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The Ultimate Guide to PSAT Scores and National Merit Scholarships

4 Min Read
December 29, 2023


The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is more than just a practice test for the SAT. For many high school students, it serves as a critical stepping stone towards academic recognition and scholarship opportunities. Understanding your PSAT score is essential, not only for improving your future SAT performance but also for qualifying for prestigious National Merit Scholarships. In this ultimate guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about PSAT scores and how they can open the door to scholarship opportunities. From decoding your score report to leveraging your results for college admissions, this guide has got you covered.

All About PSAT

The PSAT/NMSQT, which stands for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is a standardized test administered by the College Board and co-sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). The PSAT serves multiple purposes: it is a practice test for the SAT, a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program, and a tool for identifying areas where students may need to improve before taking the SAT.

Who Takes the PSAT and Why It’s Important

The PSAT is typically taken by high school sophomores and juniors. Juniors who score exceptionally well can qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which offers prestigious scholarships and academic recognition. For sophomores, the PSAT provides a valuable practice opportunity without the added pressure of scholarship qualification.

Structure of PSAT

The PSAT is structured similarly to the SAT, though it is slightly shorter and less difficult. It includes three main sections:

  • Reading: This section tests comprehension and reasoning skills through passages and related questions.
  • Writing and Language: This section focuses on grammar, punctuation, and effective language use.
  • Math: This section covers algebra, problem-solving, data analysis, and some advanced math topics. It is divided into two parts: one allowing the use of a calculator and one not.

Understanding PSAT Scores

PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520, combining the scores of two main sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math. Each section is scored between 160 and 760. Additionally, students receive subscores and cross-test scores that provide more detailed insights into specific skill areas.

Understanding PSAT Scores & Percentiles

Score percentiles indicate how a student's performance compares to that of other test-takers. For example, a percentile rank of 75 means the student scored better than 75% of test-takers. These percentiles help students understand their relative standing and identify areas for improvement.

Reading PSAT Scores

PSAT score reports are available online through the College Board website. The report includes:

  • Total Score: The combined score of EBRW and Math.
  • Section Scores: Individual scores for EBRW and Math.
  • Subscores: Scores for specific skills within each section, such as Command of Evidence, Words in Context, and Heart of Algebra.
  • Percentiles: Comparative data showing how the student performed relative to peers

Understanding these components can help students identify strengths and weaknesses and set goals for future tests.

The National Merit Scholarship Program

The National Merit Scholarship Program is a prestigious academic competition for recognition and college scholarships. Established in 1955, the program aims to identify and honor academically talented high school students across the United States. Each year, around 1.5 million students enter the competition by taking the PSAT/NMSQT.

The PSAT/NMSQT serves as the initial screening test for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Students' scores on the PSAT are used to determine their eligibility for the program. High-scoring students are recognized and move on to further stages of the competition.

Stages of the NMSQT

  • Commended Students: Approximately 50,000 high scorers are recognized as Commended Students based on their PSAT performance. Although they do not continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships, they may receive other types of academic recognition.
  • Semifinalists: About 16,000 of the highest scorers in each state become Semifinalists. This designation is based on state-specific cutoff scores and represents the top 1% of test-takers. Semifinalists are eligible to advance to the Finalist stage by meeting additional requirements.
  • Finalists: Approximately 15,000 Semifinalists who meet all the criteria (such as a high academic record, an endorsement from their high school, and a qualifying SAT score) are named Finalists. Out of these, about 7,500 are awarded National Merit Scholarships.

How to Qualify

  • Check Your Score: After receiving your PSAT score, compare your Selection Index score to the published cutoff scores for your state.
  • Stay Academically Strong: Maintain a high GPA and continue to excel in your coursework, as academic performance is a key component of advancing in the competition.
  • Prepare for the SAT: Your SAT score must confirm your PSAT performance. Aim to achieve a score that meets or exceeds the confirming score requirement set by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
  • Complete the Application: If you are named a Semifinalist, complete the National Merit Scholarship application, which includes an essay and information about your extracurricular activities and leadership roles.
  • Submit Endorsements: Ensure your high school provides an endorsement and submits your application materials on time.

Understanding PSAT scores and their role in the National Merit Scholarship Program can open doors to numerous academic and financial opportunities. By familiarizing yourself with the PSAT structure, interpreting your scores, and navigating the National Merit process, you can strategically position yourself for success. 

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