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Understanding the PSAT Test Structure

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  • 0:02 The PSAT
  • 0:51 Test Sections
  • 2:02 Test Questions
  • 2:56 Scoring & Grading
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Confused by all the weird acronyms and standardized test jargon? Watch this lesson to get a breakdown of the section structure, subject areas, question types, and scoring system on the PSAT.

The PSAT

The PSAT/NMSQT stands for the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It's a standardized test taken by high school students to practice for the SAT and determine eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship.

The PSAT is administered by the College Board, the same company that writes the SAT. It isn't evaluated as part of your college applications, but that doesn't mean it's not important! Doing well on the PSAT might win you some scholarship money, and it'll certainly help prepare you to take the SAT later.

Unfortunately, as you can already tell, preparing for the PSAT involves a whole lot of acronyms, strange terminology, and test-specific weirdness. So here's an overview of what you'll see on the test to help you make sense of it all.

Test Sections

The PSAT is divided into 2 sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The Math section has just one test: the math test. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section has two tests: the reading test and the writing and language test. The Math Test is 70 minutes long with 48 questions. The reading test is 60 minutes with 47 questions, and the writing and language test is 35 minutes with 44 questions.

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section as a whole is 95 minutes with 91 questions. If you're counting, that's a total of 2 hours and 45 minutes for the entire test, with a grand total of 139 questions. That's a lot of questions and not a lot of time. In general, you'll get around 1 minute per question on the PSAT, but this varies a little by section. On the Math, you'll get a little more - around 1 minute and 30 seconds. On the Writing, you'll get a little less.

This means you'll have to work fast to finish all the questions in time. The PSAT isn't just a test of what you know; it's also a test of how well you can apply that knowledge under pretty intense time pressure.

Test Questions

Now let's take a closer look at the questions themselves.

On the Math Test, you'll answer questions about algebra, geometry, and other math topics that the College Board thinks you should have covered by 11th grade. On the Reading Test, you'll read passages and answer questions about them. On the Writing and Language Test, you won't actually have to write anything; you'll be revising passages based on the rules of English grammar and usage.

All of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section questions are entirely multiple-choice. On these questions, you'll get 4 answer choices each. On the Math, 40 of the 48 questions are multiple-choice. The other 8 are free-response, also called grid-ins. The free-response questions are just like the other math questions except that you'll have to come up with your own answer and write it into a grid. They're not designed to be any harder or easier; they just have a different structure.

Scoring and Grading

After you answer all those questions, here's how your test will be graded.

First, you'll get a raw score. The raw score is very simple. You earn one point for every correct answer. There's no wrong answer penalty on the new PSAT, so questions you get wrong count for zero, just like questions you skipped.

Your raw score is calculated for each section of the test. Then the raw score for each section is converted to a scaled score. Scaled test scores between 8 and 38. You'll get three of these, one for Math and one for Reading, and one for Writing and Language. Scaled section scores between 160 and 760. You'll get two of these, one for Math and one for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.

Finally, your scaled score is used to determine some other rankings. First up is your percentile. Your percentile rank compares your score to all the other scores of everyone else in your grade who took the test. It'll be a number between 1 and 100, telling you what percentage of other test-takers did worse than you. For example, if you're in the 75th percentile, then you did as well as or better than 75% of test-takers.

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