How to Prepare for PSAT

PSAT stands for Preliminary SAT(Scholastic Aptitude Test and Scholastic Assessment Test) and coincides with the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). By taking this test, a student not only gets practice for SAT but also have the chance to win the National Merit Scholarship and other awards.

What does the PSAT test?

PSAT is formatted like the actual SAT, and serves as an excellent introduction to SAT. The new PSAT, launching in October 2015, is 2 hours and 45 minutes long and tests your skills in Reading, Writing, and Math. The highest score possible on the PSAT is 1520.

The PSAT has two sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.

Evidence-Based Reading

  • 60 minutes
  • 9 Questions on U.S./World Literature
  • 18-20 Questions on Social Studies/History
  • 18-20 Questions on Science

There are 5 reading passages or paired passages:

  • 1 U.S./World Literature passage
  • 2 Social Studies/History passages (or 1 passage + 1 passage pair)
  • 2 Science passages (or 1 passage + 1 passage pair)

The Evidence-Based Reading section of the PSAT is the longest, single section of the exam lasting 60 minutes and covering 47 questions. That’s approximately 75 seconds per question, not including the time needed to read each of the 5 word passages or passage pairs, each between 500-700 words.

This section of the exam is aimed at testing your ability to draw supported conclusions from the passage details and/or make inferences based on the author’s point of view. Passage topics include U.S. or World Literature, Social Studies, History, and Science and are sourced from high-quality, previously published sources. Passages are tested on your ability to comprehend and infer meaning from the author’s tone and point of view. For Science and Social Studies/History, you will read paired passages and will be asked to draw connections between the two. Additionally, you will encounter passages accompanied with charts, tables, and graphs. Questions related to these passages will test your ability to incorporate information in the passage with information presented graphically to answer a question, for example, to identify which of the given answer choices supports information presented in a graphic.

Reading comprehension questions will test your ability to identify the meaning of words and phrases in context. Some will ask you to draw a logical conclusion, and then also ask that you select the text that led you to that conclusion. Other questions may ask you to synthesize information using the passage and a related graphic to draw a logical conclusion, or identify how a word choice influences the overall passage’s meaning and tone.

TIP: read actively, asking yourself questions and taking notes as you read the passage. The key is to find the answer in the passage quickly and accurately.

Writing & Language

  • 35 minutes
  • 24 Questions on Expression of Ideas
  • 20 Questions on Standard English conventions

The Writing & Language section of the PSAT is 35 minutes long and covers 44 questions. That’s approximately 45 seconds per question, not including the time needed to read each of the 4 word passages, each between 400 and 450 words.

This section of the exam is aimed at testing your ability to identify and correct areas where the passage does not comply with standard English conventions, such as grammar, usage, and punctuation. In short, your ability to identify errors in the passage and determine the necessary revision among the answer choices is key.

Passage topics include Careers, Social Studies, History, Humanities, and Science. At least one of the four passages will include an informational graphic, where you will be asked to harmonize the information presented in the graphic into the passage, by completing a sentence in the passage.

TIP: with only 35 minutes, you’ll need to quickly identify where the passage does not comply with standard English conventions and eliminate answer choices that do not address the issue you’ve identified.


  • 25 minutes: No Calculator
  • 45 minutes: Calculator
  • 16 Heart of Algebra
  • 13 Data Analysis & Problem Solving
  • 16 Passport to Advanced Math
  • 2 Additional Topics in Math

The Math section of the PSAT is 70 minutes long and covers 47 questions. That’s approximately 90 seconds per question. For the first 25 minutes, you’ll be required to answer questions without use of a calculator. For the remaining 45 minutes, you will be allowed the use of a calculator.

This section of the exam will focus on algebraic problems and your ability to analyze and interpret a set of data. Many questions will require two or more steps in order to solve them.

You will see two kinds of question formats in this section: grid-in questions or ones where you’ll be asked to enter an answer; and multiple-choice questions where you’ll have 4 answers choices to choose from.

Heart of Algebra problems will test your ability to create, solve, and analyze equations, systems of equations, linear equations, inequalities, and functions. Problem-Solving and Data Analysis problems will focus on real-world problems that include concepts in proportional relationships, percentages, complex measurements, and data interpretation and synthesis. Passport to Advanced Math will test your ability to understand and analyze the structure of advanced expressions as well as complex equations, including quadratic and higher-order equations.

When to Take PSAT?

Most students take PSAT in October of their junior year, only the scores they receive at that time will be considered for the National Merit Scholarship program. If a student takes it earlier, it will just be practice.

Test Dates and Locations

PSAT is given in October every year, and must be signed up and taken at a high school. Ask your school counselor about when your class is scheduled to take the PSAT.

Prepare for PSAT

There are a wide variety of books, prep courses, online study guides, and sample tests to get ready for PSAT. Many of the best exam preparation techniques overlap between SAT and PSAT.

PSAT Score

Each section is scored on a scale of 160–760, making a “perfect” score 1520.

College Board has instituted a tiered system, with top scores of 800 for the SAT, 760 for PSAT 11 and PSAT 10, and 720 PSAT 8/9. For the PSAT, scores for math and evidence-based reading and writing (EBRW) range from 160-760. Combined scores on PSAT 10/11 are 320-1520.

Using Your PSAT Score Report

Your score report will give you feedback about the areas you need to work on to improve. PSAT scores are not part of the college admissions application. You still have time to strengthen your weakness and be more prepared before taking SAT.

What Could You Score on the New SAT?

The PSAT and SAT are scored on slightly different scales, but your TOTAL PSAT score is a direct indicator of your total SAT score. For example, a total PSAT score of 1000 means that, if you took the SAT on the same day, you would have gotten a total SAT score of 1000.

Recommended Books for PSAT Preparation

Merit Scholarships

If you are one of the top 50,000 highest-scoring test takers of PSAT, you will be considered for the National Merit Scholarship. Semifinalists are those students who are top about 16, 000 of 50,000, representing the top scorers from every state. Among them, about 8,200 students receive National Merit Scholarships after considering their grades in high school, SAT score, biographical letter, and recommendation.

The formula for the National Merit Selection Index

The Selection Index (score for National Merit) will equal the math score + 2 EBRW.

For example:

Student A: ERW 600, M 700. Selection Index 190: 2×60 + 70
Student B: ERW 650, M 650. Selection Index 195: 2×65 + 65

Because the PSAT scale has changed, so too will National Merit cutoff scores. The highest possible index score is no longer 240 but 228. The National Merit Program notifies students in late September.

The PSAT won’t count towards your college admissions applications, but it is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship and other awards. Prepare it early and well!

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