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Understanding the PSAT/NMSQT: Purpose and NMSQT Qualifying Scores 2023

Updated: May 23, 2023


The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, better known by its abbreviation, the PSAT, is the pre-test to the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT. It’s also known (although to a lesser extent) as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or NMSQT. Now, the purpose of the PSAT is to help students learn the format and the type of questions which will appear on the SAT. The two tests are nearly indistinguishable – except that the PSAT doesn’t have an essay section, and is slightly shorter in length than the SAT.


There are many juniors who take the PSAT, and even some sophomores as well – just to check out what they’ll be facing come senior year (or the second semester of their junior year for some). An additional benefit of taking the PSAT is that if you choose, colleges can send you pamphlets and catalogs if you score in the range they’re interested in.


Do well on the SAT and the sky's the limit

Here’s another thing – the PSAT and the PSAT 10 are not the same tests. They’re slightly different from each other. How? The PSAT is designed for juniors and is the qualifying test for winning National Merit Scholarships (these are awarded in the second semester of the student’s junior year). These prestigious $2,500 scholarships are awarded to students with high PSAT scores and go towards paying for their first year in college. On the other hand, the PSAT 10 is aimed at sophomores, and scores from the PSAT 10 are not sent to colleges.


Why take it?


Because most US colleges require the SAT or the ACT as part of their admissions process, so getting a taste of what the SAT will be like is well worth the effort. Also, the PSAT is used to select students for National Merit Scholarships which are awarded in the spring semester of their senior year.


Although it’s aimed at juniors, some sophomores take the test as well – just to see what the SAT will be like and/or to capitalize on their chances of getting a National Merit Scholarship. Some high schools also make it mandatory to take the PSAT, but it doesn’t affect their students’ GPAs.



How is the PSAT scored?


When you’re taking the PSAT, you’ll have four timed sections. The first section will be Evidence-Based Reading, then comes Writing & Language, then there are two Math sections – one in which calculator use is not allowed, and the other in which calculator use is permitted. When you get your scores, there’ll be one composite score, two-section scores, and several subsection scores. The lowest score you can get on a section is 160, while the highest score is 760. So, the highest combined score a student can earn is 1520. A score to qualify as a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist should be 1420 or more.


How much and how often?


Unlike the SAT that is offered several times a year, the PSAT is offered only in October of any given year and costs $16. There’s a primary date, on which most students opt to take the test, then there’s a Saturday date and an Alternative date that some students go for. Some high schools may charge a test administration fee as well. The test is nearly three hours long, including break time. Most students take the PSAT the fall of their junior year.


What goes into it?


Okay, so the PSAT and SAT are tests given by the College Board and co-sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Nearly 3.5 million students take the test every year.


Know what's on the PSAT before taking it

National Merit Scholarships


Okay, so the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) awards 4,000 scholarships a year to students who score high enough. So, what’s high enough? A combined score of 1420 or more is needed to qualify as a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist.


How do I prepare for it?


Be familiar with the format. Know what the directions for each section of the test mean. Don’t get thrown off by how the questions are phrased. Often it’s just the way the question is put to you that’ll get you in trouble – not the question itself. And last but not least: pace yourself. The point in getting yourself prepared to take the test is that you’ll be relaxed, won’t waste time trying to figure out the directions, will be ready for the type of questions that’ll be on the test, and will know which questions to answer first.


Taking practice tests will get you used to the format and how the questions are phrased. If you get a question wrong, analyze your mistake. Why did you get it wrong? Was it because you didn’t understand the question? Or is it the concept that you work on? If you have trouble understanding a concept, don’t be shy – ask a teacher at your high school. There are books that you can buy and use to practice for the PSAT (not to mention the SAT and ACT). Courses on these tests are offered as well. It depends on the individual student on how comfortable they feel about studying for the test in a certain way. If you’re comfortable studying on your own, then that’s the route to take. If you’d like to take a PSAT course and get yourself ready that way, remember that you will still have to spend some time studying on your own. But go for the course – just check online for PSAT preparatory courses, and figure out which one is best for you.


What’s the right way of answering questions on the PSAT?


Answer all the ones you know first, and then go back and answer as many of the difficult questions as you can. Unlike in the ACT, you won’t get points taken off for guessing wrong on the PSAT or the SAT – so make sure you try.


How much time do I have for each section?


  • The first section, which is Evidence-Based Reading, is 60 minutes long and has 47 questions to it.

  • The second section, Writing and Language is 35 minutes long and has 44 questions to it.

  • The Math section with calculators allowed is 45 minutes in length, with 31 questions.

  • The Math section without calculators is 25 minutes in duration, with 17 questions.


How do I get my scores?


You’ll receive an email from the College Board on how to create an account on their website. Creating an account, you will be able to access your online score report using an access code provided to you. You can print your online score report from your account, as well. Your PSAT/NMSQT scores will also be sent to your school, and in many cases, your district and state. To get a paper score report, contact an educator at your school.



How do I understand my scores?


Once you’re logged into your account on the College Board’s website, the first score you’ll see will be your total score. This is a combination of your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and your Math section. These scores are meant to assess how you’ll do on the SAT, and how prepared you are for college.


Test scores, cross-test scores, and subscores give more information on how well you did in specific areas. Scores in green mean you met or exceeded the benchmark. Scores in yellow mean that you were close to meeting the benchmark but need to work on those areas some more. Scores in red mark those areas that you most need to work on. You can click on Skills Insight on your online score report to see what they said overall about your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math skills.


Click on the NMSC Selection Index on your online score report to get your NMSC selection index score. If there’s an asterisk next to your score, it means that you do not meet the entry requirements for the program. Don’t worry. Less than 1% of PSAT scores will meet the National Merit Scholarship Program’s entry requirements.


What’s a good score?


Well, the average PSAT score is around 920 to 930. If you’re interested in finding out more about the percentiles for total scores, view Figure 3 on the last page or click on this link instead, ‘College Board’s 2018 PSAT Score Report.’


An Excellent Score







Percentiles for total scores

Percentiles for total scores

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