• Jessica Robinson

PSAT FAQ: Your Guide to the PSAT Tests

2019 / 2020 School Year


What is the PSAT?

The PSAT is a family of tests which includes the PSAT NMSQT, PSAT 10, & PSAT 8/9. They are standardized tests administered by The College Entrance Examination Board to high school juniors, sophomores, and freshmen, respectively. 8th graders may now take the PSAT 8/9 at participating schools.


The PSAT tests are part of The College Board's “SAT Suite of Assessments”. They are shorter, format-similar versions of the SAT test that juniors and seniors take prior to applying to college. Taking the PSATs is a great way to prepare for the SAT.


Who takes the PSAT?

8th, 9th, 10th, & 11th grade students. Advance registration is normally required.


When do students take the PSAT? 

For this 2019/2020 school year, these are the dates for the PSAT tests:


11th graders will take the PSAT NMSQT on Wednesday, October 16th, with alternate days on Saturday, October 19th and Wednesday October 30th.

10th graders may take the PSAT 10 during two periods, February 24th - March 27th, or April 14th - 30th, 2020.

8th & 9th graders may take the PSAT 8/9 September 23rd and/or September 30th, 2019.


Pro tip: I recommend that students begin taking the PSAT as soon as it’s offered to them, as the types of questions on it are identical in format and style to those used on the SAT, which are different from what they see daily schoolwork. Seeing these question styles earlier and more frequently gives students more time to learn solving systems for them before the crucial SAT/ACT tests later.


Grammar tip: College Board language exams are strict about certain style rules and word pairings. Their choices may not match your own favorite English style manual, but at least they are consistent in their choices so it’s possible to prepare. Two paragraphs above, for instance, I used one of the commonly-missed word choice question pairings. In College Board style, the words “not only X” must be followed by “but also Y”, as in: You'll need to know not only these subtle rules but also several others before taking these tests. There are a number of grammar conventions like this one in the tests that students need to learn and expect.


Why do students take the PSAT?

The PSAT is one of the excellent ways for students to practice and learn to perform well on all the College Board tests, which have consistent characteristics and question types. Students taking the PSAT also build test-taking endurance, practice applying test-specific solving strategies, have a chance to develop a pressure and anxiety reducing techniques, and learn where they can improve the most before taking the SAT.


Dozens of parents, after looking at the PSAT practice math materials, have expressed alarm to me regarding the difficult wording and advanced conceptual skills required to answer each question in the allotted time. (The average allotment is usually 1-2 minutes.) It’s important to know that these exams are not based on any school's curriculum standards or teaching approaches; rather, they're designed to test your knowledge of what they test and your skill at solving the kinds of problems they present. Students need to know what to expect, technically and emotionally, far ahead of test day. Taking the PSAT is an excellent way for students to gain practice with this style of test in an authentic testing atmosphere.


Test-taking endurance is an often-overlooked aspect of test prep. Students taking the SAT will be working on the test for over 3 hours. Those with time extension accommodations may not finish their exams for over 6 hours. It's important to begin training for these mental marathons early and continue often so that students develop the capacity to focus through two and a half hours of reading and math and another 35 minutes of intense science Q&A. It doesn’t come naturally to most students to take tests that are this long & subject-varied.


What is a National Merit Scholarship?

11th grade students who score well enough on the PSAT NMSQT exam (in the top 3% of testers nationally) are eligible for a National Merit Scholarship. Some 50,000 students annually are eligible for National Merit Scholarships: of these, 16,000 will be awarded the title of National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist. The others will get letters of commendation.


Semifinalists are eligible to complete a National Merit Scholarship Application. After students submit this application, together with their SAT or ACT scores, to the National Merit Scholarship Committee, they are eligible to earn the rank of Finalist in February of their senior year. 8,200 Merit Scholarships (National Merit, Corporate-Sponsored Merit, or College-Sponsored Merit) are awarded annually to this pool of Finalists, based on their demonstration of exceptional test-taking skills & other academic accomplishments.


How long is the PSAT?

The PSAT NMSQT & the PSAT 10 are both 2 hours & 45 minutes long, broken out this way:

Reading Comprehension: 60 minutes (47 questions, 4 passages)

Writing & Language: 35 minutes (44 questions, 4 passages)

Mathematics: 70 minutes (48 questions, 2 sections; 45 minutes with calculator optional) and 25 minutes with no calculator)


The PSAT 8/9 is 2 hours and 25 minutes long, in these sections:

Reading Comprehension: (42 questions)

Writing & Language: (40 questions)

Mathematics: (38 questions in 2 sections, with & without a calculator)


What does the PSAT test?

Reading Comprehension skills: vocabulary, passage analysis, inference-making

Writing & Language skills: English grammar, usage rules, punctuation

Mathematics skills: algebraic & geometric problem solving, data & diagram analysis, and advanced topics like trigonometry and pre-calculus, along with some elementary math concepts students may not have used in a while, like calculating the mean, median, mode, & range of a data set.


How is the PSAT scored?

PSAT NMSQT & PSAT 10 scores start at 320 and a perfect score is 1520.

PSAT 8/9 scores range from 240-1440.


Will colleges see my PSAT results?

Normally only if you do well enough to qualify for a scholarship. At that point, you’ll probably be ok with them seeing your scores!

A few schools do routinely include PSAT results on the student transcripts they send to colleges, but rest easy – your PSAT score is not part of the formal review of your college application.


How do PSAT scores compare to SAT and ACT scores?

A student’s PSAT scores can be helpful predictors deciding whether to take both the SAT and ACT or commit to only one. There’s no single “right” choice for all students - many factors play into the decision: diagnostic results (SAT vs ACT diagnostic exams & score analysis available here), schedule availability (amid the juggling of junior/senior year workloads & extracurriculars), and even finances (there's a fee for each time a student takes the exam).


Here's a concordance table that can be used to compare PSAT score ranges and their projected SAT & ACT equivalents.


How can I study for the PSAT?

Start early, take practice tests, and work with a tutor.


Bonus: Who designs the PSAT?

The College Board's test-writing team includes psychologists. If the questions seem like they're meant to get under your skin and test more than one thing, they are! 


Jessica Robinson is a test prep tutor in Manhattan who has spent over a decade coaching students in test-prep and anxiety management.


Contact her: jessica@learncurious.com, facebook.com/curiouslearn/ or as u/battlesong on Reddit


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