2020 & 2021 PSAT Scores and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Scores: How to Make Sense of Them

Matt Larriva
Jan 20, 2021
Home » Blog » 2020 & 2021 PSAT Scores and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Scores: How to Make Sense of Them

It’s been a few weeks since you took the PSAT, and by now you’ve probably even forgotten about it. But PSAT and NMSQT scores have been announced, so now it’s time to figure out exactly what it all means.


Well, let us help you.

Here’s what you need to know about your PSAT scores and the National Merit Qualifying Scores.

The Difference Between The Different PSATs

The difference between all the new and different PSATs (the PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10, and PSAT/NMSQT) is simple.

  • The PSAT 8/9 is a shorter and easier version of the PSAT 10, and it is intended to give you an idea of how prepared you are for the PSAT 10.
  • The PSAT 10 is a slightly easier version of the PSAT/NMSQT.
  • PSAT/NMSQT is an easier version of the SAT.

The key difference between the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT is only the PSAT/NMSQT score can qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship. This makes sense, considering that the acronym PSAT/NMSQT stands for “The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.”

If you are interested in a more thorough breakdown of how all these tests are different, you can refer to the chart below:

psat tests

Now that you know what the difference is between all these tests, let’s take a look at what the PSAT/NMSQT scores actually mean.

When Are PSAT Scores Released?

In general, PSAT 10 scores are released online about four to six weeks after taking the test.

2020 PSAT 10 Score Release Dates

So, students who took the PSAT in October 2020 should expect their scores to be released in early December 2020. Refer to the College Board chart below to see when your scores will be released according to which state you took the test in.

when psat test scores are released
The graphic above, provided by the College Board, shows when the PSAT scores will be released depending on which state you took the test in.

2021 PSAT/NMSQT Score Release Dates

According to the College Board:

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How To Access Your PSAT Scores

The CollegeBoard will send you an email when your test scores are ready. The email will contain all the instructions you will need to create an account on the College Board website, accessing your score report online, as well as viewing your scores with your access code.

The process is simple and quick. Once you have accessed your College Board account, you will have the option to download and print out the report if desired.

Additionally, you can also ask your school for a print out of your SAT score report. Educators can actually access scores earlier (in late November) using a special educator portal on the College Board website.

Test Scores Not What You Hoped For?

In this article I discuss the top 3 reasons student’s test scores don’t improve despite practicing.

Plus, we’ll cover what you can do to fix the problem once and for all.

Understanding Your PSAT Scores

You will receive an Evidence Based Reading and Writing score on a scale from 160-760.

You will also receive a Math score on a scale from 160-760.

These two scores are then added together, resulting in your Total score, on a scale from 320-1520.

These are the scores to pay attention to.

There are also other metrics you will see. For example:

  • Test Scores
  • Cross-Test Scores
  • Subscores

However, the score that matters most is your Total Score.

For a step-by-step diagram of what each number on your score report means you can also check out the graphic below from the CollegeBoard.

PSAT Scores

Why Aren’t the PSAT Scores Out of 800?

Notice that the highest total score a student could achieve on the PSAT is 1520.


The highest total score a student could achieve on the SAT is a 1600.

Why Would A Perfect PSAT Score Not Lead To A Perfect Score On The SAT?

Because the PSAT is easier than the SAT. Not only is it a shorter test, but the material is also not the same.

The CollegeBoard is being conservative.

And we agree.

In our experience, PSAT scores are usually higher than SAT scores.

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What Is the Nationally Representative Sample Percentile?

Each PSAT score will also be tied to your Nationally Representative Sample Percentile.

This simply means that if you scored in the 60th percentile, you scored higher than 60% of the other high school juniors who took the PSAT.

For example, if you are a sophomore, then your scores are compared only to the other sophomores who took the exam.

What’s A Good PSAT Score For A Sophomore?

studying for psat

It all depends on what your goals are.

If your ultimate goal is Ivy League admission, then you should aim to be in the 95th percentile or higher.

If you’re looking at less selective institutions, then the 80th percentile is a good benchmark.

But keep in mind that:

  1. these are very early days, and your score can improve markedly over the next year
  2. this is not necessarily an indication of what you would score on the SAT

I will discuss this more in a following section. First, let’s cover the National Merit Selection Index.

RELATED READING: How to Get into UPenn

What About the National Merit Selection Index?

The National Merit Scholarship is a distinction and a small sum of money given to recipients that is awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

The first step of qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship is scoring well on the PSAT as a junior.

How Well Do You Need To Score On The PSAT?

That figure changes annually and is released later in the year, but for Californians (one of the most competitive states) the minimum score to qualify is usually about 220.

Your NMSC Selection Index score is calculated by adding together the Reading score, the Writing and Language score, and the Math score, and then multiplying the total by two.

A Reading score of 33, a Writing and Language score of 35, and a Math score of 30 would yield an NMSC selection index of 196.

But this is just the beginning: qualifying students have a long path to get to the coveted National Merit Scholarship Finalist round. Check out the National Merit site for full details on what to expect.

In the meantime, it’s never a bad idea to begin prepping for the SAT or ACT.

Why Your PSAT Score Doesn’t Really Matter

In all things, it’s important to ask: is this what I should be focusing on?

That includes your PSAT scores.

Powerful Prep has long held that the PSAT and its derivatives are over-hyped and distracting tests.

The Truth About The PSAT

Every year we get inundated with calls asking for help prepping for the PSAT.

Our first response is always the same: why are you taking the PSAT?

The conversation usually goes one of the 4 ways we discuss in our blog post, The PSAT: The Test No One Should Take

As proxies for real SAT scores, PSAT scores are woefully off and largely unnecessary.

If you’d like to see what you would score on an SAT, then take an SAT in a practice setting.

At best the PSAT will give you a ballpark estimate of your score, and at worst it will give you a false sense of security or dread.

psat score stress
Don’t let your PSAT scores fill you with a sense of dread (or, for that matter, a false sense of security). Focus your energy on prepping for the actual SAT. instead.

We posit that the only students who should be focusing on, or even taking, the PSAT are those who are strong candidates for National Merit. For all others, this test is a distraction and an unnecessary stressor in an already busy time.

In fact, we feel so strongly about this that we discontinued our broad PSAT prep offering in 2015.

We now only prep students for the PSAT in very special circumstances, for example, if a student is prepping for a fall SAT and is showing very strong scores, we will encourage them to sit for the PSAT and dedicate a few sessions to that end, if it does not detract from the more important SAT goal.

So, if you didn’t take the PSAT or didn’t quite earn the PSAT score you were hoping for, try not to stress out too much about it. Instead focus on SAT prep—your time will be much better spent.