Transition from High School

High, low or in between? What your student’s PSAT score means

By Robin NobleUpdated January 10, 2017

Later this month, PSAT test results will arrive at high schools across the country.

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High School Parent | College Parent

Some 3.5 million students — including virtually every high school junior — sat for the same PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) exam every October.

2017 PSAT Testing Schedule

  • PSAT test day: Wednesday, October 11, 2017
  • Saturday PSAT test day: October 14, 2017
  • Alternate PSAT test day: Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The arrival of PSAT results is a start-your-engine moment for juniors in the run up to applying for college. While they have no bearing on next year’s college applications per se, the results of this colossal test provide a comparative reference no other pre-college assessment can touch.

That said, the importance of the PSAT can be overplayed, pulling us parents into a reactionary mode we almost always regret. As with all steps in the college application process, a measured and realistic response garners best results. High, low or in between, your student’s score is no reason to pile on stress. It’s also no time for a “so-what” way of thinking.

You can help your student make good use of his results, whatever they are. First, you have to understand what they mean.

The Test

The PSAT evaluates three academic subject areas: math, reading and writing. PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520. PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520, which are computed by adding the scores for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections and the Math sections. The individual scores for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math sections range from 160 to 760. For more information on the score, read, What you need to know about PSAT Scores.

< 120   EVALUATE

If your student is generally earning good grades but scored below 40 on any of the three PSAT sections, you need to take a closer look at what’s going on. Your student might have a significant learning disability or extreme testing anxiety. Consult with his school guidance counselor or a psychologist as soon as possible. If he’s found to have ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, or other challenges, he may qualify for testing accommodations such as time extensions.

120 – 150   PREPARE

If your student is seeking admission to a competitive college and scored below 150, now you know to encourage early, formal and diligent test preparation. Students can and do raise their scores significantly between the PSAT and SAT. Practice is key.  It might also be wise to have your student try the ACT. He may fare better on this widely accepted college entrance exam.

150 – 199 PRACTICE

He’s earned a downright decent mark on the PSAT, and is probably the kind of motivated student who will push himself to do better. If he’s a junior, encourage him to enroll in an SAT prep class this winter and sign up for his first official SAT taking several practice tests in the weeks ahead. He can take the SAT again in the fall and use his top score for college apps.


Congratulate your student. He has achieved an upper-stratum score. If he is a junior and depending upon the state in which you live, he may be deemed a semi-finalist in the National Merit Scholarship Competition, one of the most prestigious in the country. This is a very big deal. (Even if your student isn’t a semi-finalist he will likely be one of the 34,000 high scorers formally commended next September by NMSC, a nice feather in his cap.)

To determine its 16,000 semi-finalists, the NMSC sets a “qualifying score” for each state to allocate equal representation. Last year, New Jersey’s cutoff score for semi-finalists was 224. North Dakota’s was 201. Semi-finalists can become finalists by submitting an essay, letters of recommendation, and a high score on the SAT.

Finalists — as determined by an NMSC panel — may receive cash awards for college, usually around $2,500. Much more than this, they gain preeminent status in the college admission process, with some institutions climbing over themselves to proffer scholarship money in hopes of enrolling as many National Merit Scholars as possible.

It’s a long, long shot, but if NMSC notifies your junior of semi-finalist status through his school next September, you should encourage and support him through the competition process. It’s worthwhile in every conceivable way.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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