The PSAT–An Introduction
The PSAT/NMSQT stands for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It has two functions: to award National Merit Scholarships and to give students and their parents a hint of what’s coming on the actual SAT.
The test is created by the College Board, which also makes the SAT, and the methodology and question types are the same. Your PSAT scores are NOT used for admission to college, however, so a bad PSAT score cannot hurt you.
What’s on it?
The PSAT has four sections:
A reading comprehension section.
A writing and language section that tests grammar.
Two math sections
The math sections each have “grid-in” questions for which students must supply their own answers. All other questions are multiple choice. Including breaks, the test is two hours and forty-five minutes.
As far as question types, methodology, and required knowledge, the PSAT is a slightly shorter, just-a-hair-easier SAT.
Can I take it at home or online?
Are calculators allowed on the math sections?
One math section allows a calculator, and one does not. The no-calculator section will not require heroic feats of multiplication or division, but students should be comfortable with arithmetic.
How is it scored?
The writing and language section and the reading section are combined and scaled for an ELA (English Language Arts) score of 160-760, and the two math sections are combined and scaled for a math score of 160-760. These two scores are then combined for an overall score of 320-1520.
How many times can students take it, and when?
Students take the PSAT once, in October of their junior year.
There is a PSAT 10, which is a PSAT for sophomores, and a PSAT 8/9, for 8th and 9th graders, designed to give students an idea of what to expect on the PSAT. These two exams are not used for National Merit Scholarships.
What are National Merit Scholarships?
Each year, around 7,500 students receive National Merit Scholarships. Each winner receives a $2,500-a-year National Merit Scholarship for college, along with a corporate-sponsored scholarship and/or a college-sponsored scholarship.
Students who score in the top 1% on the PSAT become National Merit Semifinalists. They can then apply for a National Merit Scholarship, which is based on grades, a personal essay, your extracurricular activities, a recommendation from your principal, and some other factors, all of which you can read about here.
The PSAT changed in the fall of 2015. Old PSAT exams are good (but not perfect) practice for the current math and reading sections of the PSAT. They are terrible practice for grammar, as the section has changed dramatically.
In addition to the above, Khan Academy offers practice SAT problems, which are similar to PSAT questions. You can find them here. The full online PSAT exams that Khan Academy offers are the same ones the College Board has released and that we link to above.
When should my child start studying?
Have your child take a PSAT or an SAT mock exam in April of their sophomore year. Their performance will help you determine when to start the prep process. You should give your child at least four months to prepare if they are aiming for a National Merit Scholarship.
We personally believe that students should take the SAT early in their junior year. A benefit of this is that students can study for the PSAT and SAT together, since they’re basically the same exam.
Thoughts on the test
The PSAT is challenging, and students will need to work quickly and carefully to do well. Here’s a brief breakdown by section:
PSAT reading is difficult. The reading consists of:
One passage from classic or contemporary fiction
One passage from a US founding document or a speech or text they inspired
One social science passage
Two science passages
At least one of the first two passages listed above will have pre-20th Century writing, which most students struggle to understand. Honestly, this section demands a lot of attention, and students should not assume that an A in English class will translate to a high score.
As always, the more a student reads, the easier the reading section becomes. Students should practice reading both contemporary and pre-20th Century fiction and non-fiction.
Writing and language
In this section, students must spot and correct grammatical errors in the context of a passage. Many students struggle when they first try this section, because schools teach how to use grammar correctly, not how to spot errors. This section is especially difficult for many public-school students, as public schools typically stress grammar much less than private schools do.
More than any other standardized test, the PSAT and SAT math sections force students to apply their knowledge to new types of questions. An example is below:
A new business opened with 10 employees. Their plan for growth assumes that 3 new employees will be hired every quarter (every three months) for the first 4 years. If an equation is written in the form y = jx + k to represent the number of employees, y, employed by the company x quarters after the company opened, what is the value of k?
Most students are confused by this question, even though they don’t need any special information or formulas to solve it (the answer is C). Students need to be able to untangle word problems, handle uncertainty and fight through questions that seem confusing/difficult at first read. Students usually don’t have to do this for school exams, so it’s an undeveloped muscle.
Overall, PSAT questions are very different from schoolwork. Some students have a very hard time adjusting, and good grades in school don’t necessarily translate to high scores. If your child struggles with new types of questions, and they bomb the PSAT, they should consider taking the ACT instead of the SAT. I do a deeper dive into the ACT vs. the SAT here.
The first step in a student’s preparation is to take a practice PSAT mock exam, specifically one of the ones linked to above. If your child is hoping for a National Merit Scholarship, definitely take a Biometric Edge mock SAT exam. While the SAT is slightly harder and longer than the PSAT, a Biometric Edge mock SAT is still extremely beneficial. Biometric Edge exams will tell you how long your child spends on each question. This not only gives valuable insight into pacing, but it lets you see if your child is fighting through difficulty or giving up at the first sign of difficulty.
This is always valuable, but especially on the PSAT and SAT. In addition, Biometric Edge can show you if your child is going back to check their work. Only our mock exams provide this information with certainty.
Your child can excel on the PSAT, but you must know what they need to work on to structure their time efficiently. Sign up for Biometric Edge mock exam here.
To your child’s success!