For many students, the PSAT is their first real experience with standardized testing. The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) provides valuable testing experience and exposes students to SAT and ACT-like questions and testing conditions. By preparing thoroughly for the PSAT, students establish a strong foundation for future testing. Juniors take the PSAT in October and many sophomores either take the PSAT in October or the PSAT 10 in the spring. Schools have the option to administer the PSAT 8/9 to eighth and ninth graders throughout the school year.

Colleges do not see PSAT scores. However, the College Board uses junior-year PSAT scores to qualify students for a variety of college scholarships, including a National Merit Scholarship. The National Merit Scholarship requires comparable scores on either the SAT or ACT. This honor also distinguishes a student’s college application. Whether they are planning to focus on the SAT or ACT as a junior, strong students should take preparation seriously to increase their chances of earning the National Merit designation. For more in-depth information on the PSAT, read our blog post, “The PSAT – Demystified.”


The PSAT has four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and two Math sections, one with the use of a calculator and one without. Students receive two scores: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (scored 160-760) and Math (scored 160-760) for a combined score of 320-1520. In addition, the College Board provides you with a percentile, a benchmark, and Cross-Test Scores. For a complete breakdown of the PSAT score report, read our blog post, “Understanding your PSAT Score Report.”

NMSC Selection Index

The College Board uses junior-year PSAT scores to qualify students for a variety of college scholarships. If your number on the selection index is above your state’s cutoff (which changes every year), you may qualify for different levels of honors and scholarships. If you have ever heard of someone being awarded a National Merit Scholarship, this is the first step towards that distinction.

Below are the National Merit Semifinalist and Commended Student cutoffs for recent years.

Commended Students are named on the basis of a nationally applied Selection Index score that may vary from year to year. Semifinalists are designated on a state-by-state basis; they are the highest scoring test-takers in each state.

To calculate your Selection Index, take your section scores (scored 160-760) and:

  1. Drop the final zero in your scores
  2. Double your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score
  3. Add your Math score

For example, for students who scored a 710 on the verbal section and a 700 on the math section, the Selection Index score would be (71×2)+70=212, which would have earned them the Commended Student designation.

Approximately 3% of test-takers are recognized as Commended Students, and about 1% of students earn the Semifinalist title. Because the verbal score is doubled in the Selection Index calculation, it is easier to reach the cutoffs with a strong verbal score than with a strong math score.

In order to become a Finalist, Semifinalists must take the SAT or ACT to confirm their scores on the PSAT and fill out an application. Ninety percent of Semifinalists become Finalists and are eligible for a number of honors and scholarships.

PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10

The PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10 provide students with the perfect “low-stakes” testing environment:

  • the exams don’t count towards National Merit
  • they are taken again after academic growth so improvement is something that can be measured
  • they can simply be used as a diagnostic of where students are at a given moment in time
  • they can also inspire students to start the college process early

Schools have the option of administering the PSAT 8/9 during one of two testing windows: September 23, 2019-March 27, 2020 and April 14-30, 2020. The PSAT 10 can be administered from February 24-March 27, 2020 or April 14-30, 2020. Some schools do not offer the PSAT 8/9 or PSAT 10, so confirm with your Guidance Department.

Regardless of which version of the test a student takes, the PSAT provides valuable test-taking experience, actionable information, and might also yield some accolades and scholarships along the way!