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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. Around $180 million are awarded to outstanding PSAT performing juniors per year. 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. 

The PSAT is 2 hours and 45 minutes long, and consists of reading, writing, and math sections. In this article, we will take an in depth look at the PSAT sections, discuss its scoring, and review the National Merit Scholarship.

Learn more: Scholarships for high school juniors

Evidence-based reading

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. Command of evidence questions offer passage excerpts and ask you to decide which one provides best evidence for the given question. Words in context questions, on the other hand, focus on determining the secondary meaning of words. 

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. Some reading questions even feel more like science because they ask you to review hypotheses and data in the text. It can’t hurt to briefly examine the given passages before you start to answer questions, and begin with the text that feels easiest and most interesting.

You’re given 60 minutes to complete the 47 questions of the reading section, which is scored 80-380. We’ll talk more about scoring later. For more information on the PSAT reading section see College Board.

Writing and Language

The writing and language 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. This includes verb agreement and punctuation usage. There are also “expression of ideas” questions, which test sentence placements and transition words.

The writing and language section contains 44 questions and takes 35 minutes to complete. It is scored 80-380. Review College Board for more details on PSAT writing.


PSAT math is broken down into a section without calculators and a section with them. 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.

The math section takes 70 minutes (25 without calculator, 45 with calculator). It consists of 47 questions scored 160-760. See Effortless Math for tips on nailing the PSAT math section. 

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 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 320-1520.

On top of receiving your PSAT composite score, you’ll see how you did in each section, as well as categories within those sections. For example, you’ll see how you did on those command of evidence and words in context components of the reading section. You will also see your percentile ranks, which show how you did compared to other test takers. Scoring in the 80th percentile, for instance, means doing better than 80% of other test takers. 

The PSAT score report includes college readiness benchmarks, which show you if you are or are not on track for college. If you’re in the green, you’re good to go in that given subject. If you’re yellow, you’re close but still have some work to do. Lastly, if you’re red for a subject, you must strengthen your skills therein in order to be ready for college. Of course, this is all determined by a standardized test. You, your counselor, and your teachers know your readiness best.

Learn what you 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, which you will likely take your junior year. 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).

A good PSAT score is relative. It depends on both where you live and where you want to go to college. Though colleges don’t use PSAT scores to weigh applications, the SAT score does. The good thing about any PSAT score is that it can be a tool to help you do better on your SAT. The best PSAT scorers from each state receive national merit scholarships, which we will discuss in more detail in the following section. 

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, but 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. 

Keep reading: SAT vs ACT: How to decide which test to take

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.

We also have a host of SAT resources available. Check out our articles on how to find a test prep tutor, how to improve your SAT score, and the rules and regulations of SAT accommodations. We also have dedicated lists of tips for the SAT reading section and the SAT math section. Finally, to prepare yourself for the test experience, check out our article on how long the test takes to complete. Good luck out there!