Thinkwell Resources

All About the PSAT and PreACT

Starting in October of sophomore year, students across the country experience what is usually their very first step in the college admissions process: the PSAT. Given that the test is not the formal SAT, it is difficult to know how to handle it or whether or not to prepare. Below, we answer a few common questions that we get from families about the PSAT and the preACT. 

How is the PSAT different from the SAT?

  • The PSAT is essentially the preliminary SAT and follows the same format as the SAT. The only difference between the two tests is that the PSAT is slightly shorter and not quite as hard:
    • The PSAT has no essay option and contains a grand total of 139 questions to be answered in 165 minutes. 
    • The SAT contains 154 questions to be completed in 180 minutes, not including the optional essay section.
  • The math concepts covered on the PSAT are the same as those on the SAT (Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry, with a little bit of Pre-Calculus and Statistics). Don’t worry if your student hasn’t gotten to all of those math classes yet – the higher-level questions are minimal enough that your student can still do well even if they haven’t taken Pre-Cal or Stats!
  • The two tests are scored slightly differently: the PSAT is scored from 320-1520, and the SAT is scored from 400-1600. 


When do students take the PSAT?

Students typically take the PSAT twice, in October of both their sophomore and junior year. 


Can students use accommodations on the PSAT?

Yes! Students who typically use accommodations for testing can apply for accommodations on the PSAT. In fact, we encourage families to make sure to ask their schools to begin the accommodations process with the College Board as soon as school starts in the fall of sophomore year. While the scores from the sophomore PSAT don’t go to colleges or get considered for the scholarship programs, they can be very helpful in getting a sense of where a student is starting out. If a student tests without accommodations, we can’t be sure how accurate those scores are. Additionally, students who test without their accommodations often struggle to finish the exam, creating avoidable anxiety about testing going forward.  


Does the PSAT count?

For sophomores, PSAT scores are not considered for scholarship programs or college admissions. PSAT scores from junior year can qualify students for National Merit Scholarship and National Hispanic Recognition candidacy. However, neither PSAT score counts toward college admissions. 


When do PSAT scores come back?

Scores are available in December, 6-8 weeks after the test date. Although scores are eventually posted online, they are sent to counselors and schools first. You can expect to receive your child’s score report from their school. 


What are the PSAT score cutoffs for major scholarship and award programs? 

  • The National Merit Scholarship Program is open to high school students who meet the Qualifying Index Score on the PSAT. Index Scores are calculated by adding together a student’s three section scores (each ranging from 8-38) and multiplying that number by 2. Qualifying Index Scores change each year and vary by state, but in Texas, they have typically hovered around 221. Qualifying students may be named Commended Scholars, Semifinalists, Finalists, or Winners. Typically, Semifinalists represent the top 1% of students in each state. 
  • The National Merit Scholarship Corporation has historically awarded scholarships to African-American college applicants through the National Achievement Scholarship Program, but in 2016 it redirected those funds to college graduates. 
  • The National Hispanic Recognition Program (NHRP) is open to students who are at least one-quarter Latino, have a GPA of at least 3.5, and meet the PSAT score requirements. In Texas, the PSAT score cutoff has historically been 1270 or 1280. The NHRP does not offer a scholarship, but it is a prestigious award that should definitely be included on college applications!


Should my student prepare for the PSAT?

  • Your student can prepare for the PSAT if he or she wants to, but it usually isn’t the best use of time. While junior year scores count toward National Merit Scholarships, so few people qualify for candidacy that juniors are often better off devoting their time and energy toward schoolwork and ACT/SAT prep. 
  • If your student does happen to have a very high sophomore PSAT score or is already planning to take the SAT in the fall of their junior year, studying can be a great choice.  The SAT is so similar to the PSAT that one course of prep can serve the student twice.  


What about the PreACT?

  • The PreACT is a slightly shorter version of the ACT that became available to sophomores during the 2016-2017 school year. Taking the PreACT is always a great idea because being able to compare your student’s PSAT and PreACT scores is a great way to find out which test suits them best!
  • The PreACT is one hour shorter than the ACT, but the difficulty level is the same for both tests. They are both scored on a scale of 1-36. 
  • If your student does not take the PreACT, he or she can take an official, full-length ACT practice test at home or sign up to take a proctored practice test at our office.  
  • Unlike the PSAT, PreACT scores do not count toward any scholarships or awards programs.
Understanding Accommodations

If your student regularly uses accommodations at their school, or if you suspect that they might have a learning difference, it might be helpful for them to have accommodations when they take the ACT or SAT.

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One of the first questions I often get from families when we begin working together is about how to choose between the SAT and ACT.

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