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The PSAT/NMSQT: Its Purpose & Benefits

The following is a repost of an essay written by our founder, Matthew Pietrafetta, for the blog last year. As the 2018 PSAT/NMSQT is just around the corner, we hope this is a helpful reminder of what the test is and the benefits of a good score.

The PSAT/NMSQT is upon us! This College Board exam for 10th and 11th graders isn’t just a preliminary version of the exam they will take to qualify for college entrance. The PSAT is a big deal, not just a pre-big-deal – aiming for a strong PSAT score helps students (and their parents) do three critical things: predict, qualify, and learn.  

Predicting performance with the PSAT

Since its 2016 revision, the PSAT/NMSQT has become a better-than-ever predictor of the SAT. In almost every way, the PSAT looks, reads, and feels like a full-length SAT, covering nearly identical content in almost the same amount of time. Because of this, a strong PSAT score helps predict a strong SAT score.

Evidence-based Reading & Writing

  • PSAT’s Reading is almost identical to SAT’s, except PSAT Reading is five questions fewer and five minutes shorter.  
  • PSAT’s Writing & Language is the same as SAT’s.


  • PSAT’s no-calculator section is three questions fewer than SATs but offers the same amount of time.
  • PSAT’s calculator section features seven questions fewer in ten fewer minutes.

PSAT Essay

  • The SAT optional essay is NOT offered at all on the PSAT.

The table below offers a side-by-side comparison of the structure and content of the two exams.  

A strong PSAT score can help predict a student's future SAT score.

In short, the PSAT is only 15 questions fewer and 15 minutes shorter than the SAT (not counting the essay of course).

A strong PSAT score can help a student prepare for the SAT, including comparing timing and construct of both tests

Good News for Students

The close comparison of the PSAT and SAT is good news for students. From both a content and experience standpoint, taking the PSAT prepares students for both the material covered on the full-length SAT as well as the experience of sitting for a lengthy and rigorous standardized test. A strong PSAT score predicts similar performance on the SAT.

As a predictor, the PSAT can help students year over year. Because the new PSAT system offers testing from 8th grade to 11th grade if a school district offers that testing, a student can have a transparent view of where he or she is tracking towards 11th grade.

Qualifying for scholarships with the PSAT

A strong PSAT score can also help students earn recognition, and sometimes scholarship dollars, as either a commended scholar or a national merit scholar.  

Each state has two cut-off thresholds (one for commended scholars, one for national merit) to qualify for these designations, which are determined by the fall of senior year. Many colleges offer scholarships associated with these honors, though PSAT scores are not typically provided to colleges as part of the application.

See additional details in the table below.

A strong PSAT score can help students qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.

Learning to improve with the PSAT

The most important function of the PSAT is to help students learn. So what’s the best way to drill down into and learn the most from a student’s score report?

Composite Scores: The high-level view

The highest-level view of performance is the total score and the two section scores: Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and Math. These scores begin to tell the story: how does performance compare between the skills areas? Is there a discrepancy that calls for particular attention and focuses? Percentiles provide context on a student’s performance in comparison to peers.

Whether a student has a weaker or strong PSAT score, they can learn and improve from their score.

Subscores: Where to focus for improvement

Subscores help you drill down further: are there particular question types in reading, grammar or math that are in need of attention?  “Yes, I’ve never really learned the nuts and bolts of grammar, and sure enough my Standard English Conventions subscore shows it.” “I find aspects of algebra very challenging, and sure enough my Heart of Algebra score makes it obvious.”  

The subscores provide more detailed information on particular skill areas, and the red, yellow, and green color bars indicate a student’s college readiness.

Subscores help students understand a strong PSAT score.

Question & Answer Analysis: question-level detail  

The most productive level of learning takes place at the question level. “What did I get wrong and what did I pick instead of the correct answer?” There is no true learning without understanding error – digging into the thinking behind erroneous answers builds skills and self-knowledge.  “Was that an easy, medium, or hard question?“ “Oh, I see why I picked C instead of B – I missed that detail in the passage, don’t understand comma use perfectly, or failed to distribute a negative when FOILing out that algebraic expression.”

The question-level feedback also provides the relationship to the cross-section and sub-section scores, so a student can identify if the question they missed was related to a particular skill area.

The PSAT Question-Level Feedback Report helps students further either their poor or strong PSAT score.

The Test Booklet: A Window into student problem-solving

One of the most important pieces of feedback comes from the actual test booklet from the PSAT. This booklet is key. Inside, students can see their own work. Did you annotate the reading passage? Did you write out your steps in that math problem or instead do mental math and hence caused the careless mistake?  

The booklet provides an incredibly valuable opportunity to explore a student’s specific problem-solving process and to coach, modify, learn, and grow.  

In all, the PSAT provides a valuable opportunity for growth and learning, no matter what the score.

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