PSAT/NMSQT Score||Reading and Writing||Math|
|290||1 and below||2 and below|
In past years, Math was pretty much always more competitive than Reading and Writing. However, Reading and Writing has recently become more competitive. This means that, most of the time, you need to achieve a higher score in Reading and Writing to make it into the same percentile as you did in Math. For example, a Math score of 500 puts you in the 69th percentile, but the same score in Reading and Writing will only put you in the 63rd percentile.
Why Are PSAT Scores Important for Sophomores?
Your sophomore year PSAT scores aren’t as important as your PSAT scores from your junior year when you’ll be able to compete for National Merit, but they are still useful. You can use your sophomore PSAT scores to estimate of how well you’ll do on the PSAT next year and on the SAT later on. This can help you gauge how much studying you need to do to qualify for National Merit or meet your SAT score goals.
Preparing for National Merit as a Sophomore
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation identifies juniors who get top scores on the PSAT. Students whose PSAT scores are in the top 1% are named Semifinalists. Becoming a National Merit Semifinalist can give you quite a boost in college admissions, as well as put you in consideration for numerous scholarships, so many people who take the PSAT as a sophomore do so to prepare themselves for when they take the PSAT as juniors and can compete for National Merit.
There are several things you can do as a sophomore to help you prepare for taking the PSAT as a junior and potentially qualifying for National Merit. If you're already scoring around the 95th percentile or above as a sophomore, you're well on track towards qualifying for National Merit Semifinalist and Finalist. While these are outstanding scores, National Merit scholarships only go to the top 1%. So you'll have to do some serious prep to compete with other juniors next year and raise your scores to the top of the pack.
If National Merit is in your sights, you want to aim for a score of around 1440 on the PSAT, or for about 35 to 36 as a "test score" in each of the three sections, when you take the test as a junior. This exact score varies somewhat by state. Check out the cut-off scores by state here, as well as all the other criteria you must meet to quality for National Merit.
Remember though that you have lots of time to prepare for both the PSAT and SAT, so if you’re not happy with your scores, there’s still time to develop a great study plan and make improvements. Speaking of prep...
What Can You Do to Prepare for the PSAT?
There are multiple things you can do to prepare for both the PSAT you take sophomore year and the one you take junior year. Even a small amount of preparation can translate into significant score increases, so be sure to take a look at these tips and make use of them before test day!
Set Target Scores
Before you take the PSAT your sophomore year, you should consider setting a target score to give you a goal to aim for while studying and make sure you are on track to meet your goals for your junior-year PSAT and eventual SAT scores. A potential goal could be scoring in at least the 70th percentile, or you might aim higher, such as the 95th percentile, if you're hoping to qualify for National Merit as a junior.
Then, once you find out the results of your sophomore year PSAT, you can set goals for the junior year PSAT. Based on how much time you have to prep, you can set your target scores. Again, if you're aiming for National Merit, you'll need to get a composite score of about 1440 to qualify. With serious prep, you could improve by hundreds of points. Even apart from all your studying, you're very likely to improve regardless, considering you'll be a year older with an additional year of education.
Take Practice Tests
The best way to improve your scores is to start practicing! You can use PSAT sample questions, as well as practice questions for the new SAT that have been released on College Board and on Khan Academy. The abundance of practice material for the old PSAT doesn't have to go to waste either. Many of the questions, especially the math and reading comprehension ones, are still relevant. Just make sure to familiarize yourself with the changes in the test so you can shift your focus onto the most important skills.
If you're disappointed with your sophomore scores, don't worry! You still have time to learn and practice. Use this feeling as motivation to improve next year through focused, disciplined, and effective test prep.
Target Your Weaknesses
After you've taken your first practice test, look it over and see which questions you got wrong. Did you score well on Reading and Writing but struggled with Math? Were there specific types of questions or topics that gave you the most trouble? Take some time to figure out where you need to make the most improvements.
Then, get to work targetting those weaknesses! For each question you got wrong on the practice test, read through the answer explanation to understand what you did incorrectly and how to correctly solve it. When studying, be sure to focus extra attention on your weak areas. Brush up on the topics themselves if you need to, and answer lots of practice problems until you feel more confident. You'll be well on your way to a great PSAT score!
The PSAT is great prep for the SAT, but you may also be taking the SAT or ACT as practice. Click here to learn about good scores for sophomores on the SAT and ACT.
Do your PSAT scores predict your SAT scores? For a detailed look at the connection between the two, click here.
With the changes coming in the PSAT and SAT, you need to be prepared to achieve your highest scores. Read this complete guide to the redesigned PSAT in 2015.
Want to improve your PSAT score by 150 points? We've written a 5-step guide to preparing for the test, whether you’re striving for National Merit or just looking to get an early start on SAT prep. Check it out 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.