The PSAT: what it is and isn’t for your college application process


Although designed as a test for 11th grade students, sitting for the PSAT might also be appropriate for 9th or 10th grade students. To better understand what the PSAT does (and does not) represent in terms of the college application process, here are some answers to common questions:

What is the PSAT/NMSQT?

The “Preliminary SAT”/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test mirrors the SAT in terms of content, structure and scoring. In addition to the similarities to the SAT, 11th grade students take the PSAT to determine qualification for the National Merit Scholarship: the top 1% of 11th grade PSAT testers in each state become National Merit Semi-Finalists and 7,500 of these nationwide become National Merit Scholars after an application process.

Why is there a PSAT 8/9 and a PSAT 10? Are these all just the same?

Some schools will offer a PSAT designed for 8th and 9th grade students (PSAT 8/9). This test will be offered at a different time of year than the PSAT/NMSQT and covers content specific to its audience (so easier math and reading). The PSAT 10 is identical in terms of content to the PSAT/NMSQT but it is offered only to 10th grade students in the spring of 10th grade. The PSAT/NMSQT is only offered in October.

Are the PSAT and the SAT exactly the same?

The PSAT is shorter than the SAT (has fewer questions).

The PSAT is scored on a slightly different scale than the SAT (maximum PSAT score = 1520; SAT = 1600).

The PSAT is slightly easier than the SAT in terms of content, particularly in math.

Where and when will I take the PSAT?

The PSAT/NMSQT will likely be offered at your own high school on one of the three global test dates in mid-October. Depending on your high school, the PSAT might be offered on the “primary date” (a Wednesday), the “Saturday date” (the following Saturday), or “the alternate date” (usually the next Wednesday). You should not need to register for the PSAT, often your high school does this for you.

9th and 10th grade students interested in taking the PSAT should check with their high school guidance office to see if it is possible for them to take the test. 

Once it is clear that you have been registered to take the PSAT, your high school guidance office should provide you with a paper booklet “The Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT” that will have a practice exam and other information inside.

How much does the PSAT cost?

The PSAT costs $17 (2021). Some schools will charge students this fee (yes, fee waivers are available) and other schools roll the cost of the PSAT into a student activities fee or other fund. If you are paying to take the PSAT, usually you will hear from the school with the cost in the early fall. Some schools might charge more than the stated cost to cover the expense of hiring proctors.

How should I prepare for the PSAT?

You should familiarize yourself with the types of questions and the order of sections before you sit for the PSAT. You don’t want to be surprised on test day! You can find this information in the student guide provided by your high school. You can also use the resources on Khan Academy (PSAT page) to practice different types of questions to be comfortable and familiar.

Who sees my PSAT scores?

If you are in 11th grade and score in the top 1% of test takers in your state, your PSAT scores go to the National Merit Scholarship organization. If you are in 9th or 10th grade, or in 11th grade and not in the top 1% of test takers, your scores go to 2 places: the guidance office of your high school and your family. You will not be asked to share your PSAT scores on any college or scholarship application (other than the National Merit Scholarship). It is just for practice.

What kinds of questions are on the PSAT, how is it broken down?

The PSAT is almost entirely multiple choice (there are 8 “grid in” math questions).

The PSAT starts with a 60 minute “Reading” section with 47 questions.

The next section is a 35 minute “Writing and Language” section with 44 questions.

After the second section, you will get a short break.

The third section is a 25 minute “No Calculator Math” section with 17 questions.

The final section is a 45 minute “Calculator Math” section with 31 questions.

When you say that some 9th and 10th graders should take the October PSAT, what does that mean?

The PSAT covers math concepts that go into Algebra 2/Trigonometry. Students in 9th or 10th grade who have surpassed this level of math (or are taking this level of math) should consider taking the PSAT. Students who have not completed or begun Algebra 2 should not take the PSAT. They will find the math content very frustrating.

Can I get extended time on the PSAT?

Yes, if you qualify for extended time on standardized tests, that will apply to the PSAT as well. Check with your guidance office to make sure that your SSD paperwork is up to date.

Why take the PSAT?

Some high schools require 11th grade students to take the PSAT.

But really, why take the PSAT?

The PSAT is also good practice for the SAT and can help students determine if the SAT will be a “good fit” test for their testing style. The PSAT can serve as a predictor of your SAT score. 

The PSAT is also a helpful diagnostic as students determine if they should take the SAT or ACT as their “high stakes” admissions test. If the test structure and content of the PSAT feels like a good fit for the student, they might be an SAT taker and should direct their prep accordingly. If the student is frustrated by the lengthy reading section or the “no calculator” math, they might be better served with the faster paced, all -calculator ACT.

The concept of the PSAT causes me great stress. Why bother?

In short, you don’t need to. The PSAT, however, is a truly low-stakes way to practice a timed standardized test in a way that might be very helpful for your eventual college process. 

Elise holds a BA in Political Philosophy from Williams College and an MEd in Administration & Social Policy from Harvard. She has spent the past twenty years working in top-tier independent schools.


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