What Families Need to Know About the PSAT

Have you seen announcements about the upcoming PSAT/NMSQT test at your student’s high school? Maybe you’ve heard about scholarship money available based on PSAT test scores? Wondering what you need to know?

What is the PSAT/NMSQT?

The PSAT/NMSQT is a standardized test administered by the College Board and co-sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) in the United States. The top scores are used to award National Merit recognition and scholarships.

Many schools promote the PSAT as a pre-SAT exam. The PSAT and SAT share some characteristics:

  • The subjects are the same (Reading and Writing and Math)
  • The question style is similar.
  • Each exam takes a 2 hours and 14 minutes to complete. (PSAT timing per section)
  • Digital and adaptive (Adaptive means a student’s performance in the first module of the test will determine the questions they are to answer in the second module of the exam.)

They are different in some keys ways:

  • Your school purchases and administers the PSAT during the school week. The school manages the registration process.
  • The College Board does not send your PSAT score to colleges.
  • Most importantly: Questions on the PSAT are less challenging than the SAT (targeting the knowledge of grades 9-11).

The PSAT is a fine practice tool for the SAT. However, be aware it is not a true indicator of how a student will perform on the SAT.

Key things you need to know

High school juniors take the PSAT in October. Some schools allow sophomores and even freshmen to take the exam. In addition, the College Board has alternates to the PSAT for younger grades–PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9–which may be used by some school districts.

Students sign up for the PSAT through their high school–not through the College Board. Homeschool students can sign up and take the PSAT through their local school. Be aware students who provide their cell phone number may be prompted to download the College Board’s BigFuture School app. It looks to be a handy app and will include marketing from colleges if you opted into Connections.

The PSAT results are available in November.

PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520, and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation calculates a Selection Score Index based on the Reading and Writing and Math section scores that ranges from 48 to 228 to screen candidates. Schools are notified in late August and early September of a student’s senior year about their state’s Selection Score Index cutoff score. Commended Scholars score in top 3-4% (approx. 34,000 students). Semifinalists score in the top 1% (approx. 16,000). Semifinalists apply to be finalists, and a small percentage of those finalists will receive a scholarship.

Does the PSAT/NMSQT test matter?

Juniors have plenty to worry about in their junior year. Don’t let this exam be one of those things.

While a really high score may earn a scholarship, the reality is the number of students receiving National Merit scholarships is incredibly small. Of the 1.5 million high school juniors who take the test, about 7,500 will be finalists and be awarded a National Merit scholarship of $2,500 a year.

A better source of merit aid is from the colleges themselves. In addition to the merit aid colleges award for academics, some schools award money to National Merit Finalists and sometimes Semifinalists as well.

But to be clear, you don’t need to be a National Merit Finalist to receive merit scholarships from colleges. If you are a Finalist or Semifinalist, be sure to seek out those colleges that award extra for that status. (Page 3 of this document lists colleges who are expected to offer merit scholarships to Finalists in 2023.)

We’ll leave you with these PSAT, SAT, and ACT recommendations.

Should students practice for the PSAT?

We strongly recommend students try out the digital version (download Bluebook™), so they are familiar with the format and feel of the exam and its environment. Beyond that, if your student is academically gifted and a National Merit Scholarship is a possibility, you may consider some PSAT test prep. Otherwise, we recommend juniors focus on preparing for the ACT or SAT test itself instead.

If you want your student to “practice” for the SAT, have them take the SAT itself.

The College Board likes to say that the PSAT is great preparation for the SAT; however, we suggest your testing plan starts earlier if possible.

Don’t let spring of your junior year and early senior year be the first time students take the ACT or SAT.

A student can sit for the exam freshman or sophomore year (or even younger–7th/8th grade) and experience the real questions, the real time frames, the real atmosphere, and you can choose not to report those scores to any schools.

We strongly recommend students have the standardized test score they want to submit to colleges by the summer between their junior and senior year. Having this piece of the puzzle done will take some of the pressure off the application process.

Want to know more about the ACT/SAT?

Always a hot topic with our families, we often discuss ideas for tackling these exams in our educational path programming–especially our ACT/SAT/PSAT: The Ultimate Family Planning Guide webinar. In addition, our ACT/SAT Information webpage has tons of helpful links and dates to help you plan for a successful college entrance exam experience for your student.

Finally, those families looking for outside tutoring help can take a peek at our Friends of At The Core webpage. You might check out Barron’s Digital PSAT/NMSQT Study Guide from our friend Brian W. Stewart M.Ed. of BWS Education Consulting.

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Updated 2/2024