What is a Good PSAT Score?

Padya Paramita

What is a Good PSAT Score?

High school is an exciting time for new friends, classes, and activities. As you slowly begin Googling how to start preparing for college, you may come across new lingo - names for tests and long acronyms that you have no idea how to decipher. You might have seen or heard about the PSAT/NMSQT from a friend or a bulletin board, and wondered what exactly its role is when it comes to college admissions.

High school students take the Preliminary SAT in 10th and/or 11th grade to find out how prepared they are for the actual SAT and to qualify for the National Merit Scholars Program - who doesn’t want money to help pay for college? But when you take standardized tests, you receive scores, sometimes in a confusing bunch of numbers and percentiles, and there’s a lot of them when it comes to the PSAT. So you may find yourself asking, what is a good PSAT score? How does your PSAT score factor into your college admissions process?

To help clarify all the sections and data from the PSAT, I’ve elaborated more on the PSAT and when you will likely take it, how the PSAT is scored and exactly what these percentiles mean, what the purpose of the PSAT actually is, what role it plays in the admissions process, and how you can prepare for the PSAT.

What is the PSAT and When Will You Take It?

The Preliminary SAT is a nation-wide multiple-choice standardized test offered by the College Board every October, which determines eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program and gives students a sense of what the SAT will be like. The PSAT consists of four sections: two Math sections, the Reading Test, and the Writing and Language Test. The exam takes place over two hours and ten minutes at College Board authorized high schools. The 2019 PSAT will take place on October 16, with the Saturday test date on October 19, and the alternate test date on October 30.

For the Reading section, you will read passages, sometimes accompanied by informational graphics, and answer questions on the content. The Writing and Language section asks you to read passages and fix mistakes and weaknesses to strengthen the text. The Math section tests your algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus knowledge. You’re allowed a calculator in only one of the Math sections.

Although the PSAT is offered for 8th and 9th graders, students more commonly take the PSAT for the first time during their sophomore year and then again during junior year. The sophomore year PSAT is just a practice. Juniors who take the PSAT and score in the top 1% by state qualify as semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which can help boost impressiveness on college applications, and open the door to college scholarships. Juniors who score in the 96th -99th percentile do not qualify as semifinalists, but are recognized as Commended Students.

How is the PSAT Scored and What Do the Scores Mean?

The Reading, Writing, and Math sections of the PSAT are each scored on a scale of 160-760, equalling a maximum score of 1520. The benchmark for a “good” score is less reliant on an exact score, and more based on the percentage of students who score at the top each year. The level of a score can thus change entirely based on how students perform every year. Scores are released in mid-December.

Each state also has their own cutoff when calculating scores for the National Merit Scholarship Program to help distribute the winners of the scholarship evenly across all states. After converting to the National Merit Scholar scoring system, the states with the lowest cutoff scores were Alaska, Montana, and Idaho - all at 214, while the highest cutoffs belonged to Washington, D.C. and California at 223. So, while you’re compared to students from the entire country when taking the PSAT, you’ll only be competing with students from your state when determining who qualifies for the semifinalist spots.

The test for the 10th and 11th graders are the same. Check out the scores at the 25th, 50th, 75th, 96th, and 99th percentiles for sophomores and juniors nationwide who took the test in 2018 to get a better idea of the different levels of scores.

2018 PSAT Scores For Sophomores

Percentile Reading and Writing Score Math Score Composite Score
25th 390 390-400 780-790
50th 460-470 450-460 910-920
75th 540 520-530 1050-1060
96th 650 640 1290
99th 700 710 1370

2018 PSAT Scores For Juniors

Percentile Reading and Writing Score Math Score Composite Score
25th 400-410 420-430 820-840
50th 510-520 490-500 1010-1020
75th 580-590 570 1150-1160
96th 700 710 1410
99th 730 750 1480

It’s no surprise that juniors usually score higher than sophomores on the PSAT, having another year of high school under their belts, more time to practice, as well as an extra year to have taken it first in 10th grade.

So, what do these scores mean and what is a good PSAT score in the first place? Scoring in the 25th percentile isn’t very impressive, and you should try to aim higher than that. The 50th percentile is okay, but plan to study for the SAT itself. Scoring in the 75th percentile is pretty good - you’re in a decent place to get ready for the actual SAT. The 96th percentile is great! You’re on track to do well on the PSAT for your junior year. No matter what, don’t spend too much time worrying about the PSAT. Use your score to gauge when and how you need to start preparing for the actual SAT.

If you used to think you need to get a perfect score to qualify for the National Merit Scholars Program when wondering what is a good PSAT score, think again. You don’t need to score full marks. Students in the top 1% don’t always have a perfect 1520. Around 16,000-16,200 juniors qualify every year as semifinalists. That’s a lot of semifinalists!

As a junior, if you score in the 96th percentile, you’ll receive a Letter of Commendation that you can mention in your Common App Honors Section. Semifinalists, students who scored in the 99th percentile, are announced in early September. When thinking about what is a good PSAT score, remember that a good score only gets you to the semifinals of the National Merit Scholarship Program. From the semifinalists, finalists are chosen in February based on their grades, extracurriculars, and an essay. Consider the timing here: finalists are chosen in February. You’ll only be able to mention your semifinalist status on an application.

Winning this prestigious scholarship undoubtedly helps you fund the very expensive next four years. But there are thousands of semifinalists out there. It is not the most unique honor you can aim to achieve, so don’t spend too much time focusing on this common feat instead of going out there and working on more impressive activities!

As you can see, your definition of what is a good PSAT score could vary based on what you are aiming for. If you want to take the PSAT to get a feel of standardized tests, anything above 1150 is a solid score in your junior year. If you want to aim for a semifinalist or commendation spot in the National Merit Scholarship Program, you need to aim for the high 1400s and study hard.

How Much Does The PSAT Matter In College Admissions?

At the end of the day, the purpose of the PSAT is to prepare you for the SAT, as well as to act as a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Simply put, it does not matter at all in the your college admissions process.

So if you haven’t scored within the 99th or even 25th percentile in the PSAT your junior year, there is no need to worry. Colleges don’t require you to submit your PSAT scores! Neither do you absolutely need to win the National Merit Scholarship Program to get into a top-notch national university or liberal arts college. The majority of applicants don’t. You can boost your college applications in other ways, such as participating in unique extracurriculars. Your PSAT scores never have to see the light of day!

Should You Spend a Lot of Time Preparing for the PSAT?

Now that you know more about what is a good PSAT score, you might be wondering how much you need to study for the PSAT. Considering it doesn’t matter in college admissions, don’t sweat too much working on your PSAT preparation. Instead, use this to get ready for the SAT, a much longer and more important standardized test.

That being said, if you do want to win the National Merit Scholarship, practice makes perfect. Go ahead and take a bunch of timed practice tests. Use the wide array of practice tools available. College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to help you study for the PSAT, which even points out your mistakes on the app! Lastly, don’t forget to spend extra time going over problem areas.

If you think you have a good chance to excel on the PSAT, go for it. But no matter what, remember to work on the other, more important components of your application profile, such as your grades and extracurriculars.

The PSAT serves as an introduction to the world of standardized tests, which you’ll soon have to delve into once you get started on your college application process. While your PSAT results don’t factor into college admissions, it is still useful to know what is a good PSAT score to aim for if you want to win the National Merit Scholarship. Who knows, you might just make it to the very top, and get yourself some money to go towards that college fund!

Schedule a free consultation

to find out how we can help you get accepted.