PSAT Scores Are Out…Now What?

Matt Larriva
Dec 11, 2018

It’s a busy week at The CollegeBoard as both PSAT scores (from the October test) and SAT scores (from the December test) are being released. As you may be a little less familiar with the PSAT scoring system, here’s a quick guide to help you understand your score report.

Understanding the difference between all the different PSATs

The difference between all those 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:

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.

Understanding your PSAT/NMSQT scores

On the PSAT, you will receive two scores: an Evidence Based Reading and Writing score and a Math score, both 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. For a detailed look at each score, see this guide.

Here’s a quick look at what you should focus on:

While there are some other metrics (“Test Scores,” “Cross-Test Scores,” and “Subscores”) the number that really matters is your Total Score. Each 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. 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? 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. More on this in the next section.

Why aren’t the PSAT scores out of 800?

Notice that the highest total score a student could achieve on the PSAT is 1520, but the highest total score a student could achieve on the SAT is a 1600. Why would a perfect score on the PSAT 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 also the material is not the same. The CollegeBoard is being conservative. And we agree. In our experience, PSAT scores are usually 50-100 points higher than SAT scores.

What about the National Merit Selection Index?

The National Merit Scholarship is a distinction and a small scholarship given to the top PSAT scorers in each state. About 1% of test-takers achieve this status which carries a great deal of clout in college applications.
The first step in qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship is scoring well on the PSAT as a junior. For some esoteric reason, the National Merit qualifying score is not quoted in terms of your PSAT score, but in terms of a NMSC Selection index. Your NMSC Selection index is found on the third page of your score report and is calculated as the sum of the three (Reading, Writing and Language, Math) individual section scores doubled.

How well do you need to score to achieve to qualify for National Merit? That figure changes annually and is released later in the year, but for students in California (one of the most competitive states) the minimum score to qualify is usually around 220. But this is just the beginning: qualifying students have a long path to make it to the coveted National Merit Scholarship Finalist round. Check out the National Merit site for full details on what to expect.

In Perspective
In all things it’s important to ask: is this what I should be focusing on?
Powerful Prep has long held that the PSAT and its derivatives are over-hyped and distracting tests.
As proxies for real SAT scores, they 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 ball park estimate of your score, and at worst it will give you a false sense of security or dread.
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. 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 her to sit for the PSAT and dedicate a few sessions to that end, if it does not detract from the more important SAT goal.
For a more detailed explanation of our position, take a look at our article PSAT: The Test No One Should Take