How PSAT Scores Work

It’s early December, which means PSAT scores are coming out. Here are a couple things to know about PSAT and National Merit scores:

1) PSAT scores are not out of 1600

The PSAT scoring scale is roughly similar to the SAT, which is out of 1600. However, because the PSAT leaves out some advanced SAT concepts, a perfect score on the PSAT is only 1520 (760 Reading and Writing, 760 Math).

You can also find percentiles below the primary scores. For purposes of preparing for the SAT and thinking about test prep, percentiles are essentially meaningless. The number out of 1520 is the one that matters, since it (roughly) translates to the 1600 scale that the SAT uses.

2) National Merit Scholarship Index

The other score you will see is the NMSC Selection Index, which has a maximum score of 228. This score determines whether a student qualifies as a National Merit Semifinalist. Assuming various citizenship and score verification requirements are met, Semifinalist qualification is purely score-based. Students above the cutoff score will be Semifinalists; students below will not. The NMSC is extremely selective: only the top 1% of students in each state are selected. That’s about 16,000 students nationwide, typically less than 700 students in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, over the past three years, the cutoff scores for Semifinalists have been 218, 219 and 220. Predictions for this year’s PA cutoff score range from 219 to 221 points. Essentially, students with NMSC Index scores above 221 can be pretty confident they will be Semifinalists. Students with scores under 219 can be pretty confident they will not make the cutoff.

Students who score extremely well but not quite up to the NMSC cutoff may be named National Merit Commended Students. The cutoff to be a Commended Student for the class of 2020 is expected to be 212 or 213.

If you want to know where these NMSC scores come from, multiply your Reading and Writing score by two, add your math score, and take off the zero at the end.

3) Are PSAT scores important?

Relative to SAT or ACT scores, PSAT scores and even NMSC Semifinalist honors are essentially meaningless. Colleges don’t see PSAT scores, National Merit Scholarships are generally small, and the honor of being a Semifinalist shows colleges nothing more than that a student is capable of scoring highly on a standardized test, which usually he or she will do through the SAT or ACT.

The ‘P’ in PSAT no longer stands for ‘practice,’ but practice is the perfect way to think about the PSAT. It is excellent practice for the SAT, and little more.