What is the PSAT? How is it scored? What is it used for?

The Preliminary SAT /National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT) is a program co-sponsored by the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Almost everyone refers to this test simply as the PSAT and we will do so, too. Students take the PSAT in October of 11th grade. Students may take the PSAT in October of 10th grade, but that score does not count towards National Merit Scholarship qualification. The PSAT is not used as a factor in college admissions. However, it is used as the primary qualifier for National Merit Scholarship recognition.

What is the content on the PSAT? What are the different test sections? How long does it last?

The PSAT tests the same math and language arts skills as the SAT* using the same question types. The PSAT is a shorter exam (2 hours, 10 minutes) than the SAT and includes only five sections. There is no experimental section on the PSAT, nor is there an essay or higher-level Algebra.

Each section of the PSAT (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing) is scored from 20 to 80. The three section scores are then combined to produce an overall score, called a Selection Index, of 60 to 240. To approximate a student's projected SAT score, multiply the overall PSAT score by 10. This is a very rough approximation because of the structural and content difference between the two tests.

The PSAT is administered in October each year. For more information, see Each school offers the test sitting on one date.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition for recognition and scholarships that began in 1955. High school students enter the National Merit Program by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT) and by meeting the following entry requirements:

  • Take the PSAT in the specified year of the high school program (usually junior year) and no later than the third year, regardless of grade classification or educational pattern;
  • Be enrolled full time as a high school student, progressing normally toward graduation or completion of high school, and planning to enroll full time in college no later than the fall following completion of high school; and
  • Be a citizen of the United States; or be a U.S. lawful permanent resident (or have applied for permanent residence, the application for which has not been denied) and intend to become a U.S. citizen at the earliest opportunity allowed by law.

Qualification for National Merit Scholarship recognition varies by state and town. A PSAT Selection Index score (critical reading + mathematics + writing skills scores) of approximately 200 to 210 is usually sufficient for some form of recognition. Of the approximately 1.4 million National Merit Scholarship entrants in a given year, about 50,000 qualify for recognition in the National Merit Scholarship Program. The National Merit Scholarship is a $2,500 single payment scholarship. Winners are selected without consideration of family financial circumstances, college choice, or major or career plans. The National Merit Scholarship program also includes a variety of corporate-sponsored and college-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards. A list of corporate organizations that sponsor Merit Scholarship awards or Special Scholarships is in the PSAT Official Student Guide:

Once a student qualifies for recognition, the following sequence comes into play:

ALL STUDENTS: In April following the October test administration, high-scoring participants from every state are invited to name two colleges or universities to which they would like to be referred by NMSC. In September, these high scorers are notified through their schools that they have qualified as either a Commended Student or Semifinalist.

COMMENDED STUDENTS: In late September, more than two-thirds or about 34,000 of the approximately 50,000 high scorers on the PSAT receive Letters of Commendation in recognition of their outstanding academic promise. Commended Students are named on the basis of a nationally applied Selection Index score that may vary from year to year and is below the level required for participants to be named Semifinalists in their respective states. Although Commended Students do not continue in the competition for Merit Scholarship awards, some do become candidates for Special Scholarships sponsored by corporations and businesses.

SEMIFINALISTS: In early September, about 16,000 students, or approximately one-third of the 50,000 high scorers, are notified that they have qualified as Semifinalists. Semifinalists are the highest scoring entrants in each state and designated on a state representational basis. To be considered for a Merit Scholarship award, Semifinalists must advance to Finalist standing in the competition by, among other things, meeting high academic standards, being endorsed by a school official, confirming PSAT performance on an official SAT, and completing a detailed application.

FINALISTS: In February, about 15,000 Semifinalists are notified by mail that they have advanced to Finalist standing. High school principals are also notified.

WINNERS: Beginning in March and continuing to mid-June, NMSC notifies approximately 8,200 Finalists that they have been selected to receive a Merit Scholarship award. Merit Scholar designees are chosen from the Finalist group based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments without regard to gender, race, ethnic origin, or religious preference. Criteria include the Finalist's academic record, information about the school's curricula and grading system, two sets of test scores, school official's written recommendation, information about the student's activities and leadership, and the Finalist's own essay.

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