PSAT | Frequently Asked Questions

Understanding the PSAT/NMSQT*

The acronyms PSAT and NMSQT stand for Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test respectively. Just to confuse us, both these tests are actually the same test, but because the test is used for two distinct purposes, the folks at the College Board decided it needed two distinct names.

So what exactly is it? The test itself is composed of three parts: a verbal section, a math section, and a writing skills section. These sections are then broken down further as follows:

  1. The Critical Reading section is made up of two 25-minute parts comprising sentence completion paragraphs, inference and reading comprehension.
  2. The Math section is made up of two 25-minute parts containing multiple-choice questions and student-produced responses or grid-ins. The subjects are Geometry, Algebra I, Data Interpretation and Logic.
    Note: These two sections correspond almost exactly to the verbal and math sections on the SAT, although the actual breakdown of question types is not always the same. On the SAT, students will be faced with more questions and more parts for each section.
  3. The Writing Skills section is composed of one 30-minute part containing sentence error questions, sentence improvement questions, and paragraph improvement questions. The PSAT Writing does not include an essay.

The PSAT is offered only in October. Most students take the PSAT during the fall of their junior year in high school. Some may choose to take it their sophomore year as a rough gauge for assessing their SAT potential.

The test itself, though shorter in length than the SAT, familiarizes students with a real, serious test-taking environment, and shows them the kinds of questions they can expect to see on the SAT and SAT II Writing exams.

The test also gives students a rough idea of how well they will do on the SAT. Scores are based on a full point credit for right answers and a 1/4-point deduction for wrong answers. The only difference in scoring between the SAT & PSAT is that the PSAT is scored on a scale of 20-80 while the SAT is scored from 200-800. So, if you take your PSAT scores for the math and verbal sections and simply add a 0 (e.g. a 65 becomes a 650, a 72 becomes a 720…) you can find out roughly what your score would have been on the SAT. This conversion doesn’t work quite so well for the writing skills section since the SAT’s essay counts for 25-30% of the Writing score. PSAT scores, however, will not be seen by colleges.

There is some debate about whether the PSAT is more or less difficult than the SAT. The PSAT and SAT contain questions of about the same degree of difficulty. However, the SAT’s greater length could cause a fatigued student’s scores to decrease on the SAT. Familiarity and especially prep for the SAT is a countervailing factor.

Here is what we find: versus the PSAT, SAT scores move toward the middle. Very high PSAT scores typically fall somewhat on SATs taken soon afterward, while very low PSAT scores tend to rise on SATs taken soon afterward. It means a low PSAT scorer should not be disconsolate; it means a high PSAT scorer should not be complacent. She/he needs to actively WORK to make sure that the SAT score is at least as good as the PSAT score.

Secondly, the PSAT is also the test which qualifies students for National Merit recognition and scholarships. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that awards scholarships to high-school seniors. The NMSC uses the PSAT to pool the top scorers for potential scholarship recognition. In order to qualify for these scholarships, a student must be a high-school senior, a U.S. citizen, and must spend only four years completing high school. Of those who qualify on the test in the fall of their junior year, the NMSC takes the 50,000 students who have scored above a certain set score, (usually around 200) and recognizes them for their performance. The following September (fall of a student’s senior year), NMSC will name approximately 2/3 of these students, or 34,000 students, as “Commended Scholars.” Although this is an impressive distinction, commended scholars will not move on to the next level of scholarship competition. To move on to the next level, students must have scored above the benchmark cutoff score in their state. Last year the cutoff score in Connecticut was 220 combined. In Massachusetts it was 221, in New York it was 219, and in Mississippi it was 212. This usually leaves about 16,000 students in the running for scholarships. Those students remaining will be named Semi-Finalists. At this point, the semi-finalists will be required to complete application materials for National Merit Scholarships. This application is remarkably lengthy and involved, and often requires as much, if not more, effort than a typical college application, with questions about a student’s grades, extracurriculars, SAT scores, required teacher and counselor recommendations, and a student essay. Based on this application, the NMSC will name Finalists who qualify for the award, and in May of a student’s senior year, NMSC will name approximately 8,000 scholarship recipients. The scholarship received will be one of three types of scholarship:

  1. National Merit $2500 Scholarships. A one-time, unrestricted award to the student, to take to the college of his or her choice.
  2. Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards. These awards are sponsored by businesses and corporations, and vary depending on the business. They are usually given to students who are somehow affiliated with the company (parents employed there, etc.) or who are proposing to enter a field of study in which a corporation has a vested interest. For instance, DuPont might sponsor a student who proposes to study biochemical engineering…
  3. College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards. These awards are given by individual colleges to students who qualify in an effort to entice the student to that college. Based on where a student has indicated he or she is planning to attend, NMSC forwards information to that college, and some schools choose to make students offers of scholarships. These offers can often be very impressive, and are occasionally worth $50,000 or more. However, because top schools usually attract high-achieving students anyway, they seldom give these types of awards. No Ivy League school sponsors this scholarship.

In addition to this process, there exists also a similar process of awarding scholarships to Black American students under a program called the National Achievement Scholarship Program. The process and time frame is exactly the same, although the numbers are slightly different. In the achievement program, 5,000 Black American students are commended, 1600 move on to be semi-finalists, 1200 are named finalists, and approximately 700 will be awarded scholarships in one of the three types of programs listed above.

PSAT scores are sometimes used by private companies to apportion awards to the college-bound students of their employees. And PSAT scores are used by some college athletic coaches to get an early “heads up” about strong students for their recruiting class.


What’s the difference between the PSAT and the SAT? First, every SAT I is seen by the colleges. The PSAT is not seen by colleges. Unless you get a tremendous score (top 2%), the PSAT is meaningless. The top 2% in each state qualify for National Merit recognition. Second, the format differs. The PSAT is shorter, but covers the same types of questions as the SAT I. It does not require a written essay though. Third, the scoring differs, though not significantly. PSAT gives two-digit scores from 20 – 80 and SAT gives three digit scores from 200 – 800. For National Merit recognition, a strong PSAT verbal ability is doubly rewarded, as the formula is Math + Verbal + Writing. Again, “Writing” should be called “Error Recognition” or “Grammar”; it is a 30 minute multiple choice section that comes at the end. It is NOT a handwritten entry (your child didn’t miss something).

There is no discernible difference in level of difficulty between PSAT and SAT. However counselors find that SAT scores move towards the median – i.e. high PSAT scorers usually fall on their SAT (unless they prep); low PSAT scorers usually rise on their SAT. Since the SAT tests the same level of reading, the same type of vocabulary, and the same math skills as the PSAT, we surmise that this “norming” owes to the SAT being a longer test and a more prepped-for test.

Since the PSAT is not the best indicator of SAT performance, we have an antidote for parents interested in seeing their child’s likely SAT prowess early on. Buy “The Official SAT Study Guide” from Barnes & Noble. Have your child take any of these tests. The eight practice tests herein can be scored at home on the same 200 – 800 scales. That will allow you get a realistic snapshot of how s/he would do on the test.

For students who have a chance at National Merit recognition, or whose esteem would be enhanced with a strong PSAT score, or who simply want early practice on a test their peers will all take, Ivy Bound offers a 7-session PSAT class each fall.

PSAT Prep Mini-Course

What to Expect:

  • Five sections
  • The first four are 25 minutes each, two math sections and two Critical Reading sections.
  • The fifth section, 30 minutes, is called “Writing” but is really a test of spotting bad grammar and improving sentences.
  • Math Tested:
    • Geometry
    • Algebra I
    • Arithmetic
    • Graphs and Data
  • Critical Reading Tested:
    • Sentence Completion
    • Reading Comprehension
  • “Writing” Tested:
    • Error Identification
    • Improving Sentences
    • Improving Paragraphs
  • There is no written essay assigned in the PSAT. The SAT will require a 25-minute essay.

PSAT Guessing Strategy

Always guess on verbal questions you encounter, and there is nothing wrong with randomly guessing on math.

Even RANDOM guessing is unlikely to penalize you. The 1/4 point loss on 4 of five randomly guessed questions is likely to be completely offset by the full point gained on the fifth question. Therefore, nothing is wrong with random guessing except that it takes a few seconds to bubble in ovals.

Anything better than random guessing is therefore advantageous. If you can eliminate one answer with certainty, guess from among the rest. If you THINK you know the right answer, but aren’t sure, guess. We’re 99% certain that if you did this over the course of 20 questions, you would improve your score compared to leaving these 20 questions blank.


Rather: there is a penalty for guessing wrong, and a reward for guessing right. That reward is four times greater than the penalty, so you need only be right once in five guesses to break even.

Widely Tested Errors on the PSAT Grammar Section

Subject-Verb Agreement

Singular subjects take the singular form of the verb. Interestingly, this often means the singular verb concludes with an “s”. Example: He goes. They go. You know that, because it often sounds funny when done incorrectly. The trick comes when many words separate the subject from the verb. Here’s how not to get caught:

  1. Ask yourself what’s the subject?
    • Two places where you won’t find the subject
      1. Inside a prepositional phrase
      2. Inside a subordinate clause (separated by commas)
  2. Is it singular or plural?
    • Note that the pronouns “everyone”, “each”, “anybody”, and “somebody” are singular! Example: Each of us follows the leader. These are called singular indefinite pronouns. (Indefinite because no person is directly identified).
    • The negatives are also singular: “nobody”, “no one”, “nothing”, “none”, and “neither”.
    • Other singular words that might be hard to envision as singular: army, committee, legislature.
    • Words ending in “-ing” (gerunds) are singular. Example: Running is my least favorite physical activity. Even “-ing” clauses stay singular. Example: Riding my bicycle with one wheel twelve inches off the ground and my hands in the air gives me exhilaration.
    • Here are plural indefinite pronouns: “several”, “many”, “lots”, “both”, “a few”.
  3. Ask yourself what’s the verb?
    • Note that verbs contained in subordinate clauses don’t count. A subordinate clause is set off by commas. You know the clause is subordinate if you can take it out and still have a sentence. Example: Solomon, the wise king who was known throughout the Middle East during the 10th Century BC, amassed his wealth by forcing men to labor for the kingdom.
    • The verb here is “amassed”. The sixth word “was” is a part of the long subordinate clause, so it is not the verb of the sentence. Here, the simple sentence is “Solomon…amassed his wealth by forcing men to labor for the kingdom.”
  4. Is the subject doing the action?
    • After the introductory clause, the next subject should refer to something IN THAT CLAUSE, not something new.
      • BAD: Landing two hours later than scheduled, the airport was a welcome destination for all the weary travelers.
      • The airport did not land two hours late! The plane did; the people in the plane did.
      • BETTER: Landing two hours later than scheduled, the weary travelers welcomed being in the airport.
      • BAD: The zookeeper being trusting of his staffers, two of them let him down by failing to lock the rhinos in their pens following a feeding.
      • The zookeeper is the subject. “Two of them” cannot possibly be referring to the zookeeper.
      • BETTER: The zookeeper being trusting of his staffers, he was disappointed when two of them failed to lock the rhinos in their pens following a feeding.
      • Technically, the error here is a “dangling participle”. SAT II does not require you to know the terminology, just to identify the problem.
      • BAD: Coursing nearly 100 miles through the Grand Canyon, variations in the Colorado River can be appreciated by those who take a guided rafting tour.
      • BAD: Coursing nearly 100 miles through the Grand Canyon, those who take a guided tour by raft can appreciate the variations in the Colorado River.
      • BETTER: Those who take a guided tour by raft can appreciate the variations in the Colorado River, which courses nearly 100 miles through the Grand Canyon.

Misplaced Modifiers

  • Modifiers should be placed nearest to the word they modify. This avoids ambiguity.
    • UNCLEAR: They discussed the new video game in the dorm lounge.
    • BETTER: In the dorm lounge they discussed the new video game.
    • UNCLEAR: Reggie told Hanna in the office he had a blueprint of the new home.
    • BETTER: Reggie told Hanna he had a blueprint of the new home in the office.
  • There’s common sense needed here. The context should make clear what is needed. The best way to assess is to ask “does the sentence leave any reader confused as to who is doing the action, or who is receiving it?”
    • UNCLEAR: “The Lava Lamp eerily displayed so many shapes against the dark wall, Bart became transfixed by watching it.” Is Bart watching the wall or the Lava Lamp? Replace the “it” and make clear what he’s watching.
    • UNCLEAR: “The physician suggested he undergo an EKG every year.”
    • BETTER: “Every year the physician suggested he undergo an EKG.”
    • PERHAPS UNCLEAR: “The psychiatrist told the patient weekly to call his mother”.

Pronoun Errors

  • A pronoun is a word that stands for a noun. The noun must be stated. Pronouns should not refer to unstated nouns.
    • BAD: “It needs to be treated as if it were a noun.” (Vague “it”)
    • BETTER: “The pronoun needs to be treated as if it were a noun.”
    • BAD: “Woe is me.”
    • BETTER: “Woe is I.” (Still not great because humans shouldn’t be compared to emotions.)
    • BEST: “I feel woeful.” or “I have woe.”
  • Usually pronoun errors can be “heard”. But that’s still problematic in the case of homonyms. Example:
    • BAD: “Whose there?”
    • BAD: “Its me.”
    • BETTER: “Who’s there?” The contraction substitutes for the letter “i”. “Whose” is a possessive; we need the pronoun.
    • BETTER: “It’s I.” The contraction substitutes for “it is”. “Me” is a direct object. We need “I”, the pronoun.
  • Here is a table for keeping separate the pronoun, possessive and direct object forms.
    Pronoun Possessive Direct Object
    I my me
    you your you
    he his him
    she her her
    it its it
    we our us
    they their them
    who whose whom
  • A direct object means the person who receives the action. The trickiest is who/whom, but fortunately that has not been tested on the SAT in a long time. Generally, use “whom” following a preposition.
    • BAD: “Who did they sell the secrets to?”
    • BETTER: “To whom did they sell the secrets?”
    • DOUBLY BAD: “It is him who the bell rings for.”
    • BETTER “It is he for whom the bell tolls.”
  • Pronouns also lead to ambiguity.
    • UNCLEAR: Pete Rose Jr. was at one time a more adept fielder than Ken Griffey Jr., because he practiced fielding with his father. Better to state whose father he practiced with – Pete Rose Sr. or Ken Griffey Sr.
    • UNCLEAR: “If you are pulled over and have your wallet, make sure to show it to the police officer”. The “it” seems to refer to the wallet. More likely the writer wants to refer to the driver’s license in the wallet.
  • Don’t let the pronoun accidentally shift into the plural.
    • BAD: “If he or she is conscientious, they leave the kitchen as it was in the morning.” It’s cumbersome to use “he or she” so often, but it’s correct. “They” cannot refer to an individual.
    • BAD: “Either Marco, Barry, or Patricia are allowed to take their “smoke” brake in the first thirty minutes of the shift.”
    • BETTER: “Either Marco, Barry, or Patricia is allowed to take his or her “smoke” break within the first thirty minutes of the shift.”

Parallel Construction

  • Items in a series must be parallel. This means there needs to be a consistency in any series of words or prepositional phrases.
    • GOOD: “We mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
    • GOOD: “Teaching a child to walk, keeping the child from harm, and helping the child eat are all great joys in parenting.”
    • GOOD: “To know him is to love him.”
    • BAD: “To know him is loving him.”
    • BAD: “Simon blocked the driveway, blasted the car radio, and he set fire to the mailbox, all in an attempt for attention.”
    • BAD: “We union nurses can be proud of our reputations, our efficiency, our cleanliness, alertness, and our compassion.”
  • Watch out for subtle redundancies.
    • BAD: “Every undergrad is required to pass eighteen courses, to do volunteer service, and has to pass a swim test.” There’s a doubled word – “required” and “has to”.
  • Note that “who” refers to people, whereas “that” refers to things. Infant humans can go either way.
    • DOUBLY BAD: “That’s Marcia. She was the lawyer that defended me in traffic court”.
    • BETTER: “That’s Marcia. She is the lawyer who defended me in traffic court.”

Verb Tense

  • All kinds of errors fit this category. The general rule is that the sequence of events must be clear. There’s past tense and “past past”, and certain constuctions have to let the reader know which came first.
  • Most of these errors can be “heard”. One way to check yourself for past participles is to scan the irregular ones on pg. 162-163 of Barron’s.
  • Here are a few subtle ones that might be hard to “hear”. Again, think clarity.
    • BAD: “By the time I get to Memphis, my chauffer will be waiting for over four hours.”
    • BETTER: “….will have been waiting for over four hours”.
    • BAD: “When Brandon first learned to play the cello, his brother was proficient at the trumpet for over a year.”
    • BETTER: “…had been proficient at the trumpet for over a year”.
    • BAD: “The day my Mom allows me to eat Captain Crunch for breakfast will have been the day I was kicked out of the home”.
    • BETTER: “The day my Mom allows me to eat Captain Crunch for breakfast will be the day I am kicked out of the house”.

Changing Narrative Voice

  • Consistency is key. When one begins a sentence in the third person singular, one should end it that way, as we do here.
    • BAD: “When one begins in the third person singular, he or she should not change mid-course.”
    • BAD: “If you take all the shells you can off the sea floor each day, we don’t leave enough for others.”

Bad Logic

  • It all has to make sense. At times, the sense is lacking. owing to improper punctuation.

Idiom Errors

  • These are random errors that carry no general rules. In some ways this is quite unfair to the student who has read very little English because s/he has little to study. We’ll put some proper phrases here, but unfortunately the list is infinite.
    • disdain for
    • responsible for
    • in the event of
    • sort of
    • kind of

Commonly Mistaken Words Used On the PSAT

  • affect / effect / effect – (1)To affect is to influence someone or something; (2)to effect is a seldom used verb meaning to cause a result or to bring about change, and (3)the effect is a noun that is the result.
    • Example. The effect (3) of the stock market crash was a widespread return to investing in CDs. The crash affected (1) Harold enough to stop his day-trading and get a regular-paying job.
    • Example. The President’s speech effected (2) fear among pharmaceutical company workers that he was going to nationalize the health care industry, the effect (3) of which would have caused many of the workers to lose their jobs. Note that President is capitalized when referring to a specific leader of the nation, otherwise it is not capitalized. Example. “the president of IBM” vs. “President Nixon”
  • aspire / inspire – To aspire is to have a goal. “I aspire to being able to drive a Porsche.” To inspire is to instill some motivation in somebody. “My teacher inspired me to learn more vocab.” Both together: “Since I aspired to become a virtuoso musician, I was inspired to listen to more opera.”
  • anecdote / antidote – An anecdote is a short story. It is not necessarily factual. “Anecdotal evidence” means a story that is not verifiable, and thus not as solid as direct evidence. An antidote is something that combats an affliction. “Aspirin is an antidote for pain.” Both together: “The former attorney likes to tell ethical anecdotes, including ‘religion is the antidote to law school'”.
  • allusion / illusion – An allusion is a reference to something. “The Republican candidate made an indirect reference to impropriety in the White House, an allusion the audience knew related to the Presidential sex scandal.” An illusion is an image that is not real. “He was under the illusion that he was Napoleon.” Both together: “The candidate spoke of a ‘little guy with a bad haircut who is under the illusion that he can run the country’, an allusion most took to apply to Ross Perot”.
  • conscience / conscious / conscientious – Conscience is a person’s sense of ethics, morality, or righteousness. It should not be used regarding animals. Conscious means being mentally alert. Conscientious means diligent, thoughtful, or hard-working. All three: “After the opposing prizefighter suffered a long-term loss of consciousness, the human suffering accompanying the victory weighed heavily on the winner’s conscience, so he conscientiously set about informing his fellow fighters about the inherent dangers of their sport.”
  • elicit / illicit – To elicit is to draw a response from. “Several pokes at the turtle’s shell finally elicited a response – it scampered away.” “The teacher tried to elicit a verbal response from the class, but there was only silence.” Illicit means not permitted. It can be a substance such as illicit drugs, or a behavior such as prostitution. Both: “The undercover agents tried to elicit the Congressman to take a bribe, but either because he was onto their scheme, or because nothing could sway him that day, he did not succumb to doing anything illicit.”
  • eminent / imminent – Eminent means standing out or conspicuous. It often relates to a prominent official, who could be referred to as “his eminence”. It can mean important, from which we get “eminent domain” – important land that the government has the right to develop, even if someone else owns it. Imminent means on the verge of occurring. “Despite his past seasons of success, the eminent coach was clearly not the inspiring force he once was, and after 13 straight NFL losses his firing was imminent.”
  • fewer / less – Fewer is used when referring to items that are distinguishable. Less is used when the items are not distinguishable. “Fewer than 100 people attended the outdoor concert…”. “Less water flowed through the pipe…” Countable is a good way to assess whether to use fewer or less. Note: if supermarkets used proper English their signs would read “9 items or fewer”.
  • from / between – When moving, from is the better word. When picking a number, between is proper. “The car accelerates from zero to sixty in twelve seconds.” “I’m thinking of a number between one and one thousand.” “Call me between 9:30 and 11:00 pm.” “I will be working from 10 until midnight.”
  • more / most, better / best, greater / greatest – The first word in the pair is the “comparative”. It is used only when comparing two items. The second word is the superlative. It is used when comparing three or more items.
  • like / as – “Like” is used when comparing nouns or adjectives; “as” is used when comparing verbs. “Be like Mike” is proper because the comparison is to the noun Mike. “Do as Michael Jordan does” is proper because the comparison is to the verb “do”.
  • that / which – Use “that” when the clause is essential. Use “which” when the clause is not essential, i.e. set off by commas, subordinate.
    • BAD: “The car which hit the hydrant is still there.”
    • BAD: “The 500 letters which accumulated on the Senator’s desk were largely hate-mail.”
      • There is no subordinate clause, so the better word is “that”.
    • GOOD: “Fifteen light years, which is a small distance when considering the whole universe, is not imaginable.”
    • GOOD: “A light year, which is a measure of distance, is often mistaken for a measure of time.”
  • who / which – Use “who” when referring to humans: “The members of the chorus who perform best will receive commendations”. Use “which” when referring to everything else, including groups of humans: “The chorus which performs best will go on to the national finals.” When referring to infants, the rule should be “who”, but either is acceptable, so this won’t be tested on the SAT.
    • BAD: “Billy Joel, the singer that recently filed for bankruptcy despite earning over $100 million over his long career, …”
    • BETTER: “Billy Joel, the singer who…”
  • who / whom – Use “who” any time where you’d say “he”. “Who” is a pronoun. “Who/he gave Mary that pen”. “He who laughs last, laughs the longest.” Use “whom” any time you’d say him. “Whom” is a direct object. “To whom should Mary give the pencil?” “Those whom fortune has smiled upon with perfect health.”
  • : / ; – The colon is used to introduce a list or summary of what has happened prior to the colon. It can separate independent clauses. The semicolon always connects independent clauses, i.e. the words on both sides of the “;” can stand alone as independent sentences. The semicolon replaces conjunctions like and, or, but, however, yet for the purpose of linking two closely related independent clauses.
  • its / it’s – “Its” is possessive. It means “belonging to it”. This is an exception to the rule that most possessives get an apostrophe. Other exceptions: “his” (instead of he’s); “mine” (instead of me’s). “It’s” is a contraction. The word uses the apostrophe to shorten “it is”.Example. “When smoke emanated from the library annex, the librarian calmly announced ‘it’s time to leave’ and she personally removed the most precious documents from its collection on her way out.

Class Schedules

Online or In-Person Classes

Register for SAT/ACT or Speedy Reading

International Offerings

Students heading to U.S. Universities

Prep Now From Home For The SAT/ACT

Find A Tutor

Looking for One-on-One Instruction?

Connect with one of our qualified tutors.