What is the PSAT? Everything You Need to Know About the Exam

26/06/202412 minute read
What is the PSAT? Everything You Need to Know About the Exam
  • The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT.
  • Students usually take the PSAT in 10th or 11th grade.
  • The PSAT lasts about three hours and tests reading, writing, and math — just like the SAT.
  • Students who score high on the PSAT can earn a National Merit Scholarship for college.

Read on to find out everything you need to maximize your PSAT score.

What is the PSAT?

The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is a practice test for the SAT. It is also known as the NMSQT — short for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The test identifies students who will receive a merit scholarship to college.

When people say “PSAT”, they are usually referring to the PSAT/NMSQT you take in 10th or 11th grade. There are also tests called the PSAT 8, PSAT 9, and PSAT 10, which you can take in grades 8, 9, and 10, respectively.

Colleges do not require the PSAT, but many high schools do. If your school doesn’t offer the PSAT, you can find another school at which to take it using the College Board’s search tool.

The PSAT is a critical step if you’re aiming for a top university. It helps you gauge your readiness for the SAT. It also gives you a sense of the types of questions you’ll encounter on the SAT. By taking the PSAT, you can develop effective test-taking strategies, manage your time better, and reduce test anxiety.

Pro Tip: The PSAT is very similar to the SAT, so your PSAT score is a good indicator of how you’ll do on the SAT.

When can you take the PSAT?

The 2024 testing window for the PSAT is October 1–31. During that window, the test is offered on weekdays as well as Saturday, October 12 and Saturday, October 26.

Where can you take the PSAT?

Students normally take the PSAT at their own high school. To find out more about the PSAT at your school, contact your principal or counselor.

What is on the PSAT?

The content of the PSAT is very similar to that of the SAT. The sections on the PSAT are as follows:

  • Reading & Writing: 2 modules
  • Math: 2 modules — one with a calculator and one without.

PSAT Reading and Writing Content

The Reading and Writing section has 54 multiple-choice questions. It tests your ability to:

  • Understand and use information from texts
  • Analyze the structure of texts
  • Revise texts to improve the expression of ideas
  • Edit texts to make them comply with Standard English

Reading passages in this section are from literature, history, humanities, and science.

There is only one question per reading passage.

The question types in this section are broken down into four broad categories:

  1. Craft and Structure. These require you to understand words in context, evaluate the structure of texts, and make connections between them.
  2. Information and Ideas. These test your ability to evaluate ideas, interpret and use data from text or tables, and draw conclusions.
  3. Standard English Conventions. You must edit text to conform to the rules of Standard English.
  4. Expression of Ideas. You revise texts to improve the way they express ideas.


The math section has 44 questions divided into two modules: calculator and non-calculator sections.

The questions in each module are ordered from easiest to hardest. Most of the questions are multiple choice, but some ask you to write the answer in. About one third of the questions are word problems.

The question types on the math section are broken down into four broad categories:

  1. Algebra: You must analyze and solve linear equations, inequalities, and systems of equations using multiple techniques.
  2. Advanced Math: These questions test your understanding of absolute value, quadratic, exponential, polynomial, rational, radical, and other nonlinear equations.
  3. Problem-Solving and Data Analysis: These questions measure your ability to work with ratios, rates, proportional relationships, unit rate, and 1- and 2-variable data.
  4. Geometry and Trigonometry: These questions test your understanding of area and volume; lines, angles, and triangles; right triangles and trigonometry; and circles.

How long is the PSAT?

The PSAT now lasts 2 hours and 14 minutes. It was updated in Fall 2023 to a digital format, which also cut its time down from 2 hours and 45 minutes to its current shorter duration.

In the table below, you’ll find the length of each section as well as the time you have to solve each question.

How Long is the PSAT?
DurationNumber of QuestionsTime Per Question
Reading and Writing64 minutes541 minute 10 seconds
Math70 minutes441 minute 35 seconds
Total134 minutes98n/a

How does PSAT scoring work?

Your PSAT score is a number between 320-1520.

First, every test question is marked as right or wrong. The number of points per question takes into account factors like difficulty and how easy it is to guess the answer.

The possible score for each of the two sections — Reading & Writing, and Math — is 160-760. The two section scores are added together to arrive at your total PSAT score.

On your score sheet, you’ll also see a number called “Your Score Range.” Since there are several versions of the test, this number shows how much your score might vary if you took another version. 

Finally, you’ll see the “User Percentile.” For example: If your score is in the 80th percentile, that means you scored higher than 80% of a comparison group of test takers that year. These percentiles are calculated from the scores of the last 3 groups of students in your grade who took the PSAT. 

Your PSAT score will be available online 4-6 weeks after you take the test.

National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) Selection Index Score

On your score report, you’ll notice another number besides the PSAT section and total scores — the NMSC Selection Index Score. 

To arrive at this score, they: 

  1. Double your Reading and Writing Score
  2. Add it to your Math score
  3. Divide that sum by 10.

The NMSC score is a number between 48–228. This score helps determine whether you are eligible for a National Merit Scholarship. To be eligible, you must score in the top 1% of test takers in your state. The exact qualifying score depends on state and how well other students perform that year.

Even if you score in the top 1% of test takers in your state, you must still meet some other requirements to become a semifinalist to receive a scholarship. These requirements are:

  • You must be enrolled in high school.
  • You must be in good academic standing.
  • You must plan to attend college.

If you meet these requirements, you’ll receive information about how to become a finalist. Then you will have to:

  • Fill out the National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes writing an essay
  • Receive an endorsement and recommendation from your high school principal
  • Earn an SAT or ACT score comparable to their semifinalist PSAT score
  • Provide any other requested documentation and information 

The NMSC will contact you if you become a finalist. About 7,500 students are selected to receive scholarships each year.

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What to Bring on PSAT Test Day

Like the SAT, the PSAT has gone digital. This means you must bring:

  • A fully charged device with the app installed and exam setup complete.
  • A power cord — but there is no guarantee that you’ll have access to an outlet.
  • A pen or pencil.
  • An approved calculator, if you like. There’s a graphing calculator built into the app if you prefer to use that.
  • An external mouse, if you use one.
  • An external keyboard for your tablet, if you use one.
  • A photo ID if you’re homeschooled or testing at a school other than your own.

“Nice-to-haves” on PSAT Test Day

  • A watch (no audible alarm).
  • Extra batteries for your calculator and backup devices
  • A bag or backpack.
  • A drink or snacks to enjoy during break.

Note: Medications and medical devices should be approved with the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities office. Epinephrine auto-injectors (EpiPens) are allowed without the need for accommodations.

Not Allowed on PSAT Test Day

  • Scratch paper will be provided—do not bring your own.
  • Smartwatches, fitness trackers, or other wearable technology
  • Any other electronic devices besides your testing device
  • Detachable privacy screens
  • Stylus for tablet
  • Any cameras, recording devices, or timers
  • Notes, books, or any other reference materials (except approved materials for English language learners)
  • Compasses, rulers, protractors, or cutting devices
  • Headphones, earbuds, or earplugs
  • Calculators that have computer-style (QWERTY) keyboards, use paper tape, make noise, or use a power cord
  • Weapons or firearms

If your prohibited device is seen at any time during the PSAT, including during breaks, you may be dismissed immediately, your scores may be canceled, and the device may be confiscated and inspected.

How to Prepare for the PSAT

Since the PSAT is similar to the SAT, most SAT preparation strategies apply to the PSAT as well.

Here are our top tips to maximize your score on the PSAT.

1. Take Practice Tests and Learn from Your Mistakes

Practice tests are a reliable indicator of how you would perform on the real test if you took it right now. They are also an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the test format and content.

You can find official PSAT practice tests online. Download the Bluebook app to take the official PSAT/NMSQT practice test.

Take advantage of the official digital SAT prep on Khan Academy. Although it is not specifically for the PSAT, it will prepare you for both the PSAT and the SAT. It will tailor your practice for you and help you identify specific goals. It also includes 8 practice tests for you to take!

After taking a practice test, review your mistakes. Focus on understanding why each answer is right or wrong. Then you can develop strategies for approaching similar questions in the future.

2. Create A Study Plan

The PSAT isn’t the kind of test you can cram for the night before. Preparing for a standardized test like this is a lot of work — but it’s manageable if you spread it out over a long period!

Once you have identified your strengths and weaknesses by taking a practice test, it’s time to create a study plan.

  • Choose your test date. Note how long you have before the test date and how many hours per week you want to study.
  • Set aside specific times for studying and stick to your schedule.
  • Ensure your plan covers all of the necessary content before test day.
  • Include time for practice tests, reviewing incorrect answers, and working on areas that need improvement.
  • Make sure you’ve done several timed practice tests before your test date.

3. Pay Attention to Pacing

For each section of the PSAT, note the time you can spend per question. It’s ideal to leave 5 minutes or so for checking your answers. But most importantly, aim to finish on time!

Use the process of elimination to get rid of implausible answers. There may be more than one option that seems correct, but do your best here. This can help increase your chances of a correct answer if you have to guess.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, move on instead of getting stuck on it. You can go back to it when you are done with other manageable questions. Don’t let one question suck all your time away!

“If a question doesn’t make sense to you in the first 30 seconds, trying to solve it with brute force never helps. Take a deep breath, move on to the next one, and then come back with fresh eyes to avoid wasting excessive time on one question.”

- Emre Turkolmez, Senior Strategist at Crimson

The Bottom Line

The PSAT is a crucial step for high school students aiming for top universities. Not only is it excellent practice for the SAT, but it can also open the door to the National Merit Scholarship. So take the PSAT seriously! It will give you insights into your academic strengths and weaknesses and help you prepare more effectively for the college admissions process.

For more resources and personalized guidance on PSAT preparation and college admissions, reach out to Crimson today. Our expert counselors will help you maximize your score and navigate the path to your dream university.

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