Tom Wang /

The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is generally administered to high school juniors during the fall semester. The test is structured similarly to the SAT and is thus great practice for students who are planning to take college entrance exams in the future. It is also the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which honors the students with the top 50,000 PSAT scores across the United States. In 2018, $40.4 million in scholarships were awarded to qualified students by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) and its partner organizations.

What is the PSAT?

The PSAT is a standardized test developed by the College Board. It aims to assess a student’s reading comprehension level, writing ability, and math application knowledge using a format similar to that of the SAT. Though the exact same material is on each test, the PSAT actually goes by two names: the PSAT/NMSQT and the PSAT 10.

Most U.S. high schools and school districts administer the PSAT/NMSQT to all juniors each fall, though it is not required for admission to college. In addition to providing practice for the SAT, the PSAT is the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Sophomores who are interested in taking the test as practice may sign up for the PSAT 10. The only difference is that students who take the PSAT 10 will not be considered for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

The identical tests are made up of four sections—evidence-based reading, writing and language, plus two math portions—and take two hours and 45 minutes to complete.

Section Subsection Length Number of Questions
Evidence-based reading and writing Reading 60 minutes 47
Writing and Language 35 minutes 44
Math No calculator 25 minutes 17
Calculator permitted 45 minutes 31

Students who are in eighth and ninth grade may be offered the chance to take the PSAT 8/9, tests which prepare them for the PSAT and the SAT. Schools may not require their eighth and ninth graders to take either test, so students who are interested should speak with their guidance counselors. Though the material is slightly different than on the PSAT, the same ideas and skills are tested, just at a lower level. The results from these tests can help students decide what courses they would most benefit from in high school. Ninth graders will receive advice on whether they should consider an Advanced Placement history class for sophomore year.

Why is the PSAT important?

The PSAT is structured similarly to the SAT. Students are encouraged—and often required by their high schools—to take the PSAT to become familiar with the SAT’s content areas, question types, and time limits. With practice, students are likely to become more familiar with the SAT, and those who choose to take the SAT (as opposed to the ACT) will learn what to expect from the test. The PSAT also acts as the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which awards prestigious honors and merit scholarships to the highest scoring students across the nation. For these reasons, it's important to try your best on the test.

How do I sign up for the PSAT?

Your guidance counselor or teachers should give you instructions on how to register at your school. If your school does not offer the PSAT or you are homeschooled, search for local schools that do host the test and contact the principal or guidance counselor to register. Talking to a guidance counselor is particularly important for students who hope to take the PSAT 10. Sophomores who aren't required to take the test may want to sign up in order to get more experience.

Who should study for the PSAT?

If you consistently score in the 80th percentile or above on standardized tests, studying for the PSAT could help you achieve National Merit recognition. Consider signing up for a prep course or buying a study guide from your local bookstore or via the internet. For students who do not want to spend money, Khan Academy is a great free study resource. It has recently partnered with the College Board to provide approved test questions, full-length practice tests, and video tutorials for students preparing to take the PSAT and SAT.

What do PSAT scores mean?

Your PSAT score is an indicator of your future performance on the SAT. You can check the websites of your favorite schools to see if your PSAT scores fall within the range of their accepted students’. Your results will draw attention to academic areas that will need your focus before you take the actual SAT or ACT. In addition, your PSAT score will determine your eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Both the math section and the evidence-based reading and writing section of the PSAT are scored between 160 and 760. Your total score is the sum of both of your section scores, so it will fall somewhere in the range of 320–1520.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program honors the 50,000 students with the top PSAT scores across the United States. Of those 50,000, about 16,000 are declared National Merit Semifinalists for their states.

What happens if I am a National Merit Semifinalist?

After being notified of your semifinalist status in the fall of senior year, you will be prompted to complete a full application to determine your National Merit Finalist eligibility. You are required to submit an essay, a list of extracurricular achievements, a letter of recommendation from a school official, and a transcript demonstrating an outstanding academic record throughout high school. In addition, you must corroborate your achievement on the PSAT by reporting high SAT scores to the National Merit committee. After all submissions have been evaluated, 15,000 students will be notified of their National Merit Finalist standing in February of senior year.

How do I qualify for a National Merit college-sponsored scholarship?

If you are a National Merit Finalist, you may be awarded a National Merit college-sponsored scholarship. When filling out your National Merit Scholarship application, you will be asked to select a sponsor college from the schools to which you have been accepted. You must be confident that the college you choose is your first choice. College officials from the selected school will be notified and will evaluate you and other finalists to decide who will receive a National Merit college-sponsored scholarship. You should contact the college directly to learn about its selection process.

What other National Merit Scholarships are available to finalists?

Many finalists qualify for corporate-sponsored scholarships. Usually these are awarded to the children of employees or members of the sponsor organization; occasionally, they are given to students in the community or to students pursuing a particular major or course of study. Corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships are awarded to an average of 1,000 finalists.

In addition to college and corporate-sponsored scholarships, the NMSC awards its own $2,500 Merit Scholarships to select finalists. In 2018, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and its partner organizations awarded $40 million in scholarships to 8,600 qualified students.

Are there National Merit Scholarships for nonfinalists?

Select corporations sponsor 1,100 Special Scholarships, which are awarded to qualified National Merit Program participants who are nonfinalists. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation assists its independent sponsors by identifying students who meet each organization’s scholarship criteria. National Merit staff then contact qualified students’ schools to facilitate the application process.

Page last updated: 05/2019