What Is the PSAT?

Confused about the PSAT? We’ve got some answers to common questions and info on why your teen should take this particular “practice” test seriously. 


Confused about the PSAT? We’ve got some answers to common questions, along with some information on why you should take this particular “practice” test very seriously. 

The PSAT (also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is a standardized test administered by the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

Unlike most “pre-tests” that serve as practice material to prepare students for the real exam, the PSAT is much more. Students who score high enough on the PSAT have the chance to earn a scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Program. This program awards one-time $2,500 National Merit Scholarships, as well as corporate-sponsored and college-sponsored scholarships.

How is the PSAT different from the SAT?

The SAT is typically more challenging than the PSAT, and it’s a bit longer when it comes to duration and the number of questions. The SAT is also much more expensive than the PSAT. Another key difference is that the SAT offers and optional essay, but the PSAT does not. The PSAT usually does not matter when it comes to college admissions, but the SAT does.

Unlike the SAT, the PSAT can only be taken once per school year, and it can only be taken at a participating high school rather than at a testing center. It can be taken up to three times overall during high school. Students who are sophomores or younger are allowed to take the test, but in order to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, students must take this test as a junior. 

How is the test administered?

Unlike other standardized exams, registration for the PSAT is done through individual high schools. The test is taken every October during regular school hours at participating high schools. 

What if I am homeschooled?

You may contact a nearby high school offering the PSAT/NMSQT and request to take the test there. There is no online registration process. Registration must be done at a participating high school. 

How much does the test cost? 

The PSAT is offered at a fraction of the cost of other standardized tests. There is an $18 fee per student tested. In some cases, schools may charge an additional fee to cover administrative costs.

The College Board offers fee waivers to juniors who come from low-income families and demonstrate financial need. These waivers are given based on the requests of school administrators and are allotted on a first-come, first-served basis. 

What’s on the PSAT? 

The PSAT is broken into two main sections: Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and Math. These sections are broken into three tests: Reading, Writing & Language, and Math.

The Reading test is an hour long and contains 47 multiple-choice questions based on passages or pairs of passages. The Writing & Language test is 35 minutes long and contains 44 multiple-choice questions based on non-fiction passages and arguments. The Math test is 70 minutes long and contains 48 multiple-choice or grid-in questions that cover algebra I and II, geometry, and trigonometry.

How can I prepare for the test?

The Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT offers reviews to aid in preparation and can usually be picked up from your school’s guidance office in September. Online PSAT practice tests are also available.

How is the PSAT scored? 

The PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1520 in 10-point increments. The total score is a combination of your Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and Math scores (160-760 for each section).

How are the test scores used?

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation receives all PSAT scores. The selection for the National Merit Scholarship is based on how well you score in comparison to peers in their region. Each state has a specific PSAT Selection Index, which is used in part to qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship. 

Your PSAT score should also be a good indicator of what you will score on the official SAT. 

As an editor, copywriter, and social media manager at exploreMedia, I work to develop content that is relevant and interesting to our readers and coordinate with contributing writers.

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