I’ve been asked a few times lately about the PSAT/NMSQT, and I figured it might be helpful to put up a brief FAQ about it. So…here that is. 🙂

How are the PSAT and the SAT different?
For one, the PSAT, at 5 sections, is much shorter than the grueling 10 section SAT. The PSAT contains no essay section (although you still get a writing score, based solely on your performance on multiple choice grammar questions). PSAT scores are a little different, too. While each SAT section’s score range is 200-800, in intervals of 10, each PSAT section’s score range is 20-80, in intervals of 1. Although the SAT is given 7 times per year, the PSAT is only given once, in October. Schools get to decide whether to administer it on Saturday or Wednesday of the appointed week.
PSAT sections break down like this:
  • 2 reading sections. Each contains 24 questions and and is 25 minutes long. One section will contain 8 sentence completions and 16 critical reading questions, and the other will contain 5 sentence completions and 29 critical reading questions.
  • 2 math sections.  One will contain 20 multiple choice questions, and the other will contain 8 multiple choice questions and 10 grid-in questions. Each is 25 minutes long.
  • 1 writing section. It’s 30 minutes long, and contains 20 sentence improvement questions, 14 error identification questions, and 5 paragraph improvement questions. Total: 44 questions (slightly longer than the long SAT writing section).

For more on the structure of the test, click here.

Who takes the PSAT?
Most schools sign all juniors up for it automatically. Many schools allow (or force) sophomores to take it as well. It’s less common for freshmen to take the PSAT, but it’s by no means unheard of.
Why is the PSAT scored differently than the SAT?
Well, because the tests are different and the scores mean different things. It’s OK to make a rough estimate of your SAT score by multiplying your PSAT score by 10—so, say, a 182 PSAT score corresponds to an SAT score of 1820—but remember that it’s a rough estimate of where you were on that particular morning in October. Chances are decent that, by the time you get your scores back in December, you’re already in a different place. I’ve seen SAT scores swing much higher than PSAT scores without any additional prep, and I’ve seen them swing much lower.
What does NMSQT stand for?
The PSAT doubles as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, and that’s what the NMSQT stands for: National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Only juniors are entered into the National Merit Scholarship competition. Freshmen and sophomores who take the PSAT, even if they score perfect 240s, will have to repeat that performance during their junior years if they want to enter the NMS competition.
Will colleges see my PSAT scores?
What if I want them to?
There’s no score reporting mechanism for the PSAT. If you receive any National Merit Scholarship recommendation, obviously you can announce that as an accomplishment and colleges will know roughly the range in which your score fell, but colleges don’t generally care about the PSAT, whether you want them to or not.
Should I prepare for the PSAT?
You should take a practice PSAT and see how you do. If you score 180 or higher, you should consider doing a bit of serious prep to see if you can hit the cutoff for National Merit recognition. This number varies slightly from year to year, but is usually about 200.
Many people who aren’t shooting for National Merit still prepare assiduously for the PSAT, and that’s fine. Any prep for the PSAT is also prep for the SAT, so it’s not wasted time.
How should I prepare for the PSAT?
Pretty much the same way you should prepare for the SAT. You can read the hundreds of pages on this site for detailed advice, but the basic gist of it is this:
  1. Learn some test-specific techniques and strategies
  2. Take a practice test
  3. Review the practice test like crazy until you understand every mistake you’ve made and could explain how to answer the question correctly to your little brother
  4. Identify your weaknesses based on practice test results
  5. Drill those weaknesses until they’re strengths
  6. Take another practice test
  7. Repeat
College Board-made PSATs aren’t so easy to come by, unfortunately. You can get one for free from your guidance office (it’s in a booklet called the Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT, which is available online except for the practice test part). After you take that one, you might have to start taking SATs instead, unless you’ve got older siblings or friends who will erase their old test books and let you use them. Using SATs isn’t the worst thing in the world. If you get yourself into the kind of shape where you’re PWNing the PSAT by October, you can sign up to take the SAT in October, November, or December, and maybe get all your testing out of the way before you’re halfway done with junior year.
Am I missing anything? Let me know in the comments.

Comments (2)

I think the best schedule for juniors to take the PSAT, is to take the official SAT about a week before for practice, so they have enough time to retake if needed. Thanks for the great post!

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