Each year, more than three million students take the PSAT/NMSQT. If you’re a high school sophomore or junior and plan on applying to college, there’s a good chance you’ll become one of these students, if you haven’t already.
So what’s on this test and how will it impact your future? Is it time to start stressing out yet? The good news is that there’s no reason to stress. The PSAT is not part of the college admission process, and apart from National Merit Scholarship qualification, colleges will have no indication of how you did, nor will they care.
Although it doesn’t play an official role in college admissions, you shouldn’t blow it off. The PSAT helps you practice for the SAT, shows you where you stand compared to other college-bound students, and can help you earn college scholarships and special recognition.
Taking the PSAT can help you do better on the SAT by giving you the experience of taking a proctored, timed test and showing you your particular strengths and weaknesses on the material the SAT tests. Especially if you take the PSAT your sophomore year, you’ll have plenty of time to use the test results as a guide to which subjects you need to improve in to do well on the SAT when you take it your junior or senior year.
To score high on a standardized test like the SAT, you not only have to know the test material well, but you also have to be able to handle the pressure and fatigue induced by a long test. The Redesigned SAT lasts four hours (if you include the optional essay) with only three breaks, so the two hour and 45-minute PSAT helps you build the stamina to stay focused over a long time.
Finally, the PSAT you take your junior year can qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship. Out of all test takers who sit for the PSAT in their junior year, roughly 8,000 students who score in the top 99th percentile in their state receive $2,500 or more in scholarship money toward college tuition. While this sum of money pales in comparison to the average cost of college and only a fraction of students receive the scholarship, many more students receive recognition for their high score from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. This recognition looks great on college applications, and it could qualify you for other scholarship opportunities, many of which amount to a much larger sum than the actual National Merit Scholarship.
Now that you know why it’s a good idea to take the PSAT, you’ll want to know what you’ll actually face on it. In 2015, the College Board redesigned the PSAT and how it’s scored in order to align it with the Redesigned SAT, which replaces the “old” SAT in March of 2016. In many respects, the PSAT and the Redesigned SAT are the same test: each feature the same sections, the same question types, and the same scoring structure. By taking the PSAT, you’ll have a great sense of what taking the SAT will be like.
The PSAT begins with the Evidenced-Based Reading test, which is composed of 47 questions and lasts an hour. You’ll then move on to the Writing and Language test, a 35-minute section of 44 questions. After the Reading and Writing tests comes the 47-question Math test made up of a 25-minute math section on which you may not use a calculator test followed by a 45-minute section on which you may use a calculator.
On the Evidence-Based Reading test, you’ll answer questions based on five reading or paired passages including a U.S. or world literature passage, two social studies or history passages, and two science passages. The questions will test your reading comprehension ability and your ability to make inferences based on the author’s point of view.
The Writing and Language test also features passage-based questions. However, unlike the Reading test, here you’ll be tested on your understanding of how the author expresses his or her ideas and how well he or she follows standard conventions of written English. You’ll have to identify errors in the passage and determine the best revisions to express each passage’s ideas.
Like the previous PSAT sections, the Math test was designed to correspond with what you’re learning in high school. You can expect to see questions that test algebra, data analysis and problem solving, and quadratic equations and other advanced expressions.
The PSAT is scored similarly to the SAT, but since the PSAT is given mid-way through your high school curriculum and because it serves as a warm up for the SAT, the questions are less difficult than SAT questions.
The PSAT score range reflects this difference in difficulty. PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520 while SAT scores range from 400 to 1600. In other words, even if you scored perfectly on the PSAT, you’d still be 80 points short of a perfect score on the SAT according to the College Board.
Your PSAT total score (from 320 to 1520) is calculated by summing your two main section scores: your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score and your Math score, each of which are scored from 160 to 760. On your PSAT score report, which you’ll receive after you take the exam, you’ll also see scores for each test section (the Evidence-Based Reading, Writing and Language, and Math test), cross-test scores, and subscores. Don’t worry about these other scores yet. After you take the PSAT and receive your score report, they’ll further help you see which areas you’re well versed in and in which areas you could improve on.
Worried, anxious, or carefree about the PSAT? Let us know in the comments.