PSAT – your intro to standardized testing for college

On Wednesday October 16, high school juniors and many sophomores will be getting their first taste of standardized testing for college when they take the PSAT/NMSQT. That’s a lot of letters.  It stands for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The PSAT/NMSQT is a test that is co-sponsored by the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

Colleges will not see students’ PSAT scores unless their score qualifies them for scholarships and recognition through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and the National Hispanic Recognition Program. So, there is no need for students to be anxious about taking the test. However, students who have performed well on standardized tests in the past would be well-served by prepping for this test.

The PSAT/NMSQT is good practice for the SAT and helps students get comfortable with the testing format.

The Reading Test includes:

  • One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature.
  • One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the Great Global Conversation they inspired. The U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela, for example.
  • A selection about economics, psychology, sociology, or some other social science.
  • Two science passages (or one passage and one passage pair) that examine foundational concepts and developments in Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics.

The Writing and Language Test includes:

  • All questions are multiple choice and based on passages.
  • Some passages are accompanied by informational graphics, such as tables, graphs, and charts—but no math is required.
  • Prior topic knowledge is never tested.
  • The Writing and Language Test is part of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section.

The Math Test includes: 

The Math Test will focus in depth on the three areas of math that play the biggest role in a wide range of college majors and careers:

Unlike the SAT, there is no essay on the PSAT. The test provides personalized feedback for students; specifying skill strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing the feedback is one of the smartest things students can do to improve their test scores. Students can take free PSAT/NMSQT practice questions on the College Board website.

Strategies for the PSAT/NMSQT

  • To guess or not to guess?  The PSAT, like the SAT, no longer penalizes students a quarter point for each incorrect response. So, students should do their best to eliminate as many answer possibilities as possible and make a decision. DO NOT LEAVE ANY QUESTIONS UNANSWERED
  • Read the instructions carefully and don’t assume you know the format of the test.
  • Use the test book as scratch paper for your calculations.
  • Be sure to read ALL the answer choices before making a decision and marking your answer sheet.
  • Manage your time. All questions have the same value, i.e., harder questions don’t earn more points. Don’t waste time on difficult questions. Make a mark in the book and come back to them when you’re given a five minute warning.
  • Constantly check the answer sheet to be certain you are filling in your response to the correct question.

    Here’s a list of what to bring and what not to bring, provided by College Board:

    What to Bring

    What Not to Bring

    • Any devices, including smartwatches, that can be used to record, transmit, receive or play back audio, photographic, text, or video content
    • Protractors, compasses, rulers, dictionaries
    • Highlighters, colored pens, colored pencils
    • Pamphlets or papers of any kind
    • Food and drinks—including bottled water—unless approved by the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities. Learn more about testing with accommodations.

Good luck!


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;