What Do These Scores Mean? Five PSAT Questions Answered

Education expert Eric Karlan helps students and parents decode PSAT scores and which steps to take next to gear up for the SAT.

Early on in the school year, more than 3 million high school sophomores and juniors across the country take the PSAT through their respective high schools. This standardized test is administered by College Board, the same company that administers the infamous SAT. When students and parents receive the PSAT score report, they will inevitably have many questions about how to interpret the scores. Here are a few of the most common.

1. What does your student’s PSAT score mean?
The PSAT is meant to serve as a “practice” run for taking the SAT. However, there are several flaws in this logic:

The difficulty level of questions is dramatically different. While questions are presented in the same format on both tests, PSAT questions are easier than those on the SAT. Therefore, scores are not necessarily reflective of a student’s abilities. Students generally get more questions correct on the PSAT.

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This skews the results of the test for the average student. Scores are pushed down to adjust for the disproportionate number of students scoring on the higher end of the spectrum. As a result, the scores of the average student are deflated compared to what they would be on the SAT.

This also skews the results for students answering most questions correctly. Since a larger percentage of students answer the majority of questions correctly, scores need to be adjusted to push the curve back to normal. Because of this, one or two incorrect answers on the PSAT can plummet a score from a perfect 80 into the 60s. On the SAT, one or two incorrect answers will result with a score in the high 700s.

2. So should you assume that your student will automatically perform better on the SAT? Not necessarily. While the curve will be more favorable on the SAT, the questions will also be harder. Therefore, it is very important to prepare and study for the exam.

3. Should you ignore the PSAT scores completely? The most accurate part of the PSAT score-sheet is the percentile rank. This shows performance on the PSAT compared to other students at the same grade level. Finding the SAT scores that correspond to those percentiles will give an accurate assessment of where your student is on the national spectrum.

4. What does it mean if your student qualifies for a national merit scholarship?
Students can be recognized for their performance on the PSAT at several levels:

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Commended students: score in or above the 96th percentile.

National merit scholarship semifinalist: a student scores in the 99th percentile of his or her respective state. This honor can only be earned after a student completes an application, which will also account for factors such as GPA and extracurricular activities. If selected as a national merit scholar, a student will receive scholarship money toward college.

No matter the level of recognition, a student should absolutely make sure to include this information on any resume or awards section of a college application.

5. Now that the PSAT is done, what should you do?
Unless a student earns some level of national merit scholarship recognition, the PSAT will not play a role in their college application. The tests that truly matter are the SAT and the ACT. These should be taken (at least for the first time) at some point during junior year. No matter when a student takes the SAT or the ACT, like any test in life, they should prepare. Whether that is on their own, with a tutor, or through a class is a decision that a student must make with their family.

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