The PSAT and You: What, Why, How… Huh?

By  Layton Funk

Published on  September 12, 2019

Math in the PSAT

What Is the PSAT?

The PSAT (Preliminary SAT) or sometimes known as the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is a standardized test for junior and high schoolers to take either in preparation for taking the SAT and/or to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program. The first reason is much more common, in that most take the PSAT to prepare for when they have to take the SAT (or ACT, if they change their mind). 

The test’s format is composed of four sections: Critical/Evidence Based Reading, Writing, and two Math sections. Scoring is very similar to the SAT to avoid confusion. Each half (reading/writing and math) is scored from 120 to 760, leading to a maximum score of 1520. Just so you know what score you want to aim for, here is a handy-dandy chart:



You can’t ever know what any particular standardized test feels like unless you take it yourself. The timed aspect, sitting for hours at a time hunched over one large test (sectioned into parts in some cases), and preparing for it are all hard to truly internalize without firsthand knowledge. This experience of being timed in a test-taking environment and taking an entire exam gives invaluable experience and insight as to how you might do and how it feels, is simply great practice, and even provides a benchmark for progress in your studying journey.

Score Improvement!

When preparing for the SAT, students take (or should take) practice test after practice test after practice test. These are meant to be taken to emulate the real deal, but there’s no way to truly know unless you go to a test center on the assigned day and take it. Now, you won’t be ready for the SAT until late Sophomore or Junior year at least, so the next best (and actually recommended) thing is to take the PSAT! Preparing for and taking the PSAT obviously benefits your PSAT score, but it also will boost your SAT score, especially if you keep practicing after the PSAT!

National Merit Scholar

Not only is the PSAT great practice for the SAT, it also is an incredible opportunity for students to get a leg up for college! The same can be said for the SAT, of course, because the higher score you get on the SAT, the better chances you’ll have at getting into a great college. If you practice and study hard enough on the PSAT (NMSQT), you might qualify to be a National Merit Scholar. Now, what does that mean? You’ll be nationally recognized as a top tier head honcho scholar! Colleges will look at your PSAT score along with your SAT score and say, “dang, now that’s a scholar of national merit that we want at our school!” Not only that, but you can get a scholarship that will help you (and your family) out financially when paying for college. It’s like the best kind of report card reward: some tuition money so you can avoid post-college debt! If money is not enough reason to study and do well on the PSAT, I don’t know what is!

Here we have a breakdown to show you just how competitive the NMSQT really is. It looks very daunting – and a lot like a food pyramid – but just keep in mind that with enough hard work, dedication, and maybe some help from a really awesome tutoring company, you could be National Merit Scholar!

NMSQT Breakdown!


College is awesome, mainly because it allows you to do the following:

  • Get a job

Obviously, there is more to college than just getting a degree in order to get a good, well-paying job that you like (that’s the dream), but that’s the main reason! College also helps broaden your horizons, interact socially with many different types of people, and sharpens your mind with huge workloads of tests, papers, and projects. Getting through all of that and completing college will see you have a huge jump in wages earned just with a Bachelor’s degree. If money is not enough reason to go to college, I don’t know what is!

What’s on the PSAT

Earlier we talked about the different sections that the PSAT is made up of, so now we’re going to go more into detail about what is actually covered in each section.


The Reading section consists of questions based on passages or pairs of passages – these are those comparison passages, where you read both and weigh their views and answer the questions accordingly. The different types of passages are:

  • Literature – usually an excerpt from a piece of fiction like Moby Dick or Jane Eyre
  • Social Science – a study or article about economics, sociology, psychology, etc.
  • Natural Science – concepts and experiments in geology, biology, chemistry, physics, etc.
  • Historical – a U.S. founding document or a text about justice, freedom, or human rights

It will be pretty easy to tell which type of passage you’re reading from the little blurb about it at the beginning. Based on how comfortable you are with each of these topic areas, you might skip a passage and come back to it later. For instance, if you’re a strong literature reader but struggle with natural science, you should complete the literature passage before the natural science one. This is so you don’t waste time getting stuck on science, leaving little time for literature, which you would probably complete more quickly and easily. 


Structurally, the writing section is similar, yet different, to the reading section. You will still encounter a number of passages of varying topics (careers, history, social studies, humanities, science), but the questions will be dispersed throughout the passages rather than at the end of each passage. This is because the writing section is all about grammar, vocabulary in context, and editing skills. As you read a passage, each question will be marked within the passage, prompting you to determine whether a change should be made to the underlined word or words and what that change should be. The types of questions in the writing section are far ranging and require a lot of thought and consideration. During the exam, reading it in your head to see if it sounds right is one way to double check your answer. Otherwise, studying just requires getting standard English conventions into your head and reading a whole lot. 


These two sections are an entirely different beast than the last two. Calculator and No Calculator math still have a fair amount of reading (especially in those nationally beloved word problems), but for the most part math is all about identifying what the question is asking and then finding some equation or number or graphical data point to solve it. The best way to study for the math sections is to do as many math problems as possible and commit the equations that they don’t give you to memory. You will have access to many area and volume formulas as well as a couple of special triangles (please keep this in mind!) at the beginning of each section. On top of that, another piece of advice is to only use your calculator if you absolutely need to! It can waste time to plug things in rather than just remembering basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Here are some of the types of questions:

  • Linear functions and inequalities, solving them, and graphing them
  • Systems of equations/inequalities, solving them, and graphing them
  • Algebraic proportions and word problems
  • Rational and radical equations
  • Properties and rules of exponents
  • Absolute value, direct and inverse variation
  • Polynomial equations, factoring, conjugates
  • Area, perimeter, volume of geometric shapes
  • Area and circumference of a circle, equation and graphing a circle. Arc lengths/sectors
  • Pythagorean theorem, triangles
  • Coordinate geometry, slope, transformations, parallel/perpendicular lines
  • Data interpretation: mean, median, mode, standard deviation, probability/statistics

That’s not too much to remember, right? Right. 

Prepare for the PSAT!

In summary, the PSAT is an important tool for practicing for the SAT and can get you ahead in terms of college tuition and applications. In order to do as well as you possibly can on it, you should consider finding a top-notch test-prep service to help out. They can be pricey, but whatever you invest in terms of tutoring and classes is outweighed by the potential savings in scholarships, getting into better schools, and, ultimately, getting a better paying job! Tutors at Victory Step Education are some of the best in Texas, so consider signing up now. The early bird gets the worm (the bird being a student and the worm being a good PSAT score). See? That’s pretty good education already, breaking down a metaphor just for you.

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