The PSAT Scores Are Out—Now What?

Earlier this fall, millions of high school sophomores and juniors took the PSAT. After 9 weeks of waiting, test takers nationwide can now access their scores on their College Board accounts. For information on how to access the scores, review the instructions provided by the College Board at this link.

What is The PSAT

PSAT stands for "Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test” - you can think of it as Pre-SAT. The PSAT serves as the National Merit Scholar Qualifying Test (that's where the NMSQT part of the PSAT/NMSQT name comes from). By taking the PSAT, you're automatically entered into the National Merit Scholar competition, and if your score is in the top ~3%, you'll get recognized. Even though the score itself doesn't matter, this recognition looks really good on a college application.

Finally, the PSAT experience can help juniors decide whether to take the ACT or SAT when it comes time for the official college entrance test. Our colleagues at Compass have done some great analysis of how to use a PSAT score to determine which test to prep for.

What Makes Up The PSAT Score

A PSAT report will have six main kinds of data: scaled total scores, section scores, raw scores, subscores, Selection Index, and percentiles. Here’s a quick rundown of what all of these terms mean and what their ranges are:

  • Scaled total score: Cumulative total score on the PSAT, ranging between 320 and 1520. Half of your total score comes from Math and the other half comes from Evidence-based Reading and Writing (which is a combination of the Reading and Writing and Language sections).

  • Scaled section scores: Two scores, one for Math and one for Evidence-based Reading and Writing. Both of these scores fall between 160 and 760.

  • Section (test) scores: Three scores: one for Math, one for Reading, and one for Writing and Language. All section scores fall between 8 and 38.

  • Subscores: Seven scores, each on a scale of 1 to 15. Subscores tell you how you did on certain types of questions, some of which appear across two or more sections of the PSAT. You’ll get a subscore for questions that fall into these seven categories: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math.

  • Raw scores: Three scores, one for each PSAT section, representing the number of questions you got right. The ranges for raw scores vary by section. You can get a maximum raw score of 48 for Math, 47 for Reading, and 44 for Writing and Language.

  • Selection Index: One score that ranges from 48 to 228. Your selection index is the sum of your three section scores between 8 and 38 multiplied by 2:

    Selection Index = (Math section score + Reading section score + Writing section score) x 2

What Makes A Good Score ?

Before we can answer the question of what a good score on the PSAT is, we need to define what we mean by a "good score." Since everyone has different goals for the PSAT, a good score for one student may be a disappointing score for another.

To figure out what a good PSAT score is, let's consider a couple of different ways a score could be "good." First, we could define “good” as meaning that you scored better than 50% or more of other test-takers. Based on this definition, we can use percentiles to figure out what makes an above-average PSAT score.

Second, we can define “good” PSAT scores as scores that qualify for National Merit. Actually, qualifying for National Merit means that you got excellent, amazing, near-perfect PSAT scores. What the exact scores you should aim for to qualify for National Merit is something we'll talk about in a little bit.

Finally, because the PSAT is very similar to the SAT, we can use the PSAT to determine whether or not you're on track to get the SAT scores you need for the colleges you want to apply to. Figuring this out means understanding what kinds of SAT scores colleges are looking for.

Here is some recent analysis of the initial data from this year’s PSAT scores.

Regardless of how your scores came out, be sure to keep them in perspective. You have plenty of time to take the SAT and ACT this semester, and your scores will not follow you to college. Use them as a guide, get excited if your scores are high, and prepare for the real thing !

For Sophomores

For sophomores, PSAT scores are a different beast for sophomores. It's more about getting a sense for which academic areas need some work and getting some test-taking practice under their belt early in their high school careers. Students can also use their scores from sophomore year to compare to their junior year scores to see where they were able to improve and where they're still struggling. That will help them identify which study strategies were successful for them and which they should continue to adjust.

Ask These Questions To Find A Meaningful Summer Opportunity For Your Teen

For many of today’s college-bound high school students, summer is no longer nine weeks of total relaxation, but rather an opportunity to spend time actively working, learning new skills, or diving deeper into an area (or areas) of interest. Summer is the perfect time to take calculated risks that push students into unfamiliar situations, which will help them build skills and enrich life experiences.

The key ingredient in finding the most rewarding experiences: planning. In our work with hundreds of teenagers, we’ve developed a model to help guide you and your student in identifying and exploring meaningful activities.

As you and your family review possibilities for the summer, consider these key questions—based on our i4 model—to help define your search criteria:

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Interest

What activities and subject areas spark your student’s interest? How do they spend their time? What are their favorite books, YouTube videos, documentaries?

Don’t forget to consider non-traditional activities such as personal projects, research, or hobbies. For example, if your student plays drums in the church band or teaches themselves foreign languages, these are great areas for further exploration.

Involvement

How much involvement is required for each possible summer activity? When trying to decide between summer experiences, evaluate the time commitment, leadership potential, and range of responsibilities and/or learning opportunities.

Summer is a great time for a student to up their involvement level because they don't have as many other commitments.

Initiative

College admissions officers highly value when students take the initiative in planning their summer activity. For example, it takes more initiative to design a video game or start a dog walking business than it does to attend a summer program.

Think about your student’s personality and previous experiences taking initiative. Are they comfortable being more self-directed, or would they rather take part in an established program? Often, this depends both on age and personality. Younger students may feel more comfortable in a structured program while juniors and seniors may be able to work on their own to find and apply for a job, internship, academic program, or research opportunity. Or they may even be able to start their own enterprise.

Impact

How will this program or opportunity impact your student and your community? Is your student taking a risk or challenging themselves in this activity or program? Impact may come in the form of individual challenge or serving the greater good. Regardless, a great activity or program will be both engaging and impactful.

Being willing to stretch and go outside one’s comfort zone is important to grow as a person. It’s okay if your student attempts a challenging activity but ultimately fails. In fact, that would make for a great college essay.

College Spotlight: Pomona College

If you’re the type of student who gravitates toward people who are deep thinkers with a lot of drive, you may want to consider Pomona College, the “intellectual playground” of small liberal arts colleges in California. Here, outdoor spaces are also “physics playrooms” and students are encouraged to eat meals with faculty members (who get “meal swipes” for this purpose) to continue or expand on class discussions.  At Pomona, curiosity is the campus creed, which is why the 1,700 students here are excited to take advantage of its breadth of courses and campus speakers, as well as those at the four other colleges that, along with Pomona, make up the Claremont Colleges: Pitzer, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, and Scripps. It’s not surprising that nearly 30 percent of the class of 2022 is made up of high school valedictorians and that the admission rate is about 7.6 percent overall.

On a recent visit, the school’s liberal bent was evident from the political murals surrounding the main green, including those reading: “Go Vegan,” and “We Believe Dr. Christine Ford.” My tour guide, a junior music major, touted the small, discussion based classes at Pomona as a major draw for him. Every student takes ID1 (Interdisciplinary 1) their freshman year, and the topic he chose was “The Russian Soul.” Reading and writing intensive, the seminar-style class taught him a lot about conducting research and writing, but did so in manageable chunks. For example, one of his first assignments in the class was to emphasize the importance of details in research. He had to choose a work of Russian art, pick out three details and write about why they were there.

He raved about paid research opportunities Pomona offers, including a summer research stipend for individual research, which he took advantage of last summer to study the evolving role of the choral conductor.  To be approved for the program, he had to write a proposal and apply in February. He then had to present his findings to a panel upon return to school. With its $2 billion endowment, Pomona has a lot to spend on its students – for both need-based financial aid (it has a need-blind admission policy) and research and internship opportunities. Merit aid is limited to six National Merit scholarships.

Collaboration is emphasized at Pomona – it’s not one of those competitive, cutthroat schools where learning can seem almost secondary to grades. Here, students are expected to support one another and collaborate – in fact, many classes require it, and professors expect students to write the name of who they collaborated with on each assignment or project.

If you’re waffling about applying to a liberal arts college, Pomona Assistant Dean of Admission Carolyn Starks has some statistics for you to consider: “While 65 percent of high school students go to college, only 1 percent go to a liberal arts college. But 20 percent of the presidents and CEOs of companies graduated from small liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts colleges produce leaders!”

College Spotlight: The University of Southern California

The California dairy industry says that happy cows come from California. It’s also safe to say that happy college students come from USC. On my recent campus visit on a warm, sunny day, students swarmed the outdoor tables, couches and comfy chairs at USC Village, a new residential, eating, and shopping area next to campus that includes a Trader Joe’s and a Target. I ate with Rosie, a sophomore Jazz Vocal major from Anchorage, Alaska, at Greenleaf, one of the many small restaurants in the village, and enjoyed a very California-y salad at a shaded outdoor table overlooking the busy walkway to campus.  Rosie also considered many East Coast liberal arts colleges and music conservatories but ultimately choose USC for the location. She hasn’t regretted her choice socially or academically.

Students at USC, which is in the heart of Los Angeles, have easy access to city activities and the beach. For example, Rosie’s weekend plans included going indoor trampolining to celebrate a friend’s birthday, seeing another friend play saxophone at a large music festival, doing some studying, and maybe heading to the beach on the train, an easy trip that takes about 30 minutes. She does not have a car on campus but says she doesn’t really need it. Many students use Uber or Lyft.

While Greek life is popular among the 20,000 undergrads at USC, it’s not necessary to have a great social experience. Rosie is not involved with Greek life and says that her academic program in music provided her the smaller group atmosphere she needed for a strong sense of community. But she says that students in the larger academic programs, such as business, may not get that same sense of community and therefore Greek life often fills that need.

The campus vibe is “mixed but tends more liberal – about 70/30,” Rosie said. For example, when Ben Shapiro came to campus to speak recently, “there were a lot of protesters. But then there were also protestors protesting the protesters,” she said.

The buildings at USC are huge and beautiful. It almost feels like you’re on a Hollywood set, and several movies have actually filmed there, including Legally Blonde, The Princess Diaries 2, and The Social Network. Students interested in film, music, and theater rave about professors with the experience and contacts to help them begin careers in the industry right in LA. Rosie has a music professor who sings with Larry Goldings, a Grammy-nominated pianist, keyboardist, composer, and songwriter, and Rosie was recently invited to go to their album cover photo shoot in Malibu. She expects that being exposed to industry professionals will give her a leg up for her own music career. Performing regularly on campus has helped her hone her craft and Rosie says that collaboration within the music department on performances is another advantage of USC.

USC’s campus is big but walkable. Many students have bikes or skateboards, but neither is necessary. Rosie lost the key to her bike lock at the beginning of the semester but hasn’t yet had the motivation to find a way to unlock it. And why would she need to when she lives steps from Trader Joe’s and Target?

What Is The Holistic Review Process At UT Austin?

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It’s hard to believe that a school as large of the University of Texas at Austin actually reviews every part of every student’s application. But it does: UT is deeply committed to the holistic review of its applicants. Even for students who qualify for automatic admission, the holistic review will help determine admission to specific colleges, schools, and majors.

Students and parents often wonder why does UT approach admissions in this way. They want to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists who can contribute to the Longhorn community in ways other than great academic performance. By evaluating an application from a holistic perspective, UT gets to know applicants as people, not as numbers.

Taking only the applicants with the top grades and test scores may not make for a diverse or well-rounded student body. This is why in addition to the “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) of a student’s application, colleges also place great weight on the “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) in order to gain a full picture of applicants.

Holistic review means that the Office of Admissions takes everything into account, from test scores to extracurricular interests to special accomplishments—and everything in between. That means each application item receives the same amount of attention as the rest. While students often think of the essay as the make-or-break piece, they should be putting just as much effort into their short answers, expanded resume, and choice of recommenders. The application should be cohesive, while still highlighting different aspects of the student’s background and accomplishments depending on the section.

According to the UT website, holistic review includes the review of all of the following items, and no one item is a make-or-break point for the application:

  • Class rank

  • Strength of academic background

  • SAT Reasoning Test or ACT scores

  • Record of achievements, honors, and awards

  • Special accomplishments, work, and service both in and out of school

  • Essays

  • Special circumstances that put the applicant’s academic achievements into context, including his or her socioeconomic status, experience in a single parent home, family responsibilities, experience overcoming adversity, cultural background, race and ethnicity, the language spoken in the applicant’s home, and other information in the applicant’s file

  • Recommendations (although not required)

  • Competitiveness of the major to which the student applies

A student’s first-choice major becomes the lens through which a file reviewer evaluates each item in an application. Demonstrated academic fit for major is one of the most important aspects of UT Austin’s holistic review, so each application item should provide evidence to support the student’s first-choice major selection. By selecting an appropriate first-choice major and putting equal effort into each part of the application, students will have a leg up in the application process.