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What the PSAT Is and What to Know About the Exam

Josh Moody

The SAT may be a household name, but high school students should also familiarize themselves with the PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The exam comes in three forms: the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT/NMSQT and the PSAT 10. The PSAT 10 is the same test as the PSAT/NMSQT, though students take these exams at different times of year. The PSAT8/9 acts as a baseline for college readiness, according to the College Board, the test-maker, while the other two allow "check-in on student progress."

The PSAT is "a slightly shorter and slightly easier version of a test kids will be taking their junior and senior year," explains Jed Applerouth, founder and president of Georgia-based Applerouth Tutoring Services LLC. "It's a warm-up. It gives students and parents guidance in terms of how they'll perform on the SAT."

What Is the PSAT?

So, what does that alphabet soup mean, anyway?

The PSAT 8/9 is designated for students in the eighth and ninth grades and the PSAT 10 is for sophomores. The PSAT/NMSQT stands for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which students take as a sophomore or junior. High enough marks on the PSAT/NMSQT as a junior can help a student land a National Merit Scholarship, which can mean big bucks for college.

[Read: How You Can Win a National Merit Scholarship.]

"So many students take this test because they believe that they will be able to get the score that will make them eligible for the scholarship," Chris Lele, senior GRE/SAT curriculum manager for Magoosh, a California-based online test prep company, wrote in an email.

But earning a National Merit Scholarship is no easy task. According to 2018 numbers from the National Merit Scholarship Program, more than 1.6 million students took the PSAT in October 2016. Of those test-takers, 7,563 were Merit Scholar designees in 2018.

What Is the Value of the PSAT?

Students can gauge the value of the PSAT in two ways, experts say. One is as a pathway to a National Merit Scholarship or another special scholarship backed by corporate sponsors, and the other is as test prep for the SAT, which is broadly used as a college admissions exam. Taking a trial run with the PSAT is one way to get ready for the SAT.

"For many students -- depending on how states deliver state assessments -- this may be the first time they are timed on an exam," says Kathleen Plott, instructional officer of advanced academics at Klein Independent School District in Texas.

Experts say that generally, the PSAT is a low-stakes test unless a student is aiming for a National Merit Scholarship.

Colleges don't use the PSAT as part of admissions criteria, so taking the test can be a good way to identify shortcomings in a particular subject or to work out testing anxiety, says Kelli Gray, a premium tutor at Applerouth. "I see with a lot of students who are struggling with test anxiety that sitting for this official PSAT exam with a real proctor, and getting a real score, helps prepare students for that real SAT situation," Gray says.

The PSAT and SAT are quite similar, experts say, which makes taking the PSAT a useful exercise for SAT preparation.

"The SAT is quite a bit longer and more difficult, but essentially tests the exact same thing," Lele says, adding that "it's as though someone took a majority of the easy and medium questions on the SAT and put them in one section -- that's basically the PSAT."

How Is the PSAT Timed?

The length varies by test, with two hours and 25 minutes for the PSAT 8/9 and two hours and 45 minutes for the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT.

For the PSAT 8/9, the test is broken down into 55 minutes for reading, 30 minutes for writing and language and 60 minutes for math, according to the College Board website. Across those components, there are 42 questions or tasks for reading, 40 for writing and language and 38 for math.

On the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT, 60 minutes is allotted for reading, 35 for writing and language and 70 for math. These test-takers will see 47 questions or tasks in reading, 44 in writing and language and 48 in math.

How Is the PSAT Scored?

All versions of the PSAT are scored based on two sections: evidence-based reading and writing and math.

Though similar, score ranges differ by versions of the PSAT. For the PSAT 8/9, the score range is 240-1440. The range for the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT comes in a bit higher at 320-1520. On all three exams, the score is calculated by combining the results from the reading and writing section and the math portion.

For all versions of the PSAT, the College Board has established benchmarks. Students in the eighth grade taking the PSAT 8/9 should earn a 390 on the reading and writing section and a 430 on math. On the same test, students in the ninth grade should earn a 410 in reading and writing and a 450 in math. According to the College Board, those scores "predict a 75% likelihood of achieving a C or higher in related first-year, credit-bearing college courses."

[Read: How Parents, Teens Can Make Use of New PSAT Scores.]

For the PSAT10, benchmarks are set at 430 on reading and writing and 480 on math for 10th grade students. For the PSAT/NMSQT, those numbers are 460 for reading and writing and 510 for math, or 30 points higher in each.

When weighing their scores on the PSAT, Plott says, students should ask themselves: "How have I grown from the first time I took (the test), whether I was in eighth or ninth grade, and how am I moving along the path toward college readiness?"

While two section scores comprise the final result for the PSAT, the topics tested span a variety of subjects. According to the College Board website, students need a knowledge of history, social studies, science and math. And they should be able to demonstrate analytical and problem-solving skills alongside the ability to read, write and reason.

What Is a Good PSAT Score?

When aiming for a particular score, students should think about their motivations, Gray says. "I think it all kind of depends on what your goal is coming out of it, if it's really for (SAT) practice, or if you're trying to shoot for that National Merit qualification."

On the PSAT 8/9, 813 was the mean score for eighth grade test-takers, compared with 870 for their ninth grade peers, according to the most recent data available from the College Board. The mean score on the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT was 934 for 10th grade students. For 11th grade students taking the PSAT/NMSQT, the mean score was 1014.

Scores can reveal strengths and weaknesses, Plott says, and make students aware of deficiencies they can address before the SAT. Pinpointing the exact score needed to earn a National Merit Scholarship is tricky, however, because it varies. There's no set number from year to year.

According to the National Merit Scholarship Corp. website, the 50,000 qualifiers for the award are identified by a Selection Index that is "calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores." Those qualifiers are ultimately pared down to 7,600 National Merit Scholars and about 1,100 other scholarship winners.

Winners are selected from among the highest-scoring PSAT/NMSQT test-takers in each state who also have qualifying SAT or ACT scores, meaning the competition is stiff.

"There's so little room for error that you just have to crush the test," Applerouth says of those chasing scholarship dreams.

How to Prepare for the PSAT

Since the PSAT is similar to the SAT, experts recommend using the same test prep materials for all three exams.

"I'd say whatever SAT strategies are out there, these apply to the PSAT," Lele says. "I think the only exception is pacing advice, since that is often framed around the SAT section and the time allotted for that section. Pacing strategies for the PSAT would need to take into account the number of questions on each section and the time allowed per question."

Magoosh and Applerouth are among numerous companies that offer paid tutoring for students preparing for the PSAT, SAT and other exams. But free options also exist, such as Khan Academy, which multiple test prep experts cite as a valuable resource for the exam.

Plott emphasizes using official resources available on the College Board website or through the affiliated Khan Academy. She urges students to spend time identifying their weaknesses and sharpening them as they prepare for the PSAT and eventually the SAT.

Gray encourages students to pay close attention to pacing to ensure they are finishing practice tests on time. She also works with students to find patterns in the questions they missed on practice tests and boost their knowledge gaps in those areas.

"A lot of the success on the PSAT is about the process and how you're approaching the exam," Gray says.

[Read: How to Study for the PSAT One Week Before the Test.]

Students can submit their PSAT results to Khan Academy for help with SAT test prep.

"Because the PSAT and SAT test an aligned set of skills, if you've already taken the PSAT, simply importing (the results) means that you can get those recommendations without spending the extra time necessary to take a whole separate diagnostic," says Anthony Kao, a product manager at Khan Academy.

When Is the PSAT?

Among the differences between the PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT are test dates.

The PSAT 8/9 is open from Sept. 23 of this year to March 27 of next year, with another session to follow April 14-30. The exam is taken at school and testing dates may vary because individual schools choose when to administer the PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10. The next round of PSAT 10 testing is scheduled for Feb. 24-March 27 of 2020 and again from April 14-30.

For the 2019 PSAT/NMSQT, there are three options: The primary test date is Oct. 16, with alternatives on Oct. 19 and Oct. 30. The anticipated 2020 date for the PSAT/NMSQT is Oct. 14, with alternatives on Oct. 17 and Oct. 28.

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