Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare for the PSAT.

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PSAT Basics

PSAT stands for Preliminary SAT. The PSAT, at its heart, is a practice version of the SAT, as the two tests are similar in structure and assessed content areas. The PSAT is also known at the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). The PSAT has five sections for a total of 2 hours and 10 minutes, and the exam is scored on a 60-240 point scale (called the Selection Index), with three subsections – Reading Comprehension, Math, and Writing – each receiving a score from 20 to 80. The PSAT does not include an essay. For juniors, performance on the PSAT can qualify them for National Merit Scholarship consideration. For all students, the PSAT is a great opportunity to gain practice for the summative assessments (SAT and/or ACT) that will appear on their college applications.

Who takes the PSAT?

Juniors hoping to gain testing experience and/or potentially qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. At many schools, sophomores (and possibly freshmen) will also be offered the opportunity to sit for the exam, but only juniors are eligible for scholarship consideration

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic scholarship competition open to high school juniors based upon their performance on the PSAT and other academic and personal factors.

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) uses the PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index score (sum of the critical reading, mathematics, and writing scores), as an initial screening of program entrants and to designate groups of students to receive recognition. The National Merit Scholarship program is open to all high school students who meet the entry requirements. Each year over 1.5 million high school students enter the competition:

  • 50,000 students receive commendation, but not necessarily a scholarship, for their academic potential based upon their scores. A minimum score of approximately 200 is necessary for commendation.
  • 9,200 students win a $2500 scholarship based upon their performance as compared to other juniors in their own state and submission of supplemental application materials. The minimum score is usually between 200 to 220, but varies by state.

What is tested on the PSAT?

There are three main academic areas that are assessed on the PSAT. In reading, students are measured in their ability to read for main ideas, understand tone, draw inferences, and define vocabulary in context. In math, students are assessed in their knowledge of concepts in arithmetic, geometry, and algebra I. In writing, students are tested in their understanding of standard grammar usage.

When do students take the PSAT?

All students take the PSAT on either the third Wednesday or Saturday in October. In 2015, the PSAT will be offered on Wednesday, October 15th and Saturday, October 18th.

Where can I sign up to take the PSAT?

Students register for the PSAT through their high schools. Any questions about registration should thus be directed to a student’s guidance/college counselor. If a student’s school does not offer the PSAT, the student can use the College Board’s PSAT High School Search Tool to find a school in the area that administers the PSAT, and then contact that school to about registration procedures.

What is the cost to take the PSAT?

The regular registration fee for the PSAT is $14.

How should I prepare for the PSAT?

There are several ways that a student can prepare for the PSAT. Students should gain familiarity with the structure of the PSAT. The PSAT, at over two hours, is the longest test most students will take to that point in time, and being aware of this unique challenge is important. Students should also work to further develop the academic skills being assessed by the PSAT. Understanding main ideas in a reading passage, working with triangles, and understanding subject-verb agreement are just a sample of the cross-curricular skills that are covered on the exam. Students should learn the particular way in which questions are asked on the PSAT. As opposed to much of the math students experience in high school, questions on the PSAT are asked in a less-straightforward way, which means that students must be particularly adept at identifying the core concept being assessed in a given question. The easiest way for students to gain experience with the PSAT is to complete a full-length practice exam under conditions similar to the actual test. This experience will provide results that can inform and focus student preparation.

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What about the Redesigned PSAT?

In October 2015, the College Board will begin administering a Redesigned PSAT that has significant differences from the current version of the test. Some of the major changes to the Redesigned SAT include a switch to a 160 point scale, the elimination of the current guessing penalty, and a focus on a smaller set of academic skills that the College Board views as essential for college and career readiness.

More information about these upcoming changes can be viewed on the College Board website: https://www.collegeboard.org/delivering-opportunity/redesigned-psat-nmsqt

PSAT Sample Question
  • After an hour of the child’s grousing behavior during the car ride to Grandma’s house, the parents were inured to his ________.
  • A optimism
  • B dishonesty
  • C complaints
  • D affection
  • E ignorance
  • Answer: C
PSAT FAQs

How does the PSAT differ from the SAT?

The main differences between the PSAT and the SAT are below:

  • The math is slightly harder on the SAT – not by much, but there are a handful of algebra 2 concepts on both exams.
  • The PSAT does not have an essay.
  • The PSAT is about 2 hours and 10 minutes in length, whereas the SAT is about four hours long. The PSAT thus gives students a taste of what to expect with the official SAT exam, but the SAT is a separate challenge in regards to mental endurance.
Overall, the two tests are quite similar. Students will see much of the same of content on both, such as sentence completions, reading passages, and multiple-choice math questions that are structured in the same way.


Should students choose “C” if they do not know the answer?

As there is no guessing penalty for multiple choice questions on the Redesigned PSAT (October 2015), students should not leave any questions blank at the conclusion of any multiple choice section. On the multiple choice section of the exam, students should do all of the questions they know, then the questions on which they can eliminate some of the answers before guessing, and then students should randomly guess on any remaining questions.


Is one PSAT test date easier than the other?

There is no statistical advantage in one PSAT test date over another.

PSAT History
  • 1900 – Formation of the College Entrance Examination Board. This organization was established by university presidents to standardize the admissionprocess across 12 leading universities. The following year, the first College Boards, essay-only exams, were administered.
  • 1955 – The National Merit Scholarship Program begins as an academic scholarship program to reward scholastic achievement.
  • 1971 – The National Merit Scholarship Corporation adopts the PSAT as the qualifying test for scholarship consideration.
  • 1997 – The College Board adds a writing section to the PSAT.
  • 2014 – The College Board announces a comprehensive SAT/PSAT Redesign that will go effect in spring 2016.
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