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Why the PSAT Matters

The PSAT: The National Merit Qualifying Test

The Preliminary SAT (PSAT)/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) is a standardized test that provides firsthand practice for the SAT. It also gives your child a chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program. 

The PSAT measures critical reading, writing, and math problem-solving skills. Your child has developed these skills over many years, both in and out of the classroom. This exam does not require students to remember facts from previous courses, so it's not necessary to worry about specific points of knowledge. It’s all about the skills that research has identified as most important for college readiness and success.

Most students take the PSAT for the first time in October of their junior year, though some high schools also offer the test to sophomores. Unlike the SAT, registration for the PSAT is completed through your child’s high school. For the 2019-2020 school year, most high schools will offer the PSAT on Wednesday, October 16th.

Structure & Scoring

The PSAT is divided into two main sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT does not contain a scored essay portion. However, the College Board will provide high schools with the option of administering a practice essay portion called ScoreWrite. If your child's school chooses to administer a practice essay, it will not be scored by the College Board, and it will not count towards your child's PSAT score. Its sole purpose will be to provide your child with practice for the essay portion of the SAT.

Your child has 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete the PSAT, with some additional time between sections for breaks. The breakdown for each section is as follows: 

Section Sub-Section Total Testing Time & Breakdown Number of Questions Content/Skills Covered
Evidence-Based Reading & Writing Reading 60 minutes 47 Reading and vocabulary in context
Writing 35 minutes 44 Grammar and usage
Math 70 minutes:
1 45-minute calculator-optional section and
1 25-minute no-calculator section
48 Heart of algebra, problem-solving & data analysis, passport to advanced math, additional topics (geometry, trigonometry and pre-calculus)

Students earn one point for each question answered correctly and neither gain nor lose points for wrong answers, which means your child should answer every single question on the PSAT. Because there is no penalty for guessing, a student’s raw score for both of the main test areas—Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing—is the number of questions answered correctly. Raw scores are then converted to scaled scores ranging between 160 and 760 (760 is the highest possible score for each section). Scores are added together for the total PSAT score, or Selection Index, which ranges between 320 and 1520.

Why Take the PSAT?

Colleges do not see PSAT results, but they can request contact information for students who enroll in the Student Search Service and score within a certain score range. Even though colleges will not see your child’s exact score, there are two very good reasons to take the PSAT:

  • Prepare for the SAT. Your child can become familiar with the kinds of questions and directions that will appear on the SAT, as well as gain experience taking an intensive exam where each section is timed. Once he or she receives the scores, you and your child can determine strengths and weaknesses on the exam and decide what level of SAT preparation to consider. There are many test-taking strategies and techniques to learn, and working with an SAT tutor is often the most reliable way to improve scores. For more information on how to succeed on the SAT, visit our SAT Test Information Center.
  • Enter the National Merit Scholarship competition. In order to be considered for a prestigious National Merit Scholarship, your child must take the PSAT in October of his or her junior year of high school, plan to enroll in college full-time by the fall after high school graduation, and be a U.S. citizen or a permanent U.S. resident with the intention of becoming a U.S. citizen. If your child meets these requirements, he or she will automatically be eligible to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP). To learn more about qualifying for the NMSP, visit our National Merit Scholarship Qualifications page.

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