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    What Is the PSAT?

    By Sawyer Hiton

    Sawyer Hiton is a former scholarship and financial aid writer with Scholarships360. Previously, Sawyer worked with the nonprofit College Possible, supporting high school juniors in beginning their college plans and applications. Sawyer graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in Philosophy.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: May 16th, 2024
    What Is the PSAT?

    PSAT stands for “Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test.” The PSAT is a test most sophomores and some juniors take to prepare for the SAT, a larger college readiness exam. But it can be more than just practice. If you do well on the PSAT you become eligible to earn scholarships. Doing well on the PSAT can also strengthen your college applications. 

    A little more about the PSAT

    You can only take the PSAT once a year. Many high schools require their sophomores to take the test. For juniors, it is optional, but if you do well on the test this year you could qualify to receive a National Merit Scholarship. If you’re good at standardized tests, or just want some more SAT practice, it’s a great idea to take the PSAT your junior year

    Structure of the PSAT

    The PSAT is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, and consists of a reading and writing section, as well as a math section. It recently switched to a digital format along with the SAT. Below is a breakdown of all the PSAT sections.

    Points Time allotted Questions
    Reading and writing 160-760 64 minutes 54 
    Math 160-760 70 minutes 44
    Total  320-1520 134 minutes 98

    Reading and writing

    The reading section of the PSAT tests your ability to read a passage, glean relevant information, and answer questions regarding evidence, words in context, and general analysis. Even if reading isn’t your best subject, you can still find a home in PSAT reading. The section is composed of literature, history, social science, and science passages, so you’re likely to resonate with at least one of the topics! 

    The writing section tests your ability to locate and correct grammatical errors. You’ll also be asked to revise words and phrases to better the text. Much of what shows up here you’ll have learned in English classes, or just through your daily conversations. 


    PSAT math is broken down into two sections, both involve multiple choice answers as well as write-in answers. Some questions are made up of two answers, where the first is used to discover the second.

    How is the PSAT scored?

    Each correct answer you get on the PSAT counts as one point towards your raw score. Points aren’t deducted if you get questions wrong, so use the process of elimination and guess away! Your raw score is converted to your scaled score and your composite score is the combination of each section’s scaled score. Composite scores range from 320-1520. On top of receiving your PSAT composite score, you’ll also receive: 

    • How you did in each section, as well as categories within those sections
    • Your percentile ranks, which show how you did compared to other test takers 
    • College readiness benchmarks, which show you if you are or are not on track for college

    Learn what you need to work on for your SAT

    Perhaps more importantly than college readiness, your PSAT score report will reveal to you what you need to work on for your SAT. You’ll be able to access an online PSAT report in which you can see how you did on each question. This can be an incredibly helpful guide as you set forth to prepare for the SAT (or ACT)!

    Read more: PSAT to SAT score conversion

    What score do you need to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship?

    The short answer is, a high one. PSAT scores are automatically sent to the National Merit Scholarship, where a select number of testers from each state are “semifinalists”. These end up being less than 1% of high school students, or in other words, the 99th percentile. Semifinalists then need to go through certain steps to apply for the actual scholarship. These include writing an essay, submitting an excellent transcript, and taking the SAT or ACT and receiving equally high scores. It isn’t easy to become a National Merit Scholar, but this scholarship is special because it’s one of the few you automatically qualify for!

    Related: What is a high SAT Score?

    What’s next in your PSAT journey?

    Most high schools offer the PSAT in October. Talk to your counselor to learn the specific dates of your school. Sophomores are automatically signed up. If you want to take the test as a junior, you’ll have to sign yourself up. Your counselor will support you in doing this. 

    The PSAT can be a great opportunity to practice your standardized testing and receive detailed feedback. You might just qualify for a bundle of scholarship money in the process. Either way, it is nothing to fear, and everything to be eager for during this next phase of your college preparation!

    Preparing for the SAT

    Once you’ve taken the PSAT, you’ll have taken a great step towards preparing for the “real thing” – the SAT. You can use your PSAT results to fine-tune your studying and ensure that you are as prepared as possible. Examine the areas that you did well in and the areas where you have room for improvement. This will help you to discover how to improve!

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • The PSAT is a test that students take to help prepare for the actual SAT
    • Taking the PSAT can be a great way to identify what areas you may need to strengthen before taking the actual SAT
    • While taking the PSAT and receiving a poor score won’t count against you, receiving a good score may work in your favor and nominate you for a National Merit Scholarship
    • Don’t forget that you can prepare for the PSAT in many of the same ways that you prepare for the actual SAT
    Key Takeaways

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    Frequently asked questions about the PSAT

    What does the PSAT test do?

    The PSAT test is designed to be a preliminary exam to help students prepare for the actual SAT. The structure, length and most other aspects of the test are the same to give you the closest experience to the actual thing.

    Can I take the PSAT online?

    Yes, you can take both SAT and the PSAT online.

    Do colleges look at the PSAT?

    The great thing about the PSAT is that colleges will only make a note of it if you do well on it. The PSAT does not count against you in any way, it’s simply meant to be practice. However, if you do really well on it, then it may actually be helpful to your college application, especially if you can secure a National Merit Scholarship, or even just a National Merit Scholarship nomination.

    Does the PSAT have an essay?

    While there is an optional essay for the SAT, there is no essay portion for the PSAT.

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