Understanding the PSAT

By Amanda Bertsch


PSAT results were delivered this past week. Are you still wondering what they mean? What exactly is a good score? And why does the PSAT matter anyway? Denobis’s Study Spot breaks it all down.

The largest number on the score report is the total score, which is the sum of two scores: reading and writing combined and math. These scores range from 160 to 760, so the total is out of 1520. This section of the score report also gives a nationally representative percentile for each of the scores so you can compare your score to the average. For instance, if your percentile for math is a 67%, that means that you scored better than 67% of people in your grade that took the PSAT this year.

This section also shows a red-to-yellow-to-green bar for each score. This gives you a general idea of how prepared you are. If you’re in the green, College Board believes your performance shows that you are on track to be college-ready; yellow means you’re approaching readiness, and red means you need to improve significantly to get on track.

The bottom of that page also gives several scores that range from 8 to 38. These scores act as more specific feedback. The reading, writing and language, and math scores are used to calculate the National Merit Selection Index—more on that later. The cross-test scores are compiled by looking at questions that test skills used in that particular field—either analysis in history/social studies or analysis in science.

Finally, subscores range from 1 to 15, and they’re helpful to narrow down what you need to study—if you got a 13 in Words in Context but only a 8 in Standard English Conventions, that shows that you need to study grammar more than vocabulary.

The second page gives more detailed feedback. For the reading, writing and language, and math scores, the College Board summarizes what you should already know and give tips on what you should work on improving on. These can be applied to studying for the SAT or for sophomores looking to retake the PSAT next year.

Perhaps the PSAT’s most important function is as a study material for the SAT. To this end, the College Board returns your copy of the test along with a list of your correct and incorrect answers. In addition to studying the areas where you received weak subscores, reviewing this test will help greatly. This PSAT is designed to reflect the new SAT, so the style and difficulty of questions will be similar.

Yet the PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test for a reason. You receive a selection index, which is calculated by adding your reading, writing and language, and math scores and multiplying by two. The selection index thus can be as high as 228. National Merit will send letters to individuals whose selection indices place them in the highest scorers in their state. While the National Merit Scholarship Corporation won’t notify those who qualify for the scholarship application until September, scores above about 210-215 have a high probability of being qualifying.

Many have also wondered why the PSAT sections are scored out of 760 and the SAT equivalents are scored out of 800. The College Board wanted to make it clear that earning a perfect score on the PSAT does not guarantee a perfect score on the SAT; while the two are very similar, the SAT is slightly more difficult. In addition, College Board estimates that each of the two test scores will vary by up to 30 points from test day to test day, even without a change in studying. With studying, however, your scores can improve drastically.