A guide to the standardized test that determines National Merit and prepares students for the SAT
What is the PSAT?
If you’re the parent of a high school senior, your child is likely focusing on the ACT or SAT, the standardized tests that are a crucial part of college admissions. But if you’re the parent of a freshman, sophomore or junior, there’s another standardized test on the horizon: the PSAT (Preliminary SAT). The PSAT is designed to test preparedness for the SAT and for college.
You may be wondering: Does the PSAT matter for college admissions? Is it really just preparation for the SAT? When and where do students typically take the PSAT? What’s a good PSAT score?
In this guide, we’ll cover:
What kind of test the PSAT is
How it factors into college admissions
What a good PSAT score is
As well as answer other important questions about this standardized test.
What’s the difference between the PSAT10 and the PSAT/NMSQT?
To begin to answer some of these questions, let’s look at basic facts about the test. First, some vocabulary: You might have seen the PSAT referenced by two different titles: the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT. These tests cover the same subject matter and are the same length. Generally, they’re the same level of difficulty, though the PSAT 10 is more geared towards a 10th-grade level. Both tests have the same score range and include score reports with recommendations about what AP classes your student should consider based on their score.
One distinction is what time of year they’re offered: some 10th graders might take the PSAT 10 in the spring, while 10th and 11th graders might tackle the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall. Different schools make different choices about when students take the test and which version of the test they take.
Students might take either test in tenth grade for several reasons. First, a score report can help a student identify which APs they should consider based on their strengths. Second, schools might choose to give students as much time as possible to test strengths and weaknesses for SAT prep, or to gear up for a better score on the PSAT/NMSQT the following year.
A key difference between the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT is that in the junior year, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation uses scores from the PSAT/NMSQT to select students for its competitive, prestigious scholarship awards for academically talented students across the country.
The PSAT 10 might also help students get scholarships from participating colleges and universities, as well as organizations like the Children of Fallen Patriots, the American Indian Graduate Center, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, or the Gates Scholarship. You can find a full list of foundations offering merit- and need-based scholarships here.
In general, if your student is aiming for a highly selective college, it makes sense for them to take the PSAT/NMSQT as a sophomore rather than the PSAT 10. Since the test is designed for sophomores, it’s good practice for the SAT. Alternatively, if she has her sights set on a National Merit Scholarship, taking the PSAT/NMSQT as a sophomore is better practice. The PSAT 10 is worth taking in 10th grade if your student hasn’t taken any standardized tests before, doesn’t have his sights set on a highly selective college, and just wants some practice for the SAT.
Our ultimate take: the PSAT/NMSQT is best for students that are looking to be challenged so they can score highly on the SAT, while the PSAT 10 is great for students that need extra practice and direction in their SAT or AP studies. The additional scholarships alone aren’t a strong enough argument for taking the PSAT 10, which is considered a secondary or slightly easier version of the PSAT/NMSQT.
Should my child take the PSAT as a freshman?
Freshmen can also take the PSAT—either the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall, or the PSAT 10 in the spring. Some schools may encourage or require students to sit for the test as practice for the sort of high-stakes, timed test-taking they’ll encounter on the SAT. But at that early stage in high school, it’s considered mere practice.
The CollegeBoard does offer a PSAT 8/9, which is slightly shorter and easier in content than the PSAT. Your child should only take that test if they’re really set on a National Merit Scholarship and want extra early practice for the PSAT.
In general, fall of your child’s freshman year is likely better spent focusing on coursework and adjusting to high school, not preparing for a test that’s not designed for their grade level.
Does the PSAT matter in college admissions?
Colleges do not look at PSAT scores when making admissions decisions. But the PSAT serves two purposes in college admission. First, it gives your child a glimpse of how she’ll do on the SAT. Second, a high score can qualify her for scholarship money.
It’s a great extra bonus for your student and can act as a barometer for how much she should study for the SAT. But it definitely shouldn’t be a source of extra stress—just an indicator to prepare more for the SAT.
PSAT scoring: how it works and what it means
To understand what a good PSAT score is, it’s important to first understand how the test is organized and scored.
The PSAT includes three tests: the Reading Test, Writing and Language Test, and the Math Test. The total score is the sum of your child’s scores in these sections. Your child’s total score can range from 320–1520, while each section score can range from 160–760.
The PSAT score report will tell you into which percentiles your child’s total score and section scores fall. You can find a sample score report from the CollegeBoard here. On the score report, you’ll also see benchmark scores that, according to the CollegeBoard, “represent college readiness.”
The benchmarks essentially show whether or not your child is testing at grade level. If your child scores at or above the benchmark, it’s likely that your child would receive a C or higher in a freshman-level college class. If your student is academically high-achieving, this readiness benchmark will likely be far below their desired score. (The ERW Reading benchmark for 10th graders taking the PSAT 10 was 430 in 2022, and 480 for Math. These are scores in the 39th and 62nd percentiles, respectively.)
The maximum total score on the PSAT is 1520 (recall that on the SAT, the maximum score is 1600) but you can look at your child’s PSAT score pretty much as a one-to-one indicator on how she might’ve scored had she taken the SAT on that day. For example, as the CollegeBoard notes on their blog: “a PSAT/NMSQT score of 1200 is a strong indication that you’re likely to score about 1200 on the SAT.”
So, with this information in mind—what is a good PSAT score on test day?
Getting a “good” PSAT score: the importance of PSAT percentiles
As with many standardized tests, the score matters only as much as it indicates your child’s percentile—in other words, scoring is relative to the larger population of high schoolers in the country. A good score means performing better than many or most high schoolers who took the test that day. If your child scored in the 50th percentile, it means they scored higher than 50 percent of students who took the test over the past three years. The higher the percentile, the better your student has done relative to their peers.
A score in the 50th percentile is about “average”; the 75th percentile is “solid”; the 90th percentile is “great”; and a score in the 99th percentile is “outstanding.”
Using 2021 statistics from the CollegeBoard, we’ve listed total score ranges/cutoffs for the top percentiles.
For 10th grade students taking the test (either the PSAT 10 or the PSAT/NMSQT):
99th percentile and above (“outstanding”): 1370–1520
90th percentile (“great”): 1170
75th percentile (“solid”): 1050
50th percentile (“average”): 920
For 11th grade students:
99th percentile and above (“outstanding”): 1450–1520(Video) How I got a 1500+ on the PSAT: Breakdown and tips
90th percentile (“great”): 1200
75th percentile (“solid”): 1080
50th percentile (“average”): 960
National Merit: What scores qualify for scholarships?
Another metric by which to define a “good” PSAT score is whether your child’s score qualifies them for a National Merit Scholarship. How does the National Merit Corporation award scholarships?
There are different tiers to National Merit awards: Recognition, Commended Students, Semifinalists, Finalists, and Winners. According to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, about 50,000 students out of the 1.5 million who enter receive recognition. About 34,000 of those students receive a Commended Student letter. Commended students are those who scored in the top 3–4 percent of test takers in their state. Commended Students don’t advance in the competition, but they might still stand a chance at certain scholarships.
Meanwhile, about 16,000 of the 50,000 recognized students continue in the competition to become Semifinalists—i.e. the students who score in the top 1 percent of test takers statewide.
Semifinalists then need to submit an application proving their high academic standing in order to be considered for the finalist round. This includes their grades, a record of completed courses, a list of planned future coursework, and an endorsement from their principal.. About 15,000 of the Semifinalists become Finalists, and around 7,600 of these Finalists are selected as winners based on a number of additional metrics, including an essay and teacher recommendations.
Note, however, that National Merit Scholarships are actually awarded using a figure called the Selection Index. The Selection Index is calculated by adding up the individual scores for each test on the PSAT and then doubling the sum, resulting in possible scores ranging from 48–228. For example, if your child scored a 33, 29, and 31 on Reading, Writing & Language, and Math, respectively, their Selection Index would come out to 186.
What is a qualifying Selection Index? It varies from state to state, but the 2021 average Selection Index came in around 215.
What determines a “good” PSAT score depends on your family’s priorities. If earning a scholarship in some form is your child’s goal, they should shoot for a score in at least the 96th percentile as a junior. If your child wants an additional metric by which to stand out nationwide, they can aim for 90th percentile or above.
Ultimately, the PSAT shouldn’t be stressful. This test is intended to show your child where she stands in terms of college preparedness and readiness for the SAT. Yes, there’s the added bonus of potentially qualifying for a scholarship, but there are plenty of other ways to qualify for merit and need-based college scholarships (you can find a list here). Treat the test as it’s intended to be treated—as practice.