PSAT – Not Just a Practice Test

In the middle of October, millions of high school sophomores and juniors across the country will take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT.) The test has three components – math, critical reading and writing – and is viewed as a “practice test” for the SAT. For juniors, the scores are also used as an initial screen to determine eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Who qualifies and how?

Qualifying scores for commended, semi-finalist and finalist levels for the program vary by year and by state, based upon the pool of students taking the test.

For example, based on some 1.5 million juniors taking the test, a national selection index score is determined to yield students performing at about 96th percentile, which works out to be about 50,000 students.

Semi-finalists by state are determined in September of the senior year, and typically about 15,000 proceed to the finalist stage. About 8,000 of the finalists go on to receive Merit Scholarship awards. Of that, some 2,500 National Merit Scholarships of $2,500 are awarded.

National Merit winners are selected on a state basis. Their accomplishments, skills and potential for success in rigorous college studies are factored into the selection. The number of winners named in each state is proportional to the state’s percentage of the nation’s graduating high school seniors.

Last October, of the 1.5 million high school juniors who participated in the test, 35,595 were from Connecticut. The scoring is similar to that of the SAT, but is on a scale of 20-80 versus 200-800 on the SATs. A breakdown of “mean” scores for the state and the nation were as follows:

Critical Reading – 47.2
Math – 47.7
Writing - 45.7Nationa
Critical Reading – 47.4
Math – 48.6
Writing - 45.9


A full report of Connecticut performance can by found here. The qualifying score in Connecticut for the Class of 2014 was 221.

Does the PSAT really matter?

With such a small percentage of National Merit Finalists, why should students care about the PSAT? Students get a sense of the format, question types, content, and time limits
they will encounter on the SAT. Like the SAT, the PSAT has three components:

  • Math – There are two sections of math, each timed at 25 minutes with a total of 38 questions. The test covers Algebra, Numbers & Operations, Geometry, and Data Analysis. There is a focus on general mathematical knowledge of concepts, as well as the ability to think critically. The test requires a student to read questions full of data and information, and then determine the best way to solve the problem.
  • Critical Reading – There are two sections of critical reading, each timed at 25 minutes with a total of 48 questions. The student will read short and long passages and then answer questions of varying complexity about the passages. Students must extract key information from text, and then use that information to
    select the correct answers. The vocabulary component tests a student’s grasp of the meaning of words, with test-takers required to choose the words that fit best
    into sentences.
  • Writing – There is one section of writing timed at 30 minutes and consisting of 39 questions. Areas tested include Improving Sentences, Identifying Sentence Errors and Improving Paragraphs.

The PSAT is different from the SAT

While there are similarities between the two tests, there are also important distinctions.

The writing section in the SAT requires the test-taker to write an essay in 30 minutes. The PSAT writing section is a multiple-choice test focusing on error recognition and grammar. The math section on the SAT is more advanced in its coverage and includes third-year subjects such as Algebra II. It also contains the tough “stopper” math questions which can trip up some students.

The SAT is longer than the PSAT. The PSAT has five sections versus the SAT, which has 10 – three in each subject and one unscored section in which the College Board tries out
questions that could be used in future tests. That section can be on any of the three topics and won’t be used in the final score, but the test-taker doesn’t know which of the sections
it is so they must do well on all 10. The testing time for the SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes; the PSAT takes about 2 hours.

Why take the PSAT?

Not only is there the chance of being recognized as a National Merit Scholar, but the student will be able to identify areas of strength and weakness. The test provides an indication of how the student performed relative to other students. Students can also check a box for the Student Search Service to have colleges email information to them. The student may want to establish a separate email address for college-related material.

Also, the PSAT will help the student prepare for the SAT in other ways, such as what foods to bring, how much rest is needed before the exam and how to stay focused during the process.

Educators agree that the PSAT is an excellent tool for launching the college preparatory process. According to Kate Guthrie, Director of Academic Services at Greenwich Education Group, “The real-time data each student receives through PSAT pre-study and practice testing at Greenwich Education Group serves as a launch pad for the standardized testing in high school years.”

She adds: “Students receive customized diagnoses, which further allows us to start laying the groundwork for SAT and ACT testing success. Occasionally, we may even have the opportunity to give a student that extra push needed to qualify for a merit scholarship on the PSAT test itself.”