Posted on: March 15, 2019
You’ve likely pushed hard to get the most out of your PSAT results, to get those high numbers you’ve dreamed of seeing on your score report. The numbers at the top do tell a lot, but they aren’t the whole story. As you look over your PSAT scores, try not to focus too much on the top line scores. Sure, it’s easier to just check your National Merit Selection Index against the state cutoffs and then throw the report in the drawer, but what you should focus on instead is not simply what the scores are but what you can learn from them.
The Numbers, the numbers
The PSAT score report can be overwhelming. Here’s some guidance on what’s important and what isn’t:
- The overall and section scores: The big numbers at the top of the page are what you’ll see first. Most folks are familiar with the SAT scale of 200-800 per section, and the PSAT is a solid predictor of SAT scores. Remember though, that the correlation breaks down at the extremes, since the PSAT bottoms and tops out at 160 and 760, respectively.
- The percentiles: Take these with a grain of salt. It’d be great if the PSAT reported straight percentiles — that is, if the 84th percentile meant you scored higher than 84% of the students who took the PSAT that day. But that’s not what’s going on with these numbers. The math behind “Your Nationally Representative Sample Percentile” is more convoluted than you care to know, but the take-home message is that these numbers are inflated a bit from straight percentiles. So temper your enthusiasm when you see them.
- Test scores: These section scores (out of 40) let you know which of the three sections you need to work on and which you’ve got locked down.
- Cross-Test scores: To calculate these, the College Board combines all the questions on a specific subject matter, such as science. For example, they’ll include a math word problem with a science context, a reading question from a science passage, and so on. Ignore them. That’s what colleges do. These scores are an attempt to say the PSAT measures something it really doesn’t, and they’re largely included to be competitive with certain scores on ACT score reports.
- Subscores: This part of the report breaks down your performance within a section. For example, they’ll show how you did on the algebra problems, on data analysis, and so on. However, the categories are not particularly clear if you’re not already familiar with them, so these results are more helpful to students who have already done quite a bit of preparation and understand which types of questions these represent. They’ll also be helpful to your counselor or tutor, if you are working with one.
- National Merit Selection Index: This is, by design, important only to the top few percent of test takers. Students who make it past certain “cutoff” scores are invited to participate in the National Merit competition, but the cutoffs vary by state, and those in our own area are among the very highest in the country. For the Class of 2022, the cutoffs were 224 in DC and Maryland and 221 in Virginia, scores that require a near-perfect performance on the PSAT. If you’re not in that range, you can disregard the selection index entirely. If you do have a score that high, congratulations. You’re in the running for National Merit! To proceed in the competition, you’ll need to complete an application during your senior year that will include, among other things, another standardized test score. One important note here is that now students may take either the ACT or the SAT for this purpose. (Previously, only the SAT was accepted.) That’s great news for high performers who have already chosen the ACT.
- Your Question-Level Feedback: Here’s the good stuff. Feedback this detailed is rarely given on a standardized test and can help you to understand both your performance and how to improve. So read on!
Making the SAT vs. ACT Decision
If you’ve not yet started prepping for the SAT or ACT, understanding your PSAT scores is a great first step. The SAT is much like the PSAT, but it’s a few questions — and a few minutes — longer. So how you did on the PSAT is a great indicator of how you’ll do on the SAT. Are you happy with your scores? Then the SAT may be right for you. If, on the other hand, you were hoping for a little more, you might want to check out the ACT before you dive into a draconian regime of SAT prep. Colleges really don’t care which test you take, so if there is a path of least resistance for you, it’s worth your time to find it. Work smarter, not harder, and take the test that’s better aligned with your skill set.
Test Day Performance
On the other hand, you may be neck deep in SAT and ACT prep already, and perhaps have even taken a real test or two. So what can your PSAT scores tell you in that case? Well, it’s a great assessment of how you handled the official test day. Taking the test “for real” often feels a little bit different from the practice tests you’ve taken to prepare. How did you handle it?
The PSAT offers more detailed feedback than any other test. You can get the test questions for the SAT or ACT only on select dates, and you’ll never see your work in your test booklet. For the PSAT, you get everything: the questions, your answers, the right answers and your test booklet. That means you can do a pretty deep dive to understand what happened on each and every question.
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 mistakes. 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 relearn the equation of the circle, brush up on your geometry, or review how to correctly use a semicolon. (Spoiler alert: it’s basically a period.)
- 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? Test anxiety, stress, or lack of sleep can cause you to under-perform in any number of ways ranging from “careless” errors to choking to panicking.
Improving your score on a standardized test requires you to not only understand the material on the test but also a little about yourself. Take time to reflect. After all, you’ve already spent over three hours on it, so it’s worth investing a bit more to make sure you make the most out of the results you’ve achieved.
Originally published December 11, 2017; last updated January 27, 2022.