Understanding Your PSAT Scores

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With any luck, your first reaction to your PSAT scores was to hang up the score report on the refrigerator rather than ball it up in the wastebasket. But either way, you should remember that the PSAT was only practice: good scores won’t get you into college and poor scores won’t keep you out. The College Board won’t release your PSAT scores to colleges, no matter how nicely they ask.

As you look over your results, try not to focus too much on the overall section scores. Sure, it’s easier to just check your National Merit Selection Index against the state cutoffs and then throw the score report in the drawer (especially in the DMV, where the cutoff scores** are just short of ridiculous.) But what you should focus on instead is not just what the scores are but how you earned them.

Start by asking yourself: Did I have enough time to complete the section without rushing? Did I make the best decisions in using the time I did have? For the questions you missed, try to determine what caused your mistake. Errors on standardized tests usually have three causes:

  • Content: Did you honestly not know the necessary material to answer the question? Looking for trends will tell you if you need to review the meaning of “belie”, the equation of the circle or review how to correctly use a semicolon. (Spoiler alerts: to misrepresent, (x-h)^2+(y-k)^2=r^2 and it’s basically a period.) Remember that you took the PSAT in mid-October and (one hopes!) have been continuously learning since then. By design, the PSAT and SAT test many math concepts students learn during junior year.
  • Process: Is there a more strategic way you could have approached the problem? Remember – this is a standardized test and not a test in school. The best way to answer a question is the easiest way. Could you have just tested answers or used process of elimination. Was there an algebraic “trick” that could have eliminated those ten lines of math you just did?
  • Anxiety: Upon review, does it seem that you really should have gotten that right? When your neighbor flipped the page ahead of you and you realized you were “behind”, did you then focus on him or her rather than doing the problem in front of you? Test anxiety, stress, or lack of sleep can cause you to underperform in any number of ways ranging from “careless” errors to choking to panicking. Preparing for the PSAT or SAT is unlike preparing for simply another test in school. These tests are three hour plus marathons with seemingly (but not really) overwhelming consequences. To be successful, you’ll need to show up on test prepared both in body and mind.


Improving your score on a standardized test requires you to not only understand the material on the test but also a little about yourself. Now that you’ve got your scores, take the time you need to reflect and make the most of your PSAT – after all, you’ve already spent over three hours on it!
**Last year’s National Merit Semifinalist cutoff scores: DC 222, MD 221, VA 221

Aaron Golumbfskie

Senior Tutor & Education Director

Aaron is the Education Director at PrepMatters and has logged more than 10,000 hours of one-on-one tutoring, helping teens change their self-images and achieve success, whether on standardized tests or in academic classes. He continues to tutor every day, but, realizing that individual efforts don’t scale very well, he hopes to serve even more students by spending much of his time creating pe...

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