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Everything to know about the PSAT

What’s on the Test

The PSAT/NMSQT includes five sections:

Two 25-minute critical reading sections
Two 25-minute math sections
One 30-minute writing skills section
The whole test requires two hours and 10 minutes.
ritical Reading

Two 25-minute critical reading sections = 48 questions
13 Sentence completions
35 Critical reading questions


Two 25-minute math sections = 38 questions
28 multiple-choice math questions
10 Student-produced responses or grid-ins
Students are advised to bring a calculator with which they are comfortable. Students should have basic knowledge of 4 math categories:
Numbers and Operation
Algebra and Functions (but not 3rd year level math that may appear on the new SAT)
Geometry and Measurement
Data Analysis, Statistics and Probability
Writing Skills

One 30-minute writing section = 39 questions

14 Identifying sentence errors
20 Improving sentences
5 Improving paragraph questions

These multiple-choice questions on writing skills measure a student’s ability to express ideas effectively in standard-written English, to recognize faults in usage and structure, and to use language with sensitivity to meaning.

About Scores

The lowest possible score on each section of the PSAT/NMSQT is a 20; the highest is an 80. To score the test, first, a raw score is computed:

Students receive one point for each correct answer, regardless of dif­ficulty.
For incorrect answers to multiple-choice questions, a quarter (1/4) of a point is deducted. Nothing is deducted for unanswered questions or for incorrect answers to student-produced response (grid-in) questions.

Next, the raw score is converted to a score on the PSAT/NMSQT scale of 20 to 80 points. This statistical procedure, called equating, adjusts for differences in dif­ficulty between various forms, or editions, of the test.


Makes it possible to compare the scores of students who have taken different editions of the test

Makes the scores from last year’s test comparable to those from this year’s PSAT/NMSQT

Do PSAT/NMSQT scores fairly reflect students’ skills?

Concern for fairness is an integral part of the development of the PSAT/NMSQT. Comprehensive reviews and analyses ensure that questions and tests are fair for different groups of students. Although differences in test performance may be the result of many factors, long-term educational preparation is the primary cause. The test itself reflects such differences but does not cause them.

When are score differences significant?

Student score reports show a numerical score for each skill area, as well as a range that extends from a few points below the score to a few points above. This range shows the extent to which an individual student’s score might differ with repeated testing, assuming that the student’s skill level remains the same.

When comparing scores between students in the same skill area, true differences in skill levels can be determined using the standard error of the difference (SED). Differences of fewer than 8 points (or 1.5 SED) are not significant, while differences of 8 points or more reflect true differences in skills.

How should schools use PSAT/NMSQT scores and results?

PSAT/NMSQT score reports should be used to help students:
Evaluate skill levels

Prepare for the SAT Reasoning Test

Compare their readiness for college-level work with that of their peers
Get information on their educational plans

PSAT/NMSQT scores are not for use by colleges as part of their admission criteria. Scores should not be included on student transcripts that will be reproduced and sent to colleges unless the student (age 18 or older) or parent/guardian has granted permission. Inform students of their right to withhold these scores from admission or athletic offices, even when requested.

How can students compare how they did in relation to other test-takers?

On the score report, percentiles for juniors compare their performance with that of other juniors who took the test. For sophomores or younger students, percentiles compare their performance with that of sophomores. Percentiles are based on the critical reading, math, and writing skills scores earned by a sample of college-bound juniors or sophomores who took the PSAT/NMSQT. Learn more about 2009 Percentiles and Mean Scores (.pdf/74K).

What skills are reported on the PSAT/NMSQT student score report?

The “Your Skills” section of the PSAT/NMSQT Score Report shows students how they performed on each of the skills measured by the PSAT/NMSQT. This information gives students a complete picture of their relative strengths and weakness, allowing them to see which areas they should focus on improving.

Students can then log on to My College QuickStart™, using the access code provided on their paper score report. There they will find personalized improvement advice and hundreds of practice questions to help them improve the skills that they need to develop.

How can the PSAT/NMSQT be used to estimate SAT® scores?

The PSAT/NMSQT point scale of 20 to 80 is comparable to the SAT point scale of 200 to 800. A quick way to estimate a comparable SAT score is to add a zero to the end of a PSAT/NMSQT score. For example, a 42 on the PSAT/NMSQT critical reading section is roughly equivalent to a 420 on the SAT critical reading section.

Juniors frequently take the SAT six or seven months after taking the PSAT/NMSQT. Sophomores will not take the SAT for 18 months, so there may be a greater likelihood that these intervening activities will influence sophomores’ SAT scores. Estimating Junior-Year SAT Scores (.pdf/89K) shows how scores change for students who take the PSAT/NMSQT in October and the SAT Reasoning Test the following spring. 

How much do PSAT/NMSQT scores improve if a student takes the test as a sophomore and again as a junior?

A study of 710,595 students who took the PSAT/NMSQT in October 2007 as sophomores and again in October 2008 as juniors found an average gain of 3.3 points higher in critical reading, 4.0 points in math, and 3.3 points in writing skills based on a score of 20 to 80.

Keep in mind that these are averages: some students earn scores in their junior year that are significantly higher; others receive lower scores. In general, juniors with low sophomore scores have larger score gains than do those with high sophomore scores.
The data does not show to what extent average gains from one year to the next might be due to learning and consequent growth in the skills measured by the test, and to what extent average gains might be due to the practice effect of taking the test for a second time.
Learn more about PSAT/NMSQT Score Change from Sophomore to Junior Year (.pdf/53K).

What is the Selection Index?

The Selection Index is:

Used by National Merit Scholarship Corporation as an initial screen of program entrants and to designate groups of students to receive recognition

Reported on a scale ranging from 60 to 240

The sum of a student’s critical reading, math, and writing skills scores. For example, a critical reading score of 56, a math score of 62, and a writing skills score of 59 would result in a
Selection Index of 177 (56 + 62 + 59)

Should students be able to finish all questions on the test?

The PSAT/NMSQT is developed so that almost all students complete 75 percent of the questions. Approximately 80 percent of the students reach the last question. If there are particularly difficult questions at the end of a section, sometimes the percentage of students completing the section is lower than intended. Students do not need to attempt all questions in order to earn an average or above-average score. 

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