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Everything You Need to Know about the PSAT/NMSQT

By October 9, 2019November 3rd, 2020No Comments

Student looking at computer for PSAT tutors


It’s October, which means that high school juniors across the country are gearing up to take the PSAT/NMSQT. The PSAT (or the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) has been administered every fall since 1971, and for many students, the test represents the first of a battery of tests that can influence their college application process.

For the majority of juniors, the PSAT is a great opportunity to take a standardized test in a formal environment and get a snapshot of their current test performance. For some, the test can be a chance to qualify for National Merit recognition and unlock scholarship money. No matter your student’s situation, here is everything you need to know about the PSAT/NMSQT.

What is the PSAT and how is it scored?

The PSAT is essentially a slightly shorter, slightly easier version of the College Board’s SAT. It consists of a 60-minute-long Reading section, a 35-minute-long Writing section, a 25-minute-long No Calculator Math section, and a 45-minute-long Calculator Math section. Students receive subsection scores for Reading, Writing and Math out of 38.

To generate the composite score, the Reading and Writing subsection scores are added together and then multiplied by ten, and the Math score is doubled and then multiplied by ten. (For instance, if a student gets a 32 on Reading, a 31 on Writing, and a 29 on Math, her total Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score would be a 630, and her Math score would be a 580). Students receive one score out of 760 for the Reading and Writing sections and another score out of 760 for the combined Math sections, for a composite score out of 1520 possible points. The question types are similar in format to those on the SAT.

How does the PSAT qualify students for National Merit recognition?

In addition to receiving a composite PSAT score out of 1520, students will also receive a “selection index” score. The selection index is calculated by adding together the Reading, Writing and Math subsection scores and then doubling the result. (For example, the student mentioned above would have a selection index of 184, since 32 + 31 + 29 = 92, and 92 x 2 = 184).

Each year, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and the College Board determine what the selection index “cut-off” will be for students to qualify for National Merit recognition, and these cut-offs will vary from state to state.

For Colorado, the cut-off for the class of 2020 was 220. To qualify for National Merit recognition in most states, students can miss only a handful of questions on the entire test (five or six wrong answers out of 139 questions total).

Juniors whose PSAT scores meet a national cut-off will become Commended Scholars. Juniors whose scores meet the cut-off for their state will become National Merit semifinalists. To advance to the Finalist stage, students must then meet certain academic requirements, achieve a qualifying score on the SAT or ACT, and complete an application.

How can I prepare for the PSAT?

Students can familiarize themselves with the format of the PSAT by taking one or more practice tests beforehand. The College Board has two full practice PSAT tests available for students to download at their website for free.

What if I don’t do very well on the PSAT?

Don’t worry. The PSAT is intended to be a practice test, and for the vast majority of students, their ACT or SAT scores will have a much greater impact when it comes to the college admissions process. However, if your PSAT score seems worryingly low compared to the average test scores at the colleges you are interested in, it can serve as a useful alert that you may want to invest some serious time and energy into studying for the SAT or the ACT so that you’ll have the best possible chance to raise those test scores ahead of starting your college applications.

If you have questions about the PSAT or about standardized tests in general, our test prep experts would be happy to answer them! Give us a call at 720-204-1042 or contact us at info@mindfish.com.