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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: Understanding the PSAT/NMSQT*

A: The acronyms PSAT and NMSQT stand for Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test respectively. Just to confuse us, both these tests are actually the same test, but because the test is used for two distinct purposes, the folks at the College Board decided it needed two distinct names.

So what exactly is it? The test itself is composed of three parts: a verbal section, a math section, and a writing skills section. These sections are then broken down further as follows:

  1. The Critical Reading section is made up of two 25-minute parts comprising sentence completion paragraphs, inference and reading comprehension.
  2. The Math section is made up of two 25-minute parts containing multiple-choice questions and student-produced responses or grid-ins. The subjects are Geometry, Algebra I, Data Interpretation and Logic.
    Note: These two sections correspond almost exactly to the verbal and math sections on the SAT, although the actual breakdown of question types is not always the same. On the SAT, students will be faced with more questions and more parts for each section.
  3. The Writing Skills section is composed of one 30-minute part containing sentence error questions, sentence improvement questions, and paragraph improvement questions. The PSAT Writing does not include an essay.

The PSAT is offered only in October. Most students take the PSAT during the fall of their junior year in high school. Some may choose to take it their sophomore year as a rough gauge for assessing their SAT potential.

The test itself, though shorter in length than the SAT, familiarizes students with a real, serious test-taking environment, and shows them the kinds of questions they can expect to see on the SAT and SAT II Writing exams.

The test also gives students a rough idea of how well they will do on the SAT. Scores are based on a full point credit for right answers and a 1/4-point deduction for wrong answers. The only difference in scoring between the SAT & PSAT is that the PSAT is scored on a scale of 20-80 while the SAT is scored from 200-800. So, if you take your PSAT scores for the math and verbal sections and simply add a 0 (e.g. a 65 becomes a 650, a 72 becomes a 720...) you can find out roughly what your score would have been on the SAT. This conversion doesn't work quite so well for the writing skills section since the SAT's essay counts for 25-30% of the Writing score. PSAT scores, however, will not be seen by colleges.

There is some debate about whether the PSAT is more or less difficult than the SAT. The PSAT and SAT contain questions of about the same degree of difficulty. However, the SAT's greater length could cause a fatigued student's scores to decrease on the SAT. Familiarity and especially prep for the SAT is a countervailing factor.

Here is what we find: versus the PSAT, SAT scores move toward the middle. Very high PSAT scores typically fall somewhat on SATs taken soon afterward, while very low PSAT scores tend to rise on SATs taken soon afterward. It means a low PSAT scorer should not be disconsolate; it means a high PSAT scorer should not be complacent. She/he needs to actively WORK to make sure that the SAT score is at least as good as the PSAT score.

Secondly, the PSAT is also the test which qualifies students for National Merit recognition and scholarships. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that awards scholarships to high-school seniors. The NMSC uses the PSAT to pool the top scorers for potential scholarship recognition. In order to qualify for these scholarships, a student must be a high-school senior, a U.S. citizen, and must spend only four years completing high school. Of those who qualify on the test in the fall of their junior year, the NMSC takes the 50,000 students who have scored above a certain set score, (usually around 200) and recognizes them for their performance. The following September (fall of a student's senior year), NMSC will name approximately 2/3 of these students, or 34,000 students, as "Commended Scholars." Although this is an impressive distinction, commended scholars will not move on to the next level of scholarship competition. To move on to the next level, students must have scored above the benchmark cutoff score in their state. Last year the cutoff score in Connecticut was 220 combined. In Massachusetts it was 221, in New York it was 219, and in Mississippi it was 212. This usually leaves about 16,000 students in the running for scholarships. Those students remaining will be named Semi-Finalists. At this point, the semi-finalists will be required to complete application materials for National Merit Scholarships. This application is remarkably lengthy and involved, and often requires as much, if not more, effort than a typical college application, with questions about a student's grades, extracurriculars, SAT scores, required teacher and counselor recommendations, and a student essay. Based on this application, the NMSC will name Finalists who qualify for the award, and in May of a student's senior year, NMSC will name approximately 8,000 scholarship recipients. The scholarship received will be one of three types of scholarship:

  1. National Merit $2500 Scholarships. A one-time, unrestricted award to the student, to take to the college of his or her choice.
  2. Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards. These awards are sponsored by businesses and corporations, and vary depending on the business. They are usually given to students who are somehow affiliated with the company (parents employed there, etc.) or who are proposing to enter a field of study in which a corporation has a vested interest. For instance, DuPont might sponsor a student who proposes to study biochemical engineering...
  3. College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards. These awards are given by individual colleges to students who qualify in an effort to entice the student to that college. Based on where a student has indicated he or she is planning to attend, NMSC forwards information to that college, and some schools choose to make students offers of scholarships. These offers can often be very impressive, and are occasionally worth $50,000 or more. However, because top schools usually attract high-achieving students anyway, they seldom give these types of awards. No Ivy League school sponsors this scholarship.

In addition to this process, there exists also a similar process of awarding scholarships to Black American students under a program called the National Achievement Scholarship Program. The process and time frame is exactly the same, although the numbers are slightly different. In the achievement program, 5,000 Black American students are commended, 1600 move on to be semi-finalists, 1200 are named finalists, and approximately 700 will be awarded scholarships in one of the three types of programs listed above.

PSAT scores are sometimes used by private companies to apportion awards to the college-bound students of their employees. And PSAT scores are used by some college athletic coaches to get an early "heads up" about strong students for their recruiting class.

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A: What's the difference between the PSAT and the SAT? First, every SAT I is seen by the colleges. The PSAT is not seen by colleges. Unless you get a tremendous score (top 2%), the PSAT is meaningless. The top 2% in each state qualify for National Merit recognition. Second, the format differs. The PSAT is shorter, but covers the same types of questions as the SAT I. It does not require a written essay though. Third, the scoring differs, though not significantly. PSAT gives two-digit scores from 20 - 80 and SAT gives three digit scores from 200 - 800. For National Merit recognition, a strong PSAT verbal ability is doubly rewarded, as the formula is Math + Verbal + Writing. Again, "Writing" should be called "Error Recognition" or "Grammar"; it is a 30 minute multiple choice section that comes at the end. It is NOT a handwritten entry (your child didn't miss something).

There is no discernible difference in level of difficulty between PSAT and SAT. However counselors find that SAT scores move towards the median - i.e. high PSAT scorers usually fall on their SAT (unless they prep); low PSAT scorers usually rise on their SAT. Since the SAT tests the same level of reading, the same type of vocabulary, and the same math skills as the PSAT, we surmise that this "norming" owes to the SAT being a longer test and a more prepped-for test.

Since the PSAT is not the best indicator of SAT performance, we have an antidote for parents interested in seeing their child's likely SAT prowess early on. Buy "The Official SAT Study Guide" from Barnes & Noble. Have your child take any of these tests. The eight practice tests herein can be scored at home on the same 200 - 800 scales. That will allow you get a realistic snapshot of how s/he would do on the test.

For students who have a chance at National Merit recognition, or whose esteem would be enhanced with a strong PSAT score, or who simply want early practice on a test their peers will all take, Ivy Bound offers a 7-session PSAT class each fall.

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Q: PSAT Prep Mini-Course

A: What to Expect:

PSAT Guessing Strategy

Always guess on verbal questions you encounter, and there is nothing wrong with randomly guessing on math.

Even RANDOM guessing is unlikely to penalize you. The 1/4 point loss on 4 of five randomly guessed questions is likely to be completely offset by the full point gained on the fifth question. Therefore, nothing is wrong with random guessing except that it takes a few seconds to bubble in ovals.

Anything better than random guessing is therefore advantageous. If you can eliminate one answer with certainty, guess from among the rest. If you THINK you know the right answer, but aren't sure, guess. We're 99% certain that if you did this over the course of 20 questions, you would improve your score compared to leaving these 20 questions blank.


Rather: there is a penalty for guessing wrong, and a reward for guessing right. That reward is four times greater than the penalty, so you need only be right once in five guesses to break even.

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Q: Widely Tested Errors on the PSAT Grammar Section

A: Subject-Verb Agreement

Singular subjects take the singular form of the verb. Interestingly, this often means the singular verb concludes with an "s". Example: He goes. They go. You know that, because it often sounds funny when done incorrectly. The trick comes when many words separate the subject from the verb. Here's how not to get caught:

  1. Ask yourself what's the subject?
    • Two places where you won't find the subject
      1. Inside a prepositional phrase
      2. Inside a subordinate clause (separated by commas)
  2. Is it singular or plural?
    • Note that the pronouns "everyone", "each", "anybody", and "somebody" are singular! Example: Each of us follows the leader. These are called singular indefinite pronouns. (Indefinite because no person is directly identified).
    • The negatives are also singular: "nobody", "no one", "nothing", "none", and "neither".
    • Other singular words that might be hard to envision as singular: army, committee, legislature.
    • Words ending in "-ing" (gerunds) are singular. Example: Running is my least favorite physical activity. Even "-ing" clauses stay singular. Example: Riding my bicycle with one wheel twelve inches off the ground and my hands in the air gives me exhilaration.
    • Here are plural indefinite pronouns: "several", "many", "lots", "both", "a few".
  3. Ask yourself what's the verb?
    • Note that verbs contained in subordinate clauses don't count. A subordinate clause is set off by commas. You know the clause is subordinate if you can take it out and still have a sentence. Example: Solomon, the wise king who was known throughout the Middle East during the 10th Century BC, amassed his wealth by forcing men to labor for the kingdom.
    • The verb here is "amassed". The sixth word "was" is a part of the long subordinate clause, so it is not the verb of the sentence. Here, the simple sentence is "Solomon...amassed his wealth by forcing men to labor for the kingdom."
  4. Is the subject doing the action?
    • After the introductory clause, the next subject should refer to something IN THAT CLAUSE, not something new.
      • BAD: Landing two hours later than scheduled, the airport was a welcome destination for all the weary travelers.
      • The airport did not land two hours late! The plane did; the people in the plane did.
      • BETTER: Landing two hours later than scheduled, the weary travelers welcomed being in the airport.
      • BAD: The zookeeper being trusting of his staffers, two of them let him down by failing to lock the rhinos in their pens following a feeding.
      • The zookeeper is the subject. "Two of them" cannot possibly be referring to the zookeeper.
      • BETTER: The zookeeper being trusting of his staffers, he was disappointed when two of them failed to lock the rhinos in their pens following a feeding.
      • Technically, the error here is a "dangling participle". SAT II does not require you to know the terminology, just to identify the problem.
      • BAD: Coursing nearly 100 miles through the Grand Canyon, variations in the Colorado River can be appreciated by those who take a guided rafting tour.
      • BAD: Coursing nearly 100 miles through the Grand Canyon, those who take a guided tour by raft can appreciate the variations in the Colorado River.
      • BETTER: Those who take a guided tour by raft can appreciate the variations in the Colorado River, which courses nearly 100 miles through the Grand Canyon.

Misplaced Modifiers

Pronoun Errors

Parallel Construction

Verb Tense

Changing Narrative Voice

Bad Logic

Idiom Errors

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Q: Commonly Mistaken Words Used On the PSAT