Understanding the PSAT / NMSQT

By Jesse Payne-Johnson, Former Academic Director Ivy Bound Test Prep
and Aryeh Drager, Admissions Consultant and Tutor Ivy Bound / Rising Stars
and Mark Greenstein, Founder and Lead Instructor Ivy Bound / Rising Stars

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 reading 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 containing a total of 14 sentence completions, and 32 critical reading questions.

2.) The Math section is made up of two 25-minute parts containing 40 regular multiple-choice questions and 8 student-produced responses (or “grid-ins”).

Note: These two sections correspond almost exactly to the Critical Reading 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 section is composed of one 30-minute multiple choice section containing 19 identifying sentence errors questions, 14 improving sentences questions, and 6 improving paragraph questions.  There is NO essay on the PSAT.

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.
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 ¼ 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,  since the SAT has an essay that counts for 20 – 30% or the “Writing” score . PSAT scores, however, will not be seen by colleges.

The SAT is more difficult on math and about the same on Reading and Writing.  The SAT contains more hard math questions, including some mid-section “stopper” math that cause a not-so-prepared student to rush through the final questions.  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 Reading and “Writing” 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.  Furthermore: versus the PSAT, SAT Math scores tend to fall for all but the weakest students.  That’s because of the SAT’s inclusion of higher function questions and it’s occasional “Stopper Math” questions.  For the average student in our program, the SAT Math skews 40 – 50 points harder.

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 202) 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 reach 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. In 2011, the cutoff score in Connecticut was 220 combined. In Massachusetts it was 221, and in New York it was 218. This usually leaves about 16,000 students in the running for scholarships. Those students 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, extra-curriculars, 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 colleges 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.