All You Need to Know About the PSAT and NMSQT

The myOptions Team

When it comes time to register for the PSAT and NMSQT, it’s important to know what you are signing up for. We have compiled a complete guide to answering all the questions you might have about these standardized tests.

What is the PSAT?

The PSAT stands for Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test; it’s literally a practice SAT. Regardless of whether you plan to take the SAT or ACT, you should 100% take the PSAT at least once. Standardized tests are hard, and the more practice, the better prepared you will be for the exam that actually counts. If you plan to attend a 2-year or 4-year college after graduating from high school, you should opt to take the PSAT.

What is the NMSQT?

NMSQT stands for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), is a privately funded, not-for-profit organization. It funds a scholarship that awards big money to students in their junior years scoring in the highest percentiles on the PSAT. You will never know what the cutoff is for your year’s Selection Index (since it’s a percentile and those change every year). Students who do qualify as National Merit Finalists, Semi-finalists, etc. will receive money and the bragging rights on their applications. The NMSQT is only applicable for students in grade 11 or lower and US citizens and permanent residents.

When should you take the PSAT?

The PSAT offered in October each year, and you should definitely take in your junior year of high school since that’s the year you can be considered for the National Merit Scholarship. If you have the opportunity, you should also take it as a sophomore for extra practice.The PSAT is offered on the second Wednesday of October. If your school doesn’t offer it, you can contact the College Board directly to see which schools offer it nearby. The whole objective of the PSAT is to get some practice before the SAT or ACT. If you have the opportunity to take it twice, go for it!

What do your PSAT scores mean?

You’re going to be waiting for what feels like FOREVER to get your scores (which aren’t released until December). Your scores will be sent directly to your school. Your counselor will distribute all of your scores once they’ve tracked them in their system. When you get your score report, create an account on This way, in case you lose the paper copy, you will have access to your scores online. Your code to sign up will be on the bottom of the score report.

The PSAT has 3 sections, and each will have a score ranging from 20-80. Your overall score is the sum of the 3 section scores. A perfect score is a 240. The national average score was a 142 for juniors and a 133 for sophomores. So, if you scored higher than a 142 or 133, you’re above average. Woo! If you take the SAT without doing any prep, you can expect to score similarly, although, we highly recommend using your PSAT results to create your SAT study plan. We highly recommend logging on your account because you’ll be able to view you free Khan Academy customized study plan.

How long is the PSAT?

The PSAT is a shortened version of the SAT, but is still going to be considerably longer than any of the tests you take in school. In recent years, the PSAT added 35 minutes on to the testing time. So, it will take you 2 hours and 45 minutes to finish. You’ll only have two scores: one for the math section and one for the evidence-based reading and writing section. However, there are only three types of questions: math, reading, and writing/language. You’ll have 70 minutes to answer 48 math questions. You’ll have 60 minutes to answer 47 reading questions. And lastly, you’ll have 35 minutes to answer 44 writing/language questions. The writing/language section will require you to move quickly because you’ll have less than a minute per question.

Timing is definitely an issue for a lot of students, so when you’re prepping, make sure you ALWAYS time yourself to see if you’re answering questions at the appropriate speed. Remember, you should give yourself 1 minute and 27 seconds per math question, 1 minute and 16 seconds per reading question, and 44 seconds per writing question. When you’re doing practice drills, multiply the number of minutes per question by the number of questions in the drill to determine how many minutes you should allot for that particular practice drill.

From the PSAT to the SAT

Let’s say you take your PSAT in October of your junior year. You get a 150 (slightly above the national average). Then, you ignore test prep for the rest of the year, and take your SAT in June of that year. You probably shouldn’t expect to improve much. You might improve in some areas; especially if there are things you didn’t know in the beginning of the school year that you mastered between October and June. But it’s unlikely that you’ll improve a considerable amount without doing specific SAT prep. Unless, of course, you fell asleep during the test OR were super nervous.

To equate your score to that of the SAT, all you have to do is multiply each score by 10 (or add a zero to the end of each score). For example, if someone got a 45 on reading, a 56 on math, and a 60 on writing, the overall score would be 160 on the PSAT. When it comes to SAT scoring, it would be a 450 in reading, a 560 in math, and 600 in writing for an overall score of 1600!

Which topics are covered on the PSAT?

The main purpose of the test is to give you an idea of what to expect on the SAT. When you take it junior year, your scores are used to determine if you’re qualified for a National Merit Scholarship. You have to score pretty high in order to qualify, so no worries if you miss out. For the math test, you’ll need to know Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, and Advanced Algebra. Unfortunately, you WILL NOT be able to use your calculator on the math test portion. For the reading test, you no longer need to memorize any vocabulary words, but you’ll still need to know all your grammar rules for the writing section. The reading portion will involve analysis of texts.

Guessing vs. Omitting on the PSAT

In recent years, the PSAT changed its penalties for guessing. Now, you only gain points for correct questions, which means that guessing is the exact same outcome as omitting. In other words, you should never ever omit again! The odds are in your favor if you take a random guess because there is a chance your guess is correct. (Hello, free points!)

The PSAT: To Prep or Not to Prep

Colleges will never see your scores, so you don’t have to worry about that. However, even though the colleges don’t see it, it might be worth it to prep a little (or a lot if you’re a high scorer). If you have the potential of getting an extremely high score on the PSAT, you should probably prep for the exam if you’re a junior. Your PSAT score during your junior year determines whether you qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, which is not only extremely prestigious (and looks great on college applications), but also could earn you money to help pay for college.

If you’re taking the exam during your sophomore year, you probably shouldn’t prep at all because you should really be using this as true practice. When you receive your score report back in December, you’ll be able to determine your main areas of weakness and can focus on prepping those specific topics, concepts, and sections when you start studying. If you’re taking the exam during your junior year, and don’t think you’ll be in the tiny percentage of students qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship, then it’s not as important for you to prep for the exam. The things you should know are: when to guess, the types of questions to expect, the timing of the sections, and length of the exam. This will help you feel less nervous on the day of the exam and will make the entire process a little less stressful.

Always remember that PSAT stands for practice SAT. This is your shot to gage your skills before the real deal- the SAT. Good luck, we believe in you!

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