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/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.
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.
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.
You'll also see your scaled scores compared to college readiness benchmarks. Benchmarks are basically the minimum score that the test writers think you need to be prepared for college. Your scaled score also determines your selection index. To get your selection index, the test writers add up your scaled scores for three tests, Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. Then that score is multiplied by two. If your selection index is in the top 50,000 in the nation, you've made it into the first round.
In this lesson, you learned about the PSAT, which is a standardized test taken in high school to prepare for the SAT and qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. The PSAT has two sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The math section has just one test, the Math Test. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing has two tests: Reading and Writing and Language. The test in total lasts for two hours and forty-five minutes. The test questions are mostly multiple-choice with the exception of 8 free-response questions on the Math.
On your score report, you'll get a scaled score between 160 and 760 for each section. You'll get another scaled score between 8 and 38 for each test. You'll also get a selection index - that's twice the sum of all your scaled scores - and a percentile rank comparing you to all the other test-takers in your grade. The selection index determines your eligibility for the first round of the National Merit Scholarship competition.
That's a lot of new terminology to digest all at once, and it might seem a little bit overwhelming right now. But as you start practicing, it'll get a lot easier - even a little bit automatic. And by the time you make it to the SAT, you'll be thanking yourself for getting a head start on figuring it all out now.
You'll have the ability to do the following after this lesson:
- Describe the structure of the PSAT
- Explain the PSAT's scoring system
- Define the selection index and percentile rank
- Identify how the PSAT relates to the National Merit Scholarship