Should you prep for the PSAT?
Before we dive into discussing the PSAT, first we need to state: The vast majority of students do not need (and probably should not do) PSAT tutoring. Here’s why:
- For the PSAT that most students take in sophomore year, even if they get a perfect score on it, this score does not count for national merit status (only junior year PSAT scores make a student eligible for national merit consideration). So, unless a student just wants to feel comfortable taking the sophomore PSAT, there is no reason to do any tutoring for it.
- For the junior year PSAT, although scores for this are considered for national merit status, it is not worth it for most students — particularly in New Jersey — to do tutoring in pursuit of the national merit scholarship. As will be detailed below, a student needs to get approximately one of the top 600 PSAT scores in New Jersey to become a Semifinalist (which makes a student eligible to then compete to become a scholarship recipient). Because New Jersey is tied with Massachusetts for the highest PSAT scores in the U.S., getting one of the top 600 PSAT scores in New Jersey is very difficult to do (essentially students in New Jersey need a perfect score or very close to be considered for the national merit scholarship).
- And, even if a student does become a Semifinalist based on their PSAT score, they still have only about a 50% chance of then receiving the National Merit Scholarship (of the roughly 16,000 Semifinalists in the U.S., about half of them — 7,600 — will receive the National Merit Scholarship).
- Lastly, if a student does receive a National Merit Scholarship, it is significant, but not a game-changer with admissions. What is much more important than being a National Merit Scholar? High school GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and (at the best schools) SAT subject test scores. And the one-time scholarship award of $2,500 is typically less than what the tutoring would cost to score high enough to be considered for it.¹
In summary, because students have to get such a good score on their junior year PSAT — particularly in New Jersey — to even be put in the competition for the National Merit Scholarship, because National Merit status is less helpful than other admissions criteria, and because the the scholarship is a relatively small one-time award, it does not make sense for most students to tutor for their junior year PSAT to pursue National Merit status.
There are two exceptions to the above:
- If a student is already getting near perfect scores on PSAT practice tests, then it can make sense to do some prep to help ensure they get a top score on test day. If they’re already there or close, then go for it: it’s worth a little effort to get the small boost that the National Merit Scholarship can give.
- Even more incentive for the above students: some companies give large additional scholarships to any employee’s child who becomes a National Merit Finalist or recipient. If you work at a company that does so and your child is relatively close to the requisite score to become a National Merit Semifinalist, then there is more financial incentive to potentially pursue this award.
So what is a better use of time and resources than PSAT tutoring?
SAT/ACT tutoring or academic enrichment tutoring. The two primary determinants of college admissions are high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores. If you come from a well-known high school, then GPA is more important because colleges are familiar with the rigor of your high school; if you come from a lesser known high school, then SAT/ACT scores are more important because the college is less familiar with the quality of education at that particular high school. (If the SAT fits you better than the ACT based on baseline scores from both tests, then if you’re doing SAT tutoring you’re really also doing PSAT tutoring, since the SAT and PSAT test the same content.)
The Best PSAT Tutoring in New Jersey
If your child does fit one of the two exceptions above or would simply like to feel more comfortable taking the PSAT (some students would get discouraged by a lower than expected score), then here’s why we offer the best PSAT tutoring:
Completely risk free: Try out a session online or in-person, and, if it does not meet or exceed your expectations, then it’s free.
Curriculum is 100% sourced from the real tests (by far the best quality content available) and customized for each student.
The best test prep experts: we hire only 1% of applicants (sourced nationally, not just from NJ), and each new hire goes through a minimum of 160 hours of specialized training specifically on the SAT and ACT before they meet with their first student.
We retain the best tutors: our SAT and ACT tutors are full-time and on salary with health, dental, vision, long and short-term disability, life insurance, and retirement benefits. They are career, not side hustle, SAT and ACT experts.
In short, we attract, train, and retain the most professional and experienced SAT and ACT instructors, so you get only the best prep and your child can attain unparalleled results.
If you’re interested, we would love to give you a complimentary consultation over the phone or online to discuss the best plan for your child’s college entrance exams: which test to take, when to take them, what score we need for certain colleges, and any other questions you have. It is our privilege and pleasure to serve you and to help empower your children to succeed in life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the PSAT?
- The PSAT is a test published by the Collegeboard (makers of the SAT and SAT subject tests) that is typically given to students in October of their sophomore and junior year of high school.
- It is scored out of 1520 (in contrast to the SAT, which is scored out of 1600). It is designed to give students an early indication of their standardized test readiness and potential scores. A secondary use for the PSAT is to recognize the top scoring students in the country and give approximately 7,600 of them a National Merit Scholarship (a one-time scholarship award of $2,500).
Q: What is the PSAT scored out of?
- The PSAT is scored out of 1520 (the SAT is out of 1600). The PSAT does not have an optional essay (the SAT does, which is scored out of 24 — this optional essay score does not factor into the score out of 1600 on the SAT).
Q: Should I take the PSAT?
Probably. For most students, it’s free to take the PSAT administered at their school. Taking the PSAT has a few benefits:
- It gives you an idea of your current PSAT/SAT percentile score. Granted, PSAT scores are a little less accurate than full-length SAT scores, so you should take a full-length past SAT (and ACT) if you want to get an accurate read on how you score relative to your peers. But, the PSAT still provides good information to understand your progress (especially for sophomores, who usually would not otherwise take a full-length SAT and/or ACT to assess their current scores on those exams).
- If you can score in roughly the top 1% of test takers in your state, then you’ll likely become a National Merit Semifinalist and be considered for the National Merit Scholarship, which roughly 7,600 students with the best scores in the U.S. receive.
- It’s good practice. Most tests in school are not three hours long, so sitting for any long test is good for building up test taking stamina. Just like long-distance runners need to practice so they have energy left at the end of a long race, test takers need to practice taking full tests (not just individual sections) if they want to be able to have mental energy and be able to maintain focus at the end of the SAT and ACT.
- Your score range will be sent to colleges (not your precise score, but a range of where your score fell). Thus, your PSAT score can put you on colleges’ admissions radars, and you might start receiving information in the mail from colleges that want you to consider applying to them (this can be a benefit — if you otherwise would not be aware of those schools — or it can be an annoyance — if you are receiving mail from colleges that you don’t want to receive).
Q: When do students take the PSAT?
- Most students take the PSAT in October of their sophomore and junior years (only junior year PSAT scores are considered for the National Merit Scholarship).
Q: When do PSAT scores come out?
- For PSATs taken in October, scores usually come out in early to mid-December of that same year (so about two months after you take the PSAT).
Q: Should I study for the PSAT?
- Probably not. Unless you are in the top 1% of PSAT scorers in the state, it’s typically not worth it to study or tutor for the PSAT. See the top of this page for additional information on this topic.
Q: What is the structure of the PSAT?
- Reading section
- Time: 60 minutes (Real SAT: 65 minutes)
- Number of questions: 47 (Real SAT: 52 questions)
- Writing and Language section (really just a grammar section):
- Time: 35 minutes (Real SAT: same)
- Number of questions: 44 (Real SAT: same)
- No Calculator Math section
- Time: 25 minutes (Real SAT: same)
- Number of questions: 17 (Real SAT: 20 questions)
- Calculator Math section
- Time: 45 minutes (Real SAT: 55 minutes)
- Number of questions: 31 (Real SAT: 38 questions)
- Done (Real SAT: usually students are then given a fifth “experimental section” that takes 20 minutes; students taking the optional essay are then given 50 minutes to write the essay)
Q: Do the PSAT and SAT test the same content?
- Yes. Exactly the same.
Q: Can I use my PSAT score as a baseline score for my SAT?
- Honestly, no. The PSAT and SAT test the same content, but the PSAT is slightly shorter than the SAT, so scores on the PSAT have more variance than SAT scores (which still have significant variance). To get an accurate baseline score for your SAT, you really need to take a full-length, official past SAT.
National Merit Scholarship Program
Q: What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?
The National Merit Scholarship Program aims to recognize and reward academic excellence and achievement.
Students can receive recognition (as Commended students or Semifinalists) for high PSAT scores. The Semifinalists then compete to become Finalists and then National Merit Scholarship recipients. Receiving a National Merit Scholarship has a few potential benefits:
- A one-time $2,500 scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
- Some companies give additional scholarships to the children of their employees who are awarded National Merit Scholarships.
- Some colleges give additional scholarships to National Merit Scholarship recipients (though, it should be noted that the schools that do so are typically trying to attract better applicants than they might otherwise receive, so a student might have to choose a lesser ranked college than they could otherwise attend in order to receive this additional scholarship — sometimes a full-ride — from a college).
Q: How do I get a National Merit Scholarship?
- “Commended” status gives formal recognition of a very high PSAT score relative to the PSAT scores of other test-takers in a student’s given state.
- “Semifinalist” status similarly recognizes that a student scored roughly in the top 1% of PSAT test-takers in one’s state.
- Of those who attain a Semifinalist designation, 15,000 of them (90% of Semifinalists) will become Finalists (if their subsequent SAT or ACT scores validate the achievement demonstrated by their PSAT score — see page 11 for full list of requirements).
- Of the 15,000 finalists, roughly half (7,600 students) will then ultimately become National Merit Scholarship recipients.
Q: How hard is it to get a National Merit Scholarship?
Because the Commended and Semifinalist designations are awarded based upon a student’s PSAT score in comparison to the scores of all other students in a given state, the difficulty of receiving these designations varies considerably based upon which state a student lives.
For example, students in Massachusetts and New Jersey typically need the highest PSAT scores in the U.S. in order to qualify. In 2019, students in both states needed perfect or near-perfect scores in order to become Semifinalists (they needed an NMSQT score of 222 or above out of a possible 228 points). In comparison, students from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming needed only a score of 209 or above to become Semifinalists.
Q: How is the NMSQT score calculated from a PSAT score?
To convert a PSAT score into an NMSQT score (which is used to rank students for the National Merit Scholarship program), you take the three subsection scores of the PSAT (Reading, Writing/Language, and Math), double them, and add those together.
For instance, a student with a near perfect score on the PSAT of 36 on the Reading (out of 38), 36 on Writing/Language (out of 38), and 35.5 on the Math (out of 38) would have a 215 as their NMSQT score. Thus, in NJ, students can miss a combined 3 subsection points on the PSAT (so they could get a 37 in all three sections — out of 38 in each section — and just hit the Semifinalist cutoff of 222 on NMSQT selection index).
Thus, it’s important to note that, while Math scores are 1/2 of a student’s PSAT score (Verbal out of 760 + Math out of 760 = 1520 possible points on the PSAT) and also 1/2 of a student’s SAT score (Verbal out of 800 + Math out of 800 = 1600 possible points on the regular SAT), Math scores are only 1/3 of the total NMSQT score used for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Thus, on the PSAT, the Verbal section (comprised of the Reading section and the Writing/Language section) is twice as important as the Math section for the final NMSQT score.
Q: When do I find out if I qualified for the National Merit Scholarship?
The timeline is as follows:
- October of junior year: take the PSAT
- December of junior year: get PSAT results
- September of senior year: get notified if you are a Commended student or a Semifinalist
- February of senior year: get notified if you moved on from Semifinalist to Finalist
- March of senior year: get notified if you were awarded a National Merit Scholarship
- The Official Guide to the National Merit Scholarships: https://www.nationalmerit.org/s/1758/images/gid2/editor_documents/guide_to_the_national_merit_scholarship_program.pdf?gid=2&pgid=61
- PSAT information from the Collegeboard: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10