The PSAT is like the SAT as a pubescent teenager.  It’s idiosyncratic and a little hard to get a read on.  (Disclaimer: The P in PSAT stands for Preliminary, not Pubescent).  First of all, there’s no essay section on the PSAT.  Secondly, you can score anywhere from a 320 to a 1520 on the PSAT while an SAT score can be as low as 400 to a perfect 1600.  So, you can gain up to 1200 points on either.  The reasoning behind the College Board’s decision that the PSAT would top off at 1520 instead of 1600 is just as mysterious as the Ark of the Covenant and Stonehenge.

Effectively, you have two ways to convert your PSAT to SAT score.  The first is just adding 80 points.  This is an imperfect conversion because fewer students take the PSAT which skews the distribution slightly.  Your other option is just look at the corresponding percentile for your score.  To refresh: a percentile is a statistic that lets you easily compare your performance to other students’.  If you scored in the 95th percentile then you did better than 95 percent of students.  Easy!

What isn’t so simple is that College Board provides four different percentiles.  They’re divided into two sets of two categories.  Whether you’re in 10th or 11th grade and whether you’re competing against other PSAT takers or the general student population.  Not so easy!


It’ll all make sense though once we break it down.  Let’s say you received a 990.  If you’re in 10th grade, then you would have done better than 65 percent of other PSAT takers and 63 percent of a nationally representative standard.  If you’re in 11th grade, then you will have outdone 57 and 48 percent of your peers respectively.  Here’s the graphical representation you would find on the PSAT breakdown online.



There’s obvious value in comparing yourself to your peers.  That’s what is going to matter when you submit your scores Senior year.  However, you should also compare your percentile from your Sophomore to Junior year.  This gives a benchmark of your growth year to year.  If you your score as a Junior goes up by about 100 points and you consequently remained in the 65th percentile that means you’re on track with your studying and don’t have to play catch up.  On the other hand, if you performed comparatively worse the second time then that’s a clue your current study strategy has been ineffectual – or even counterproductive- and you need to course correct.  You still have more than six months before to take the full exam; that’s plenty of time to find resources and craft a new study plan.

In addition to your section and composite scores, you will receive seven section subscores: three for the Math section (Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis and Passport to Advanced Math) and four for the Reading and Writing section (Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions).  These are accompanied by a pair of cross-sectional subscores: Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science.  Colleges don’t see these scores, rather they’re given to you so you can understand where you need to improve.  Check out our guide on creating a targeted study plan in our upcoming book.  Suffice to say, it’s much more efficient to just focus on your weakness rather than your strengths.

Lastly, everyone who takes the PSAT as a Junior is automatically entered to win a National Merit Scholarship.  You will receive a number from 48 to 228 and if you score within the top one percent of your state, then you will be named either a National Merit Final or Semifinalist.  It’s worth noting here that you don’t need a perfect 1520 to be placed in the highest percentile.  Any score higher than a 1450 makes you a contender.  Also, since the PSAT’s percentile is calculated nationally, but the National Merit Scholarship Corporation cares about your performance relative to students in your state, the cutoff will vary depending on where you live.  The NMSC isn’t particularly transparent about the requisite score to earn a scholarship, but some intrepid writers have tried to compile a list of minimum scores by state.  At the end of the day, if you’re a recipient, it’s a great accolade, makes college more affordable and opens up opportunities.  But, don’t worry if you just miss the cutoff.  A pair of my classmates in high school both attended Ivy League schools, neither of them were National Merit Scholars.

I think that’s the main takeaway for the PSATs: they matter, but a suboptimal score isn’t the end of the world.  Do everything in your power to make the information as valuable as possible.  Compare percentiles from year to year and use your score breakdown to create a targeted study plan.  You have a limited number of chances to take the exam under testing conditions and many students struggle with testing anxiety.  Use the PSATs to find personalized techniques that help you give your best performance.  Study as much as possible and do your best.  Ultimately, colleges won’t see these scores (hence the word Preliminary!).  That’s not an excuse to slack off.  But, it’s to offer so much needed perspective for students who get wrapped up in standardized tests.  And, if you want an extra pair of eyes to decode your score or chart a path to success, contact us today for a free consultation.