Each year, about 3.5 million high school sophomores and juniors across the United States take the Preliminary SAT, more commonly known as the PSAT. The PSAT is important for two reasons. It is a practice test for the SAT and the entrance exam for the National Merit Scholarship Competition.
The PSAT is not used in college admissions, but there are still several reasons to take it.
Many high schools require students to take the PSAT, but some make it optional.
Here is what you need to know know about the PSAT.
Who should take the PSAT?
High school sophomores and juniors are eligible for the PSAT, and some schools may require that their students take the exam.
Sophomores can take either the PSAT 10 or the PSAT/NMSQT but will not qualify for a National Merit Scholarship in any case. Even so, the PSAT provides a good opportunity for sophomores to practice for the SAT and to evaluate how they will perform on each section.
Juniors who take the PSAT/NMSQT have an opportunity to win scholarships based on how well they do. Every year, approximately 8,000 of the 3.5 million students who take the PSAT win scholarships. And 2,500 students win National Merit Scholarships worth $2,500. In order to become eligible for scholarships, you have to finish in the 99th percentile of test-takers.
For most students, the PSAT is an early opportunity to see how you can expect to do on the SAT. There are differences between the structure and content of the PSAT and SAT, but the two tests are very similar. The SAT is slightly longer and a little more difficult than the PSAT. But they cover the same subjects and feature all the same sections, so you can get a strong idea of what the SAT will look like and what your individual areas of strength and weakness are.
When do you take the PSAT?
The PSAT 10 is held in the spring. For 2023, high schools will administer the test during these dates:
- February 21–March 24, 2023
- April 12–28, 2023
The PSAT/NMSQT is held on three dates in October every year. While the official 2023 PSAT dates haven’t been announced yet, the expected dates are:
|Primary Test Date||October 11, 2023 (Wednesday)|
|Saturday Test Date||October 14, 2023|
|Alternate Test Date||October 25, 2023 (Wednesday)|
Most students register and take the PSAT through their high school (many high schools require students to take the exam). If you’re taking the exam through your high school, your school’s administration will select the date to hold the exam.
How long is the PSAT?
The PSAT lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes and includes 139 questions. It is slightly shorter than the SAT, which lasts 3 hours and includes 154 questions.
How many sections are there?
The PSAT has three sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. Here’s what you can expect from each of these sections.
The PSAT’s Reading section consists of 47 questions, and you have 60 minutes to complete them.
This section is designed to assess students’ reading comprehension skills through multiple-choice questions with four answer choices. There are four standalone passages and a pair of passages that you read together, consisting of 500-750 words each.
Every test includes passages on the following subjects:
|U.S. Founding Document or Great Global Conversation||1 or 2 passages|
|Economics, Psychology, Sociology, or Other Social Science||1 passage|
|Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, or Physics||2 passages|
All questions can be answered using only the reading passages and do not require prior knowledge of specific topics.
Writing and Language Section
The Writing and Language section of the PSAT is 35 minutes long. There are four passages of 400-450 words each and 44 questions.
This section assesses students’ understanding of grammar and ability to identify errors and weaknesses in a piece of writing.
It includes passages and sentences that include errors. Students are asked to edit the writing and correct mistakes by selecting multiple-choice answers.
Some passages in the Writing and Language section are accompanied by informational graphics such as charts or tables, but the questions will never require students to do math.
The Math section of the PSAT has 48 questions and is 70 minutes long.
This section is divided into two subsections: one where calculators are allowed and one where calculators are not allowed. Both parts include a mixture of multiple-choice and grid-in questions.
In total, the Math section includes 48 questions. There are 40 multiple choice questions and 8 grid-in questions. Students can use a calculator on 17 questions, leaving 31 in the no-calculator period. The PSAT Math sections covers the four following subject areas:
|Heart of Algebra||This area focuses on key concepts in algebra. Students must be able to analyze, solve, and create linear equations and inequalities, and be able to solve equations and systems of equations using different techniques.|
|Problem Solving and Data Analysis||This area assesses the ability to use quantitative reasoning to solve real-world problems. Students must be able to interpret data sets and statistics, and work with ratios, rates, and proportional relationships.|
|Passport to Advanced Math||This area focuses on topics that students must master before studying advanced math. Students must be able to analyze and manipulate expressions, interpret and build functions, and work with complex equations.|
|Additional Topics in Math||This focuses on geometry and trigonometry. Students must be able to understand and apply key geometric and trigonometric concepts, formulas, and theorems.|
How does PSAT scoring work?
PSAT scoring is complicated, but there are a few key scores that students should pay attention to. When you receive your PSAT score report, you will see eight different scores.
Here is a brief summary of each score.
Scaled Total Score (320-1520)
You will receive a scaled total score between 320 and 1520. This is the most important score, and you should see it as your final score. Your scaled total score will determine whether you ultimately qualify for the National Merit Scholarship and the score that will give you the best idea of how you will perform on the SAT. It is the sum of your two scaled section scores.
Two Scaled Section Scores (160-760)
You will receive a scaled section score between 160 and 760 for Math and for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW). These scores are calculated using your three section test scores.
Three Section Test Scores (8-38)
You will receive three section test scores between 8 and 38, for Math, Reading, and Writing and Language. These test scores reflect how you performed on each of the three sections. This score can help you identify areas of strength and weakness.
Three Raw Test Scores
You will also receive raw test scores for each of the three sections. This score is equal to the number of questions you answered correctly. The maximum scores you can receive for each section are 48 for Math, 47 for Reading, and 44 for Writing and Language.
There are seven different subscores, each graded between 1 and 15, in the following categories: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Words in Context, and Command of Evidence. These scores give you more insight into how you performed in specific subjects. Use them to identify topics you need to work on in each section.
Cross-Test Scores (8-38)
You will receive two cross-test scores between 8 and 38 in the following topics: Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science. Unlike subscores, which are compiled from questions in the same section, cross-test scores are created from questions in all three sections.
Selection Index Score (48-228)
The “selection index” is a score used to determine who qualifies for the National Merit Scholarship. Therefore, it is the only score you’ll see on your score report that is unique to the PSAT and not included in the SAT. This score is equal to the sum of all three section test scores multiplied by 2.
If you are trying to win a National Merit Scholarship, you will want to pay attention to how you performed on the test in comparison with other test-takers. The top 1% of PSAT-takers in each state qualify as semifinalists for the scholarship.
What is considered a good PSAT score?
The PSAT is scored from 320-1520. Here’s how you can evaluate your score on the PSAT:
Excellent: A score in this range will put you in the top 10% of test-takers.
|Reading & Writing||620+|
Very Good: A score in this range will put you in the top 25% of test-takers:
A score in this range will put you in the top 25% of test-takers.
|Reading & Writing||560-610|
Good: A score in this range will put you in the top 50% of test-takers.
|Reading & Writing||500-550|
Below Average: A score in this range will put you below the top 50% of test-takers.
|Reading & Writing||Below 500|
What is considered a good PSAT Score for the NMSQT?
Technically speaking, your scaled PSAT score does not determine whether you qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (the organization that gives out the scholarship) converts all PSAT scores into a “Selection Index Score,” which is scored between a minimum of 48 and a maximum of 228. This is the score that is used to determine who qualifies for the scholarship.
Cutoff scores vary by year based on the difficulty of the test.
And each state has a different cutoff score for the National Merit Scholarship competition, based on how students in that specific state performed on the PSAT.
For the class of 2023, the lowest state cutoff score was 207 (Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming), and the highest state cutoff score was 223 (New Jersey, Washington D.C.).
Test scores for the class of 2024 are not yet available.
Check here for further details on state cutoff scores and entry into the National Merit Scholarship.
When do you receive your PSAT scores?
Sophomores generally take the PSAT in February or March. These students typically receive their test scores at the end of April or early May.
Juniors typically take the PSAT in October. These students can expect to receive their scores in December.
Should you prepare for the PSAT?
While the PSAT is definitely worth taking, most students do not need to exhaustively prepare for it like they would prepare for the SAT. Your PSAT score will not be seen by colleges and does not factor at all into college admissions.
High scorers may qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, but keep in mind that only the top 1% of test-takers in each state become semifinalists for the award. If you realistically think you can get a perfect or near-perfect score on the PSAT, then by all means you should prepare extensively for the test. Check out our favorite PSAT prep courses here.
But for sophomores and all but the highest-scoring juniors, spending hundreds of dollars and hours of your precious time on a PSAT class simply doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Rather, use the PSAT as an early benchmark for the SAT, so you can see what areas of the test you do well in and where you need to improve. You may want to take a practice test before going in to get a sense of the structure and pace of the exam, but it is absolutely not necessary. In fact, many students intentionally go into the exam without any preparation so that they get the best sense of what their baseline score is.
However, taking a practice PSAT before the exam may be worthwhile, if only to get a feel for the duration, difficulty, and pace of the test.
Are there free PSAT practice tests?
Many different study sites and educational resources, such as Khan Academy, offer free PSAT practice tests. Taking a practice test allows you to get an early sense of what to expect on the PSAT without having to go through (and pay for) a full course.
If you are taking the PSAT this year, consider it an excellent opportunity to get an early sense of what the SAT is like and how you might do on it. For the ambitious few out there shooting for a National Merit Scholarship, go out and get it! But for most students, the PSAT should be mostly pressure-free.