How to Use Your PSAT & NMSQT Results

ACT and SAT Test Prep, National Merit, PSAT
No Comments

Most schools will pass back the PSAT/NMSQT results to students soon, if they haven’t done so already.  How can you use these results most effectively?

Be sure you receive your test booklet and score sheet – all guidance counselors should have this material available.  The test booklet will be the same one you actually used when you took the actual test, so you can see any problem-solving approaches you may have written down on the math section.  The score sheet will tell you for each and every question if you missed it, and if you did miss it, what the correct answer was. 

Go through all the questions you missed to learn from your mistakes and to see if there were any patterns in what you missed.  There is simply no diagnostic test better than an actual test, so don’t let the opportunity to learn from missed questions go to waste.  When I tutor students, I love having the opportunity to work through the PSAT with them to help them look for trends in their though processes on which they can improve. 

You can also use the PSAT results to see if you would prefer to focus more on the SAT or ACT going forward.  How?  Take a look at the percentiles of your performance on the PSAT, which juniors take, and the PLAN, which sophomores take.  The PSAT corresponds to the SAT and the PLAN corresponds to the ACT.  If the percentiles are relatively similar – say within about 10-15 points of each other – you may as well try both the SAT and ACT.  If one is clearly a better fit for you, however, then you may not want to waste your time taking both exams.  Focus on whichever test will give you the better opportunity to showcase your talents and abilities since colleges all across the country will accept either test.

PSAT Timing, Pacing and Format

National Merit, PSAT
No Comments

The PSAT has a very predictable format, with the number of passages and types of questions basically the same from test to test.  As a result, if you are aware of the way the test is structured, you will be able to figure out your optimal pace and timing strategy. 

On the PSAT, the questions all go easy to hard except for the questions on the reading passages and the improving paragraphs.  With the Vocab, Math and most of the Writing multiple choice, each time you find a part of the test section with a new type of question, the difficulty of the questions will go from easy to hard.  (e.g., when you are doing the PSAT math that has the fill-ins, the multiple choice within that section will go from easy to hard, and when you do the fill-ins, the questions start over going from easy to hard.)

You will always find 2 Critical Reading sections, 2 Math sections, and 1 Writing section.  They will not have an essay on the PSAT – that is only on the SAT.  Here is the precise breakdown of questions/passages on the PSAT:


PSAT Critical Reading – 2 multiple-choice sections, in no particular order.  Each section is 25 minutes.

Section 1:

8 sentence Completions

2 short reading passages

1 long Passage 1/Passage 2

Section 2:

5 Sentence Completions

1 short Passage 1/Passage 2

1 medium reading passage

1 long reading passage


PSAT Math – 2 sections involving both multiple-choice and short answer (grid-in) questions, in

no particular order.  Each section is 25 minutes.

Section 1:

20 multiple-choice questions

Section 2:

8 multiple-choice questions

10 grid-in questions


PSAT Writing – 1 multiple-choice section, Section 5 of the PSAT.  30 minutes. 

Section 1:

39 multiple-choice questions

–20 improving sentences

–15 sentence errors

–5 improving paragraphs

If you would like to practice for the SAT, please do some of my Practice SAT and PSAT questions with Video Solutions


I hope you found this summary helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart

Is the National Merit Scholarship a Big Deal?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, College Admissions, College Applications, High School, National Merit, Test Anxiety
No Comments

To be named a National Merit Scholar is a recognition for which students strive – they will earn accolades from their school, their parents and their community.  But is it as big a deal as people make it out to be?  In my humble opinion, being named a National Merit Scholar is not nearly as important as it once was.  Why?

1. You really don’t get that much money.   In the 1960s or 1970s, and even when I went to college in the 1990s, the amount of money that the National Merit Scholarship can provide seemed like quite a bit relative to the cost of a college education.  Now, it is pretty insignificant.  You can expect an award of anywhere to $2000-8000, with many of the awards being a one-time scholarship of $2500.  When a private college education costing in excess of $200,000, this is not enough to make a big dent. 

There are some colleges that may offer full or partial tuition scholarships to National Merit Scholars, and you can find the list of them on pages 18-19 of the National Merit Student Guide found here:

These opportunities are rare, however, and the vast majority of National Merit recipients aren’t looking at receiving a ton of money as a result of winning. 

There are far more opportunities to win merit-based money through college programs like University Scholars, Presidential Scholars, and so on.  Many schools will give full rides to students who not only perform well on the ACT or SAT, but have strong grades and extracurricular activities.  Put your energy and effort into winning a University-based scholarship because that is where the real aid is. 

2. The PSAT doesn’t go on the Common Application.  Colleges are far more concerned about your performance on the SAT and ACT than they are on the PSAT since there are actually spaces for these score results on the Common Application, and no space for PSAT results.  (You can report National Merit recognition as an academic honor on the common application if applicable.)  It is fascinating to me how much more stress people feel going into the PSAT compared to the PLAN, which is the practice ACT.  Other than the relatively insignificant scholarship dollars at stake, they both serve to give you practice for the SAT or ACT respectively. 

3. Understand that your school wants you to make them look good!  Because of the association that adults have with the National Merit recognition and significant scholarship money and academic quality, high school administrators know that having National Merit winners will help their public relations and reputation.  (Take a look at some private school websites and see how frequently they use this as a marketing tool!  Also, do a search of “national merit” on to see how high schools love to play this up.)  As a result, they may overly emphasize the importance of high performance on this test, making you think it will make or break your entire future.  Know that they have an agenda, and don’t let their worries cause you concern. 

4. As our country has shifted its educational focus, the National Merit Scholarship has become less important.  I was fascinated to learn that the National Merit program began in 1955.  This was right at the beginning of the Cold War, and 2 years before the Sputnik Launch by the U.S.S.R.  The U.S. was paranoid about its competitiveness with respect to the Soviets, and was reforming its educational system to emphasize math, science and to give highly intelligent students the tools they needed to develop technology that would enable the U.S. to be the best.  The National Merit Scholarship enabled students with high scholastic aptitude to attend great universities at much lower cost, empowering them to focus on their academic development and become the scientists, engineers and inventors who would ensure American preeminence.  It is no wonder that people who grew up in this era believe the National Merit program to be of extraordinary importance, because it once truly was. 

With the Cold War over, the shift in American education is towards inclusion and diversity.  As a result, having one test – the PSAT – determine one’s eligibility for a scholarship is deemed by many to be way too exclusive.  In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling came out strongly against the use of the PSAT for this purpose:

As time goes on and the memories of the cold war fade, I imagine that colleges will continue to move away from emphasizing the PSAT and National Merit process, looking more comprehensively at a student’s academic and personal attributes when making scholarship and admissions decisions.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart   

Copyright 2019 | Blog Powered by Wordpress
Website By |