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PSAT – Overview

What is the PSAT?

The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) is a “practice” or “preliminary” test for the SAT, and it is typically taken by high school sophomores and juniors.  There are 3 versions of the PSAT – PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10, and PSAT/NMSQT.  The PSAT is like the SAT in many ways but there are some differences.  They are:

Length – PSAT is shorter than the SAT.  There are two sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.  PSAT 8/9 is about 2 hours and 30 minutes.  PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT are about 2 hours and 45 minutes.  The SAT is 3 hours and 50 minutes (including the optional essay, which is not on the PSAT).

Scoring – The maximum score you can get on the SAT is 1600 points by combining Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math (each with a possible 800 points).  The highest score you can get on PSAT 8/9 is 1440 (720 per section).  The highest score you can get on PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT is 1520 (760 per section).

Importance – PSAT is not used for college admissions while the SAT is.  Also, a high score on the PSAT/NMSQT can qualify a high school junior for the National Merit Scholarship program, which provides significant financial aid for college.  SAT scores do not qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship program.  The top 1% of 11th grade PSAT/NMSQT test-takers will become semi-finalists for the National Merit Scholarship program.  Of these, 7,500 students will receive scholarships.

Content – PSAT and SAT cover similar content, but PSAT also includes slightly easier questions and does not cover as many topics as SAT.  PSAT 8/9 tests skills at the 8th– or 9th-grade levels, while PSAT 10 tests skills at the 10th grade level, and PSAT/NMSQT test skills at the 11th grade and higher levels.

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How many times can you take the PSAT?

While the SAT can be taken multiple times, students usually take the PSAT 8/9 or PSAT 10 only when their school chooses to administer it.  PSAT/NMSQT is administered nationally on a specific date.  Students can take the PSAT 8/9 once in 8th grade and once in 9th grade.  A 10th grader could take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall or the PSAT 10 in the spring.  PSAT/NMSQT can only be taken once per school year.  Schools can offer PSAT/NMSQT to students in 10th or 11th grade, but you must be a Junior to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

The College Board recommends that freshmen take PSAT 8/9, sophomores take PSAT 10, and juniors take PSAT/NMSQT.

Why take the PSAT 8/9?

These are worth taking to get practice with standardized tests.  If you are planning to take the SAT for college admissions, these tests are a good place to start getting experience with high stakes, timed test-taking, and with the types of questions that you’ll encounter on the SAT.

Should you take PSAT 10 or PSAT/NMSQT?

You can take both if you want as much practice for the SAT as possible.  The PSAT 10 is a bit easier, and it will offer you direction in your SAT and AP studies.  If you also want to try for a National Merit Scholarship, you’ll need to take the PSAT/NMSQT during your junior year.  It is also good practice for the SAT.

What are the difficulty levels of each version of the PSAT?

The PSAT 8 tests skills at the 8th grade level.   PSAT 9 tests skills at the 9th grade level.  PSAT 10 tests skills at the 10th grade level.  PSAT/NMSQT tests skills at the 11th grade level.  You will likely see more difficult math, reading passages, and grammar assessed on PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT.  The questions on the SAT are more difficult than questions on PSAT 10 or PSAT/NMSQT.

How is the PSAT test structured? 

Just like the SAT, the PSAT is mostly multiple-choice questions.  For Math, PSAT also has calculator and no-calculator questions and some grid-in questions where the student writes in the answer rather than chooses an answer.  Here is the structure of each version of the PSAT:

PSAT 8/9

SectionTime (minutes)Number of Questions
Writing and Language3040

*13 questions do not allow calculators and 25 allow calculators to be used.  31 questions are multiple-choice and 7 are grid-in.



SectionTime (minutes)Number of Questions
Writing and Language3544

*17 questions do not allow calculators (7 are grid-in) and 31 allow calculators to be used (8 are grid-in).

In what order are the tests given on the PSAT?

The 3 tests are given in this order: 1) Reading, 2) Writing and Language, 3) Math – No Calculator section comes first; Calculator section comes 2nd.

What sections are on the PSAT?

The PSAT test has three sections:

Evidence-Based Reading

  • There are 4 passages and a set of related paired passages.
  • These cover comprehension, analysis of tone, style and point of view, evidence-based reasoning, vocabulary in context, and synthesis.
  • There may be charts, graphics, or tables containing information related to the passage that will require you to understand and answer questions about them.
  • The passages are shorter and at a lower reading difficulty level than passages on the SAT.
  • Types of questions you’ll see may be to look at a passage and determine:
    • What is the main point of the passage?
    • What part of the passage conveys a particular piece of information?
    • What does this word mean in context?
    • What do the implications of a specific part of the passage mean?

Writing and Language

  • This section contains passages with related questions. Passages are argumentative, informative/explanatory, or non-fiction.   They may be about science, history, or social studies.
  • There are two areas of questions – 1) expression of ideas (topic development, organization, rhetorical effectiveness) and 2) standard English conventions (correcting content on a technical level).
  • Questions cover the expression of ideas, grammar, usage and punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary, use of evidence, and inferences.
  • Types of questions you’ll see may be to look at a passage and determine:
    • What does this word mean in context?
    • Is punctuation used correctly here?
    • Where is the best supporting evidence for a specific point found?
    • Does this sentence fit within a passage?
    • How could you change a sentence or paragraph to better convey the author’s point?


  • These cover algebra (linear and quadratic equations, basic operations, formulas), problem solving (word problems, algebraic functions, equations, inequalities), data analysis, advanced math, geometry (formulas such as area and volume, types and properties of triangles and other shapes such as polygons), trigonometry. PSAT/NMSQT has other advanced topics such as probability, statistics, and interpretation of provided information.
  • For PSAT 8/9 and above, there will be ratios, percentages, proportions, introductory probability, statistics, linear equations, and functions. PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT have more complex comparisons between linear and exponential growth than you’ll see on PSAT 8/9.
  • Problems on PSAT 8/9 usually require one or two steps to solve. Problems on PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT may have two or more steps.
  • For PSAT 8/9, you’ll need to know the properties of right triangles, but you won’t need to know trigonometric ratios until you take PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT.
  • Other topics that may be covered on all 3 versions of the test include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division of fractions, graphics, ratios and proportions, slope, exponents and roots, and number systems.

Most questions are multiple choice, although some math questions require that you write in the answer rather than select it (“grid-in”).  There is no penalty for guessing.  If you are unsure of the answer, you should always make an educated guess.

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