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Psst, what’s the PSAT, and what’s in it for me?

The PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, is a practice version of the SAT. It’s an excellent preview of what to expect when you sit for the real SAT, but that’s not all.
For top performers, the PSAT leads to resume-building recognition and scholarship dollars. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the PSAT—and what’s in it for you.

PSAT Basics

There are three versions of the PSAT, and the version you take depends on your grade level. There’s a PSAT for 8th and 9th grade students, a PSAT for 10th grade students, and the PSAT/NMSQT for 11th grade students.

“NMSQT” stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. As the name suggests, it’s a version of the PSAT that can qualify you for scholarships. We’ll focus on the PSAT/NMSQT in this article.

At most high schools, you’ll take the PSAT on a normal school day in mid-October. The test costs $16, but your school will likely cover all or part of this fee.

How long is the PSAT?

Including breaks, the PSAT is a three-hour test. Not counting breaks, the test takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete.

PSAT sections include:

  • Evidence-Based Reading: 60 minutes
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes
  • Math (no calculator): 25 minutes
  • Math (calculator): 45 minutes

Although the SAT does feature an optional essay, there is no essay section on the PSAT.

What types of questions will I be asked on the PSAT?

Like the SAT, the PSAT asks questions that test skills like comprehension, analysis, English conventions, problem-solving, and mathematics. Here’s a basic breakdown of what to expect on each section.

Evidence-Based Reading

The Reading section includes 47 passage-based multiple-choice questions. Question types include vocabulary words in context, main ideas and key details, and textual analysis.
Another question type is called “command of evidence.” You’ll be asked to choose which of four quotes from the passage provides the best evidence or support for your answer to the previous question.

Writing and Language

The Writing and Language section consists of 44 multiple choice questions on Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions.

Questions on “Expression of Ideas” quiz you on topics like the purpose of transition words or specific phrases in a text, as well as logical sentence placement.

Standard English Conventions questions ask you to identify and correct grammatical errors and improve texts by revising words and phrases. An understanding of verb agreement, punctuation, and parallel construction is needed.


The Math section is divided into two sections—one that allows a calculator and one that does not. The No Calculator section is 17 questions, while the Calculator section is 31 questions. There are both multiple choice and grid-in questions on the Math section.

You’ll be asked questions related to data analysis, problem-solving, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and pre-calculus.

How is the PSAT scored?

Your PSAT score is based on the number of questions you answer correctly. For each right answer, you get one point toward your raw score. You don’t lose any points for incorrect answers, meaning you should answer every question, even if you’re unsure.

Your raw scores will be converted into an Evidence Based Reading and Writing score and a Math score, both out of 760. Together, these two scores will equal your composite score, a total score that ranges from 320 to 1520.

So, what’s in it for me?

The PSAT is a three-hour test of your reading, writing, and math skills. It’s also optional and will not impact your GPA or graduation status. So, why should you take the PSAT? What’s in it for you?

Taking the PSAT is worthwhile because it:

  • Provides excellent practice and useful information for the SAT
  • Can qualify you for scholarships
  • May earn you recognition that boosts your resume for college applications

Let’s take a closer look at each of these benefits.

SAT Preparation

Since the PSAT closely simulates SAT structure, questions, and testing conditions, it’s a great way to learn what to expect when you take the SAT.
You’ll also receive a detailed score report with helpful information that can shape your SAT preparation. In addition to your score and percentile ranks for each section, the score report features subscores and cross-test scores that provide insight into your mastery of specific skills. These include:

  • Command of Evidence
  • Words in Context
  • Expression of Ideas
  • Standard English Conventions
  • Heart of Algebra
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  • Passport to Advanced Math
  • Analysis in History/Social Studies
  • Analysis in Science

Each section and subscore is color-coded green, yellow, or red to indicate whether you’re on track for college, getting there, or in need of work on that skill prior to graduation.
You’ll also receive a breakdown of which questions you answered correctly and incorrectly, plus the difficulty level of each question. Most helpfully, you can view the right answer for each question and an explanation of why it was correct. Reviewing these questions and information about your strengths and weaknesses can help you build a solid study plan for the SAT.


When you take the PSAT, you’re automatically entered into the National Merit Scholarship competition. Qualifying Finalists may be awarded three types of scholarships:

  • National Merit $2500 Scholarships: These scholarships are awarded in a single payment on a state-by-state basis.
  • Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: Typically $500-$2000, these awards may be one-time payments or renewable for each year of college. Corporate sponsors designate these scholarships for children of members or employees, residents of communities where the company does business, or students with career plans related to the business.
  • College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: Awards from sponsor colleges are renewable for four years of undergraduate school. Colleges may choose to grant scholarships to Finalists who have been accepted for admission and have informed NMSC that the college is their first choice.

In addition to these scholarships, about 1,100 high-scoring students who are not Finalists receive Special Scholarships from sponsor organizations, which may be renewable or one-time awards.

The journey to becoming a Finalist is long and highly competitive. In September of senior year, about 34,000 students receive a Letter of Commendation. They do not continue in the competition, but they may receive Special Scholarships. The top one percent of test-takers in each state (about 16,000 students total) are named National Merit Semifinalists.

Semifinalists follow up by completing an application and submitting SAT scores. 15,000 of these students are named Finalists, and about 7,500 Finalists ultimately receive Merit Scholarships.

Several colleges offer full-ride scholarships or free tuition to National Merit Finalists, including:

  • Auburn University
  • Baylor University
  • Texas A&M
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Oklahoma
  • University of Tulsa

Resume Boost

Becoming a Finalist and earning a Merit Scholarship may be a long shot, but a strong performance on the PSAT can still give your resume a boost.

Even if you don’t become a Finalist, being named a Semifinalist or receiving a Letter of Commendation is a prestigious honor. And you’ll find out if you’ve earned either of these distinctions in September of your senior year, just in time to include it on your college applications.

Final Thoughts: What’s the PSAT, and what’s in it for me?

The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/NMSQT is a practice version of the SAT for high school juniors. The three-hour test consists of four sections: Evidence-Based Reading, Writing and Language, and two Math sections—one that permits calculator usage and one that does not.

Although the test is not a requirement, it does offer numerous benefits for test-takers. Top performers can qualify for scholarships and even full tuition at some colleges, and Semifinalists and Commended students receive an impressive resume boost.

Even if you don’t earn a Letter of Commendation, Semifinalist, or Finalist status, taking the PSAT is top-notch preparation for the SAT. The extremely detailed score report can also help you create a customized study plan to ace the big test.

If you’ve got your sights set on college after graduation, the PSAT is an opportunity you don’t want to pass up.

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.