The PSAT: An Overview of the Practice Test & Prep

The PSAT: An Overview of the Practice Test & Prep

16 September, 2021

The Preliminary SAT, which is also called the PSAT/NMSQT or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is part of the College Board’s suite of assessments for college preparedness. The PSAT test serves two primary purposes: it prepares students for the SAT while simultaneously providing a scholarship opportunity. The format of the test and the questions themselves are similar to what students can expect to find on the actual SAT. However, the sections on the PSAT are typically shorter in both time allotted and the number of questions to answer. The PSAT test is usually taken by students in the fall of their junior year, with the test date taking place in October. Local schools administer the test as well as test registration. All tests are administered in person as there is no online PSAT test offered by College Board at this time.

How is the PSAT Set Up?

Similar to the SAT, the PSAT is created to measure a student’s abilities in three areas and is mostly comprised of multiple-choice questions. The PSAT format is designed to prepare students for the SAT, follows the same test structure, and contains the same content. However, as previously mentioned, the PSAT sections are slightly shorter, in terms of both the number of questions and the time allotted to complete the section. Subsequently, the ceiling of question difficulty is a bit lower than on the actual SAT. The PSAT sections are detailed as follows:


  • 60 minutes
  • 47 multiple-choice questions
  • 5 passages
  • 1 literature passage, 1 passage from a US founding document or famous global speech, 1 passage from the social sciences, 2 science passages
  • 1 of the passages will be a pair of passages

The reading portion of the PSAT will require students to read a published excerpt and occasionally interpret visual data. The questions ask that students locate and interpret important pieces of information within the passage or given information.

Writing & Language

  • 35 minutes
  • 44 multiple-choice questions

The name of this section is a bit misleading due to the fact that students will not do any actual writing. Instead, the PSAT Writing and Language section requires students to edit previously printed works. This section tests for sentence development, grammar, and the ability to organize a passage effectively. Students will need to be able to recognize problems and solve them appropriately.


  • Split into two sections but part of one score:
  • Math with no calculator
  • 25 minutes
  • 13 multiple-choice questions
  • 4 grid-in questions
  • Math with a calculator
  • 45 minutes
  • 27 multiple-choice questions
  • 4 grid-in questions

The PSAT math section focuses on problems that are modeled after real-world situations. Many questions subsequently require multiple steps and finding the most effective way to answer them. The math section is unique in the PSAT because there are 8 questions, four in each section, that are not multiple choice and require the students to find solutions independently.

How is the PSAT Scored?

Raw Score

Students receive a raw score for each of the four multiple-choice sections on the PSAT. This score is equal to the number of questions you answered correctly in each individual section. No penalty is applied for incorrect answers on the PSAT. Your raw scores for the two Math sections will be added together, producing a single overall Math raw score.


Next, using a process called equating, the PSAT will produce a scaled score between 160 to 760 for Math and from 80 to 380 for each of the other two sections. These scaled scores take into account the difficulty level of the sections that you completed relative to the difficulty levels of sections that previous test-takers have completed. This process ensures that scores from different versions of the PSAT are comparable and scoring is consistent.

Composite Score

Finally, your three scaled scores will be added together to produce an overall composite score from 320 to 1520. This score is the best single measure of your performance on the test. This is also the score that will be used to judge your candidacy for a National Merit Scholarship.

National Merit Scholarship

As cosponsor of the test, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) receives all PSAT/NMSQT scores and the information students provide on their answer sheets. The NMSC then computes a Selection Index Score for each student by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores. This Selection Index will appear on your PSAT score report, and it will be used by NMSC to identify program Semifinalists. Each Semifinalist will be notified directly by their high school. Recognition is determined on a state-by-state basis, with the top 1% in each state qualifying as Semifinalists. Among that group, about 15,000 students move on to become National Merit Finalists and win scholarship money. For complete details on the program, visit the NMSC’s website or talk with your school counselors.

When To Register & Take the PSAT

The PSAT registration is administered through each student’s high school on dates determined by the school. Generally, this date falls somewhere between October 10 and October 24. Beginning in 2021, College Board also offers a January test date. This will be in addition to the traditional October test. There is also a PSAT 10 that is sometimes taken by 10th graders and serves as a warm-up for the PSAT. The PSAT 10 is generally administered locally by each school in the spring of a student’s sophomore year. To address Covid-19 and health concerns, students taking the PSAT in 2021 can expect extra guidelines put in place based on current CDC recommendations. These typically include mask requirements and social distancing of 6 feet or more.

Preparing for the PSAT

Most students will not prepare for the PSAT unless they intend to seek recognition in the National Merit program or plan to attend a college with high SAT score acceptance ranges. Because those students are by definition seeking scores among the top 1% of students in their state, the preparation tends to be highly customized to the needs of each individual student. Such programs typically begin in the summer before the student’s junior year and run right up to test day itself. Due to the significant overlap between the PSAT and SAT, most of these students then continue on with SAT preparation through the winter of that year.

When it comes to PSAT test prep, we understand that the structure of the test is part of the challenge. As an example, it takes more than just memorizing the quadratic formula to ace the PSAT Math section. Noodle Pros combines practice testing with a personalized tutoring strategy that will optimize each individual student’s test prep efforts. This blend of practice will ensure that you’re addressing every element necessary to be successful on the PSAT, from content to timing to overall strategy. With the PSAT just around the corner, utilizing Noodle Pros’ career tutors is a sure way to improve your test score.

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