stands for “Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is the precursor to the SAT and, most importantly, it’s used to qualify for those coveted National Merit Scholarships you hear so much about.

Colleges pay attention to National Merit Scholars; that means they will come looking for you, instead of you having to try to get admitted! Even better; they will often actually pay for you to go to their school! As a National Merit Scholar you may be awarded additional scholarships to cover tuition, room and board, and even extra pocket money so you don’t have to work at all during college. In short, landing that National Merit Scholarship can make you tens of thousands of dollars AND make you look really good!

What is it?

The PSAT/NMSQT is a standardized test taken by 10th and 11th graders during October each year. The PSAT/NMSQT does two things:

  1. It serves as a dress rehearsal for the longer SAT test you’ll take later on. That practice is important! Doing well on the SAT also makes it easier to get into the college you want and to land lucrative scholarships.
  2. If you score high enough, it qualifies you to be in the running for the National Merit Scholarship. If you make the cut on the PSAT/NMSQT actually being awarded the scholarship will depend on your future SAT scores and things like your GPA and extracurricular activities. Out of the 1.5 million juniors who take the test only around 50,000 make the cut.

So I just have to take the PSAT/NMSQT and I’m eligible for the National Merit Scholarship?

Not quite. You must be a full time high school student and a permanent resident or citizen of the US, and you must take the PSAT/NMSQT no later than your third year of high school. Sophomores who take the PSAT/NMSQT aren’t eligible for the scholarship, but they can still take the test for practice (and it’s a good idea)! The test you’ll take your third year in high school is the only one they look at for purposes of qualifying for that National Merit Scholarship.

When do I find out if I qualified for the National Merit Scholarship?

First, you can get either National Merit Commended or National Merit Semifinalist. The score necessary to get the semifinalist status in a given year is set by each state and varies from 210 to 225 (out of 240 total), while the commended status qualifying level is set nationally and is usually around 205.

The April after taking the PSAT/NMSQT, the 50,000 top scorers will be notified that they may qualify and will be asked to pick two colleges or universities to be notified as well. If you get that far, BE CAREFUL. Usually, to get funding from a particular school, you’ll have to list them as your first choice. Check with the admissions advisors for your college of choice to find out for certain.

In September your high school will get the news on whether you have qualified as either a National Merit Commended student or National Merit Semifinalist, and then they’ll let you know. Expect kudos at this point. High schools tend to get excited about this, and you may even end up in the local newspaper.

Around two thirds of the 50,000 students will receive Commended status, meaning they aren’t getting the National Merit Scholarship. Take heart! That commendation is still worth big scholarships!

The remaining third become National Merit Semifinalists, and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation will send you scholarship application materials. The vast majority of semifinalists (15 out of 16) will become finalists and get the National Merit Scholarship (and probably other scholarships as well). Those other scholarships may be MUCH bigger than the actual National Merit Scholarship depending on the school and/or company offering the award.

Need more info? Take a look at the National Merit Scholarship website.

What’s actually on the test?

Same things as the SAT, more or less; reading, writing, and .

Critical Reading

Two 25-minute sections with a total of 48 multiple choice questions (13 Sentence completions and 35 Critical reading questions).


Two 25-minute sections with a total of 28 multiple-choice questions and 10 student produced responses (grid-ins). You can use a calculator–even a graphing calculator–as long as it doesn’t have a QWERTY keyboard. Basic concepts tested don’t get much tougher than basic geometry, although there is some basic statistics and probability. It tests algebra and algebraic functions as well, but, unlike the SAT, you won’t get any math that comes in your junior year.


One thirty-minute section with 39 mutiple-choice questions (14 Identifying sentence errors, 20 Improving sentences, and 5 Improving paragraph questions). These questions are intended to measure your effectiveness at clearly expressing ideas. That includes understanding writing, finding grammar mistakes, identifying poor structure, and using language clearly.

Total Time

A little over two hours.

How does the scoring work?

On the test, each correct answer gets you 1 point. Leave it blank (or get it wrong on a math grid-in problem) and you get 0 points. Wrong answers cost you 1/4 point. What that boils down to is that it pays to guess when you don’t know an answer! At worst, you’ll break even. But if you can eliminate one or two obviously wrong answers and guess at what’s left, you’ll come out ahead!

All those points add up to a “raw” score that is then converted into an official score of from 20 to 80 per section. 80 means you got everything right. 20 means you … uh … didn’t. For example, you could get a 43 on the math, a 56 on the reading, and a 72 on the writing, for a combined total of 171 (the combined scored is also known as the “Selection Index”). 50 is more-or-less average for each section. A perfect 80 in each section works out to a 240 total test score. FYI, to convert these to SAT equivalents, just add a zero (so that 72 on the writing section is like a 720 on the SAT writing).

You’ll also get a percentile rank. For example, if you ranked in the 78th percentile, it means you scored better than 77 out of every 100 students who took the test. 99th percentile is what you want to have a shot at that National Merit Scholarship!

The scores are sent to your high school in December. There is no way to get them online or by phone, so you’ll just have to wait until the high school passes them along.

What should I bring to the test?

  • Your admission ticket
  • Several #2 pencils (with erasers, duh!)
  • Photo ID
  • A calculator with extra batteries (preferably one you’ve been using for several months, so there are no surprises)
  • A stopwatch or good wristwatch (but no beeping allowed!)
  • A snack; something that will keep your working at peak
  • Earplugs to shut out distractions. Don’t laugh. If the guy behind you has a head cold and his nose whistles every time he takes a deep breath, earplugs can save your life (and his).
  • Map to the test site if you haven’t been there before.


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