What is the PSAT?

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  • 0:01 The PSAT
  • 1:25 Why Take the PSAT?
  • 3:22 Registration
  • 4:23 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.

Learn what the PSAT/NMSQT is and whether you should consider taking it (hint: if you're applying to college, the answer is probably yes). If you're new to the test, this is the lesson to start with!


If you're currently in the 10th or 11th grade, you've probably been hearing about the PSAT, and you might be wondering whether you need to worry about it or not. And the answer is…well, it depends! In this lesson, you'll get an overview of what the test actually is and some tips for deciding whether it's for you.

Let's start with what all those letters actually mean. Technically, the full name of the test is the PSAT/NMSQT: that's an abbreviation that stands for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It's a standardized test of your skills in three subject areas: critical reading, math, and writing. The test is almost entirely multiple choice, and it takes two hours and ten minutes to complete. Students typically take it in the 10th or 11th grade - or both.

The names of the sections sound like subjects you study in high school, but the PSAT isn't about memorizing facts from your classes. It's more focused on critical thinking - not to mention your test-taking skills and preparation. In many ways, it's really a test of how well you take a test.

As the name 'Preliminary SAT' implies, the PSAT is written by the same company that writes the SAT, and the two tests are very similar. Unlike the SAT, though, the PSAT isn't used for college admissions. But that doesn't make it pointless! In fact, there are two good reasons why you might want to take it.

Why Take the PSAT?

1. It's good practice for the SAT.

The SAT is the big-deal standardized test that you'll take your junior or senior year of high school when you apply to college. And the PSAT is basically the fun-size version of the SAT: it's written by the same people, covering the same topics, with the same test structure and grading system.

Even if you're going to be doing the SAT prep anyway, which you absolutely should, taking the PSAT can still help you because it gives you a preview of the test environment. So many students fly through SAT prep and then choke on the actual exam because they haven't practiced managing the stress and time pressure of test day. As silly as it sounds, familiarity with taking SAT-style exams in an SAT-style environment can go a long way towards helping you manage stress and nerves on the big day. You can't re-create that with practice books, but you can make it happen with the PSAT.

2. You can get scholarships from it.

This is where the second half of the acronym comes in: the PSAT is also the NMSQT, or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The National Merit Scholarship program is a scholarship competition run by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. After the PSAT scores come out, the top-scoring 50,000 students from across the United States qualify for the first round of recognition. Of these students, the top one-third or so continue on to become semifinalists.

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