Understanding Your PSAT Scores

By: Ben Sexton

I hope everyone enjoyed a Happy Thanksgiving with family and friends. With Thanksgiving Break sling-shotting us into December, juniors can look forward to receiving their PSAT scores shortly – MA students can access their scores through the College Board portal on Monday, December 6th, less than a week away. Along with their scores, students will receive score reports – a sample one is shown here –  and access to the individual test questions, so your student can review the questions that they got wrong. The timing of the score release is apt, since students now have more than three months to prepare before the next SAT date in March.

First, a primer. The PSAT includes two sections – Verbal and Math – scored out of 760, for a total score out of 1520. This is unlike the SAT, in which the two scores are each out of 800. Within Verbal, two scores exist: half of the Verbal score is Reading, and the other half is Writing and Language, each of which is scored out of 38. (for the SAT they are each 40). Each score is accompanied by a percentile, 1-99, that states what percent of test-takers the student outperformed. Finally, students receive a National Merit Index, out of 228, which is obtained doubling each of the Math, Reading, and Writing and Language scores (now all out of 76) and then adding those three results together.

For most students, PSAT scores can help set SAT score goals, identify areas of weakness or gaps in learning, and even determine whether to pursue testing at all. PSAT scores do serve as relatively good benchmarks from which to formulate score goals. Student results can vary widely, but given that the majority of students will improve between on average of 120-220 points from a tutoring program or structured study regimen, one can predict with accuracy how a student’s final score may turn out. Obviously, exceptions exist – someone who scores near the very top of scale cannot improve by very many points, and there’s always at least one student who improves much higher than the average– but with a reasonable score goal in hand, one can compare one’s projected score to the score ranges of colleges of interest.

Students receive subscores (scored 1-15) along with their main scores, and these subscores are helpful for identifying gaps in understanding. A weaker “Standard English Conventions” subscore indicates that the student needs to brush up on punctuation and grammar. A lower “Passport to Advanced Math” subscore could indicate that the student just needs more time in junior-year Math, while a lower “Heart of Algebra” subscore shows that the student needs to review material from Algebra I. Reviewing these subscores with a tutor, along with the individual test questions, can help a student create a precisely targeted study plan.

Finally, very low PSAT scores may indicate that a student should postpone or opt out of testing. Granted, many PSAT scores are artificially low, as students are many times unfamiliar with the content, style, and pacing of the exam. But, low scores should examined critically, especially for students with already strong grades and other attributes, because even large score improvements may not bring results that assets to applications at desired schools. Test optional is widespread and a viable admission strategy. By forgoing test preparation, certain students may gain significant time to hone their other strengths.

A brief note on National Merit: the qualifying score varies by state, and MA always has one of the highest score cutoffs in the country. For this class of juniors, it is 222 (out of 228), which is nearly perfect score. Very, very few students qualify for National Merit, as there is almost no margin for error, and so it is not a reasonable pursuit for 99+% of students. For those lucky few genius test-takers, though, go for it!

Please contact us, by phone or email, with any questions how to interpret your PSAT scores, how to use them to begin a tutoring program, or just any questions about testing in college admissions in general. We’re here to help.

     Enjoy the holiday season.

-Ben