A PSAT Introduction



The PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test) and NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) are actually the same test. Often you will see this written as the PSAT/NMSQT, which is how we will refer to them on this page. Often the importance of the PSAT/NMSQT is underplayed, but becoming a National Merit Finalist is a great way to set yourself apart in the college admission game. What people don't often tell you is that there are numerous scholarships available for National Merit Finalists and many schools even give National Merit Finalist students a 100% scholarship to cover tuition, room and board, and even a stipend—this could be worth as much as $100,000 over the four years of college for which you have this scholarship. Do not take the PSAT/NMSQT lightly, as it could turn into a $100,000 scholarship for you!

What is the PSAT or NMSQT?

The PSAT/NMSQT is a standardized test administered by high schools across the country, and any sophomore (10th grader) or junior (11th grader) who would like to take the test can do so in the fall of the school year. The PSAT/NMSQT serves two purposes:

  • The PSAT/NMSQT is practice for the real SAT, which most students will need to take in order to apply for college. This practice for the SAT is useful for both sophomores and juniors.
  • The PSAT/NMSQT is used as the basis for qualification in the prestigious National Merit Scholarship Program in a student's junior year. Students who take the PSAT/NMSQT during their sophomore year will not be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program all about? How do I qualify?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic program that recognizes the highest scoring and most academically strong high school juniors in the United States. To participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program, a student must be enrolled as a full-time high school student, be a permanent resident or citizen of the United States, and take the PSAT/NMSQT no later than the third year of high school. Though sophomores are not eligible, it is great practice for the SAT.

Of the approximately 1.5 million juniors who will take the PSAT/NMSQT and are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, about 50,000 students with the high PSAT/NMSQT selection index (Critical Reading + Math + Writing score) will be selected for recognition. There are two types of recognition in this first round: National Merit Commended and National Merit Semifinalist. The necessary selection index for semifinalist status varies from state to state, as students are measured against only students in their state. Often this means that highly competitive states such as Massachusetts and California will have much higher selection indices than other states. The selection index for Commended status is set nationally.

In the April after the PSAT/NMSQT, the 50,000 highest scoring students in the country will be notified that they may qualify for an award. At this point, each notified student will be asked to name two colleges or universities to which they would like to be referred by the NMSC. If you are asked to do this, be very careful in this selection. In order to qualify for funding from a university you must often list that university as your first choice on this list of two schools. Be careful to make sure that you list your safety school here to ensure that you get a scholarship from that school! Often this means the nearest major university or state school. The following September (approximately one year after taking the PSAT/NMSQT in junior year) these high scorers will be notified through their school if they have qualified as either a National Merit Commended student or National Merit Semifinalist.

More than two–thirds, or approximately 34,000, students of the 50,000 that were notified in April will receive Letters of Commendation for their outstanding academic performance on the PSAT/NMSQT. The Selection Index necessary to be commended varies from year to year, but is set nationally. Usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 205 or so is sufficient to be named a National Merit Commended Student. Commended Students do not continue on in the National Merit Scholarship Competition, but some of these students do become candidates for special scholarships granted by other corporations and businesses.

The remaining one-third of students who were notified in April, but are not Commended, become National Merit Semifinalists. The Selection Index to become a Semifinalist varies from state to state anywhere from a 210 to over 225 in some states. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation will provide scholarship application materials to Semifinalists through their high schools. Of these 16,000 Semifinalists, 15,000 will be notified that they are Finalists to receive a scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. This is a very prestigious honor and will in many cases result in some sort of academic scholarship.

For more information about the criteria for receiving a scholarship and additional information, consult the National Merit Scholarship website.

PSAT/NMSQT Structure

The PSAT/NMSQT tests the same general areas as the SAT:

  • Critical reading skills
  • Math problem-solving skills
  • Writing skills

Critical Reading

  • 2 sections, 25 minutes each
  • 48 questions, all multiple choice: 13 Sentence completions, 35 Critical reading questions


  • 2 sections, 25 minutes each
  • 38 questions, 28 multiple choice and 10 student produced response or grid-in answers
  • A calculator is allowed (four function calculators, scientific calculators, and graphing calculators other than the TI-92 are acceptable)
  • The PSAT/NMSQT math section will test Numbers and Operation; Algebra and Functions (but not 3rd year level math that may appear on the new SAT); Geometry and Measurement; Data Analysis, Statistics and Probability


  • 1 section, 30 minutes
  • 39 questions, all multiple choice: 14 Identifying sentence errors, 20 Improving sentences, 5 Improving paragraph questions

The multiple-choice questions on the PSAT/NMSQT Writing section measure your ability to express ideas effectively and clearly in English. This includes understanding finding grammatical errors, structural faults, and how to use language appropriately to express meaning and intention clearly.


Score reports will be delivered to your high school in December (or to your home address if you are a home schooled student). Since PSAT/NMSQT score reports are not available via phone or the Internet, you will have to wait till your school decides to distribute score reports.

To understand how the PSAT/NMSQT is scored, you must first understand how individual questions are scored. For each correct answer you will get one point, for each unanswered question you will receive 0 points, for each incorrect answer to a grid-in question you will receive zero points, and for each incorrect answer to a multiple choice answer you will lose one-quarter of a point. The reason for this is that each question on the PSAT/NMSQT has five possible answers. If a student guesses randomly they have a one in five chance of guessing the correct answer.

This means that if a student guesses randomly, for every five questions they will randomly guess one of these correct and will have guessed incorrectly on four of the five. Thus their score will be +1 for the correct answer and 4*- 0.25 for the four incorrect answers, and thus the total score for this student will be +1 - (4*0.25) = 0, thus the student does not receive any points for just randomly guessing.

For each of the Math, Reading, and Writing sections the individual question answers are totaled to produce a raw score for each section. This raw score is then compared to all other students who took that same test and converted to a "scaled score" from 20–80. Think of this as grading on a curve.

Scaling is done to make sure that the same percentage of people on each test receive the same score to maintain consistency between PSAT/NMSQT tests. This process of taking a raw score and computing the equivalent scaled score based on all students' performance on that test is what makes the PSAT/NMSQT a standardized test.

For example, on one test date the test may be relatively easy so many students receiving a raw score of 20 (say 22 correct answers, eight incorrect, and nine blank) on the Writing section may be enough for a PSAT score of 45 in Writing, but on another test date the test may have been much more difficult and therefore the average student would have missed more questions. This means your raw score could be lower (say 18) but your scaled score would be the same, a 20.

In addition to a scaled score, each student receives a percentile rank. This percentile score is a comparison of your score to other students who took the test and represents the percent of students who scored the same or lower than you. Thus if your percentile rank is 75th percentile, this means 75 percent of students taking the PSAT/NMSQT scored no higher than you did. Scaled scores map to percentiles consistently from year to year, thus a 50 in one year is the same percentile as a 50 in another year.

The PSAT Selection Index is just the sum of the three sections, for a maximum possible score of 240. The national average is approximately a 49 on each section, for an average selection index of 147.

On test day you should make sure to bring:

  • At least two number two pencils
  • An approved calculator: any four function, scientific, or graphing calculator other than the TI-92 should be fine but you should confirm when you receive your registration materials (in which you will be sent a list of approved calculators).
  • A picture ID: if you have a driver's license this will be fine, if not bring your school ID. Remember to make sure that the ID has your picture on it
  • A bottle of water and finger foods such as a bag of grapes to snack on during breaks between sections - water is the only thing you can drink during the test 

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