Understanding PSAT Scores and What They Really Mean

It’s that time of year again: The Christmas carols are playing, you’re showered in holiday sale fliers, and the weather is turning colder. Oh, and if you’ve got a high school kid who took the October PSAT, your child’s scores will soon be released.

Although PSAT score reports appear to be fairly straightforward, those few pages of statistics can hide a great deal of information about your child’s academic potential. For a limited time only, bring your child’s PSAT score report to a local C2 Education center, and we’ll help you interpret the results so that you have a clearer picture of where your child stands.

To get you started in reviewing those PSAT score reports, here are some things to keep in mind about your child’s scores:

If your child scored high (1300 or above):

Remember that PSAT scores are not indicative of future SAT scores.

The PSAT differs from the SAT in several ways. For instance, the PSAT lacks an essay component and doesn’t test the same higher level math skills as the SAT. A high PSAT score is incredibly promising and is an accomplishment to be proud of — but high PSAT scores do not necessarily promise high SAT scores. Students who do well on the PSAT will do well on the SAT only if they continue to work hard! Students will need to continue to focus on critical reading, mastering higher math skills, and honing writing skills in order to score as high or higher on the SAT.

Your child could qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.

Students who take the PSAT in 11th grade are automatically entered to compete for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship. If your child is in 11th grade and has scored very well on the PSAT (usually above 1450), there is a good chance that he or she will be selected as a High Scorer, which is the first step in being selected as a National Merit Scholarship recipient. High Scorers are usually notified sometime in the spring.

Your child will still need to prepare for the SAT.

Many students who score well on the PSAT score lower on the SAT. Why? Because they assumed that they wouldn’t need to prepare for the SAT since they did so well on the PSAT. But as we noted above, the SAT is a different test, even if the two tests share many similarities. Students who do well on the PSAT will likely need less preparation for the SAT — but they’ll still need to review and practice before the big day.

If your child scored in the middle (1100 to 1300):

Average isn’t a dirty word.

A score in this range means that your child is on par with or a little above the other students who took this test. If your child is in the 10th grade, this might actually be good news because he was competing against a lot of 11th grade students. Regardless of your child’s grade, remember that average isn’t a dirty word. If you and your child have your sights set on a prestigious and/or selective college, then there’s definitely work to be done — but scores can be improved! Be glad that you discovered that there is room for improvement now instead of 6 months from now when you will have lost all that test prep time!

Look at the scores for each section of the test.

Did your child do well in one or two sections, but bomb the rest? A lot of students do very well in the verbal sections and very poorly in the math section, or vice versa. This is a sign of your child’s aptitude — his grades likely reflect a similar preference for one skill set over another. A low score in any given test section is a sign of a weakness that needs to be addressed, not only for future test scores, but also for future academic success.

If your child did not score well (below 1100):

Take a tip from Douglas Adams — DON’T PANIC.

Scores can be improved, and you’ve still got enough time to do it. If your child is in 11th grade and scored in this range, time is definitely of the essence. In order to raise those scores in time to apply to colleges next year, you’ll need to start test prep as soon as possible. Whether this means mom and dad helping, hiring a local college kid as a tutor, or visiting a test prep center like C2 Education, the time to start is now. A word of caution: While many students are able to prepare for the SAT on their own with the help of some test prep materials, students scoring in this range will need to build up fundamental skills, which will require help!

If the score is a surprise, get a second opinion.

If your child got a bad PSAT score, but always has amazing grades in class, the test score may or may not be a good reflection of your child’s skills. There are a number of possible explanations for a low test score from an academically talented student. Many students have test anxiety, which causes even the smartest students to bomb standardized tests. When this is the case, your child might benefit from extra test prep; a good tutor can help your child master the tricks and strategies of test taking to help alleviate anxiety. Other students may simply lack the specific skill set needed to do well on tests like the PSAT. Testing a skill set that is separate from the skills needed to succeed in the classroom. A less likely (but still perfectly possible) explanation: Maybe your child just had a bad day. Some students who normally score well on these types of tests may receive a bad score because of factors ranging from a poor night’s sleep to an itchy foot. If you suspect that a bad day might have been the culprit, have your child take a diagnostic test and compare the scores. C2 Education provides diagnostic tests for both the PSAT and the SAT.

Will COVID-19 change testing requirements?

COVID-19 changes everything, so it should come as no surprise that testing requirements have been affected. For the 2020 application season, most colleges temporarily adopted test optional policies; such policies may or may not extend beyond this year, so it is students’ best interests to plan on taking the SAT or ACT just in case. Learn more about how test optional policies affect students here.

The PSAT is typically offered only in October, but to accommodate students whose schools may not have been prepared to offer the test in the fall, a second test administration date has been set for January 26. Students who are unable to take the test on either test date have the option to pursue alternate qualification for the National Merit Scholarship.

COLLEGE ROADMAP

FRESHMAN

  • Focus on building foundational skills like finding evidence, using context, and understanding word choice.
  • Math struggles at this stage often indicate a gap in knowledge. Address problems now to excel later.

SOPHOMORE

  • Prepare for and take the PSAT 10 to identify strengths and weaknesses and guide future test prep.
  • Address struggles in math classes as soon as they appear.
  • Begin PSAT prep by summer.

JUNIOR

  • Continue PSAT prep during the fall in order to be competitive for the National Merit Scholarship.
  • Use PSAT/NMSQT scores to guide SAT or ACT prep in the spring.
  • If identified as a Commended Student for the National Merit Scholarship, meet all deadlines to proceed in the selection process.

SENIOR

  • If you have put off SAT/ACT prep, refer to your 11th grade PSAT scores to help you get started.
  • If you are a National Merit Semifinalist, be sure to meet all deadlines to proceed in the selection process.