PSAT Test Overview: What Is the PSAT/NMSQT?

PSAT Test Overview

This PSAT test overview will review the PSAT/NMSQT. Originally considered a “pre SAT” test by test-takers, this test, like the SAT, has undergone numerous changes over the years. Today, it is considered to be an assessment of college readiness as well as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (that’s the NMSQT after the test’s official name.)

Administered by The College Board, there are actually now three PSATs out there: the PSAT/NMSQT, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT 8/9.

PSAT Test Overview: Basics of the PSAT

Four million students took the PSAT test in 2015, a record number. The test was recently changed so that it better aligns with the newly revised SAT test.

The PSAT 8/9 was also added because so many schools were using the PSAT to assess learning gaps in grades 8 and 9. The original test wasn’t created for this purpose, but The College Board, creator of the PSAT test, made a version to help educators with this goal.

Students who wish to take any of the PSAT versions first need to create a free account on the College Board’s website. After creating an account, they can then register for the test, take practice exams, and access their scores online.

While the scores on the PSAT aren’t sent to colleges, the administration of the PSAT/NMSQT can help students apply for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Over $180 million is available in scholarship funds through National Merit, so a good score on the PSAT test can lead to a scholarship that will help fund your college education.

The three versions of the PSAT test — PSAT 8/9, PSAT/NMSQT, and PSAT 10 — are all versions of the same basic test. The questions are adjusted for the grade level and assumed knowledge level of students in each age bracket.

The PSAT test overview information below reflects the basic PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10. You can learn more about the test in our PSAT Test Overview.

PSAT Sections: What to Expect

The PSAT test is given on specific test administration dates each year. The test itself contains three sections. The entire test takes two hours, 45 minutes. Breaks are given between the sections.

The three PSAT sections include:

  1. Math
  2. Evidence-Based Reading
  3. Writing and Language Arts

Some of the questions on the math test must be solved without a calculator. After completing the first section of the math test that requires you to find answers without a calculator, calculators are permitted.

Section 1 of the PSAT: Mathematics

The Mathematics section of the PSAT contains 47 questions. You are given 70 minutes to take this entire section, which roughly translates to 90 seconds per question.

The first section is given in 25 minutes, and that’s the section you aren’t allowed to use your calculator. After the test administrator gives the signal, calculators may be used for the remaining portion of the test.

You’ll be tested on the following math concepts:

  1. Algebra: This section, called “The Heart of Algebra”, tests your knowledge of basic algebraic equations. Questions include different types of equations such as linear equations. You will be asked to analyze, solve and create equations and systems of equations.
  2. Problem-Solving and Data Analysis: The emphasis in this section is on real-world mathematical concepts you’ll need to know. It includes proportions, proportional relationships, percentages, measurements and data interpretation.
  3. Passport to Advanced Math: This section tests how well you understand higher math concepts such as quadratic equations and other higher-order equations.

The Mathematics section on the PSAT includes two types of questions: multiple choice and grid-in. Grid-in questions means that you actually write in your answers after solving the equations. Even for the multiple choice questions, you’ll be doing a lot of calculations, but the answers are given as one of the multiple choice options.

Another tricky bit on this section is the fact that many of the questions aren’t easy to answer in the short time that you’re given. The best way to approach them is to eliminate the obviously wrong answers first. This helps you narrow down potential right answers, and you can quickly solve to get to them.

The PSAT Evidence-Based Reading Test

Strong reading skills are critical for college success. The PSAT assesses your ability to read different types of college-level materials, interpret what you have read, and draw conclusions.

This section contains five passages chosen from U.S. and/or World Literature, Social Studies and Science textbooks or documents. You’ll be given 60 minutes to complete the section.

After reading each passage, a series of questions are asked about what you’ve just read. The answers to the questions are found within the passages or are based on the passages. You aren’t asked to bring any additional insights into the answers, such as other materials from school or reading. Everything you need to answer the question is included in the test section.

Graphics may be included, especially on the science or social studies questions, that enhance the meaning of the text. This is typical of the types of materials you’ll find in college textbooks.

PSAT Writing and Language Test

This section gets down to the nitty-gritty of grammar and usage. You’ll be given a series of passages to read, with sections underlined or highlighted that may need correction. Then you’ll be asked questions or given a series of possible changes. Your job is to choose the correct changes, if they are needed.

The Writing and Language Test contains 44 questions, which you’ll be expected to answer in 35 minutes. Some of the passages contain graphics that may also have errors in them. You may be asked to correct the errors or identify data errors in the graphics or passages where they don’t match.

The passages will be taken from typical materials you’ve seen before, such as books about careers, social sciences, humanities, history or science. As with the other English Language Arts sections on the test, you’re not expected to bring any additional insights or facts into the test. Everything you need to answer the question correctly is found within the passages or accompanying graphics.

PSAT Scoring System

PSAT scores provide a useful indicator of how well a student is prepared for college. You can compare your score to the established scores that show students well-prepared for college.

The top score on the PSAT is 1520. An online score report is prepared by the College Board and available to students about three weeks after the test date. Your scores also include percentile indicators. These place your section score on a percentile grid, which shows you how well you stack up against typical test takers.

Because the test was recently changed, the norms or average scores aren’t based on actual peer groups as they were in the past. The College Board is using averages taken from many past test administrations to create norms. In the future, scores will show how well students stack up against the past few administrations of the test.

Another interesting fact about PSAT scores is that the College Board now uses them to indicate which potential AP Courses you should take. This can help you plan your high school coursework for your junior and senior years. AP Courses, or Advanced Placement Courses, are college-level courses given in your high school. They may count for college credit, advanced college standing, or both, depending on your score.

In addition to matching you with AP classes, scores from the PSAT are also used to give you individualized SAT practice, which will help you with your SAT scores.

PSAT scores are available only to students, their high schools, districts and state education offices. They are not sent to colleges.

PSAT Test Dates and Fees

The PSAT/NMSQT is offered only once a year in October. The PSAT 10 is offered in the spring of each year, and only once a year. For a list of dates for the upcoming year, see the College Board’s PSAT test dates.

The test costs $15 per student. If you are on free or reduced lunch, or qualify for low income subsidies, the test may cost less or fee waivers may be available.

Because scores are not sent to colleges, there is no additional fee as with the SAT to send scores.

Preparing for the PSAT Test

The PSAT falls between high-stakes tests like the SAT or the ACT and practice tests you may take in your high school classes. While the scores on the PSAT do not determine whether or not you get accepted into college the way that an ACT or SAT score might, the PSAT/NMSQT qualifying test does offer the potential for considerable scholarship money through the National Merit corporation. Students who are seeking scholarships would be smart to practice well before the test to get the best possible score.

Kaplan Test Prep emphasizes the time crunch on each section of the PSAT test. There’s very little time allotted for each problem, so you have to work quickly through them. If you tend to be slow at taking standardized tests, one way to help you get through the test in the time allowed is to practice it at home. This way you will become familiar with the test format and questions.

First, read through all of the section directions well before test day. Become familiar with the section format, the types of questions you’ll be asked and the instructions for answering each. Then, practice sample tests available from the College Board, their partner Khan Academy, and other free resources.

If you’d like to take additional sample tests, there are many test prep organizations who offer books, courses and study groups to help.

The PSAT/NMSQT: Should You Take It?

There’s no hard and fast rule about whether or not you should take the PSAT 10 or the PSAT/NMSQT. Some schools require all of their sophomores to take the test so that they can use the scores to assess how well the school is doing to prepare students for college. If that’s the case, then the question is already answered for you about whether or not you should take the PSAT.

Because the scores aren’t sent on to colleges, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t take the PSAT. It is very good practice for the SAT, and the fall administration qualifies you for the National Merit Scholarship. The results can help you better understand where you may need to work harder, such as on your math or reading comprehension skills.  Results are also used to see which AP courses you might be ready for, which is another benefit of taking the test.

For more information on the PSAT/NMSQT, please see: