High School 2 College

December 8, 2011

What Do My PSAT Scores Mean?

If you took the PSATs in October, you should be getting the scores back this week or next.  You unfold the long sheet of gray paper.  Okay, you see your scores, but what do they mean?  Did you do well or not?

1.  What do my PSAT scores mean?   On the SATs, the scores range from 200 to 800 in each of the three sections.  On the PSATs, the scores range from 20 to 80 per section.  Same thing minus a zero. Your index on the right is just the sum of your three scores:  critical reading, math, and writing.

2.  What do the percentages mean?  If you scored in the 50th percentile, you did better than 50% of the high school juniors in the country.  You also did worse than 50%.  If you got in the 80th percentile, you did better than 80% of the students in this country, and worse than 20%.  The best you can score is 99th percentile (you can’t score better than yourself!).

3.  Is my PSAT score good?  Did I do okay?  I get this silly question all the time.  Of course you did okay – for someone trying to get into community college.  Did you do well enough to get into an Ivy League school?  Perhaps not (more about high scores later).  Whether or not your score is “good” depends on your expectations.  Did you score better or worse than other kids who get the same grades as you do in the same type of school classes?  Or did you score well enough so that if this were your SAT score, the college of your choice wouldn’t reject you based on your scores?  Those are right questions.  For the answers, you have to contact me individually, or ask your guidance counselor.

4.  How do I know which questions I got wrong?  There’s a code number on the top and bottom on your PSAT score sheet.  If you enter it on the College Board website, you can review the exact questions you got wrong.  Your guidance department also has the test booklet you used to take the PSATs.  All you have to go is go into the guidance department and request your PSAT booklet.

5.  How close to my PSAT score will my SATs be?  If I did well on the PSATs, can I expect to do well on the SATs?  Not necessarily.  Six or seven years ago, before they changed the SATs to include a writing section and before they drastically changed the critical reading section, your PSAT score was a fair predictor of what you might get on the SATs.  Now it seems to bear little relation.  The PSAT questions are a bit easier.  There are more easy/medium questions on the PSATs and more medium/hard questions on the SATs.  The SATs are much, much longer and many kids have issues with fatigue, loss of concentration, and inability to sit for so many hours on the SATs.  The SATs have an essay to write.  The reading selections are longer on the SATs.  The math is one year harder on the SATs.  All told, many, if not most, students go down from the PSATs to the SATs — unless they’ve attended SAT review classes or had tutoring before or after the PSATs.

6.  Is my score high enough for me to be a National Merit winner?  It depends.  First of all, the National Merit people don’t let you know until the fall of senior year.  Secondly, the score you need to achieve to be a National Merit semifinalist changes from year to year and is different from state to state.  The score you need is a percentage of all test scores taken in each state.  So you have to score higher in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut than you do in Alabama, Mississippi, or Arkansas.  Most years, if you get a 200 combined score (out of a possible 240), you’ll be a National Merit Letter of Commendation winner.  Not bad!  Most years, in New York, if you score a 211, you’ll be a National Merit Semifinalist (but no guarantees – the score could be a point or two higher in any given year).  To go from being a semifinalist to a finalist, they have to review your grades (nothing lower than a C usually), you have to write a short essay (easy topic, like “Why do you want to go to college?”), and you have to take the SATs (by fall of senior year, nearly everyone has) and the scores need to be somewhat equivalent (you need to get in the high 90-something percentile overall).  The vast majority of all semifinalists do become finalists.  As a finalist, you may or may not get a scholarship to college (the scholarships tend to be small, often around $5,000 for one year only), but the real benefit is that it just makes your application seem more appealing to colleges, all of whom like to brag that they have a certain number of National Merit Finalists in their incoming freshman class.

7.  What can I do before the SATs to improve my score?  In part, it depends when you are planning on taking your first SAT.  For most students, it should be in March.  Some students prefer to take the SATs in January because they’ve been preparing diligently and want to strike while the iron is hot, or because they have another commitment in March.  NO JUNIOR should be taking the December SATs – those are for seniors who need one last chance to improve their scores.

If you plan to take the SATs soon, at a minimum you should be looking at your PSAT exam booklet or entering your code online to see exactly which questions you got wrong.  Now that you know the right answer, do you see where you went wrong – or is the question still a mystery?  Can you find a pattern in the questions you got wrong?  Were they mostly the difficult questions?  Were they a certain type of question?  Buy The Official SAT Study Guide by the College Board from your local bookstore or from Amazon.com and do a few tests.  The answers are in the book, so make sure you look carefully at the ones you got wrong.

If you have a bit of time, please get yourself to a competent tutor.  SAT prep classes are adequate for introducing you to the types of questions you’ll see, but you could buy a book to do the same thing.  Only a tutor can help you identify and polish up your strengths and can help you remediate your weaknesses.  You’ll learn when to guess and when to skip a question (which will be different for every student), you’ll learn techniques to handle the questions that are harder than the ones you can get correct now, and you’ll gain confidence before tackling the SATs.  Whether you work with me (and I hope you do) or someone else, there’s nothing like someone paying attention to your own test-taking skills to give you the best chance to score where you ought to score based on your grades and what the colleges expect which are a good match for you.

Do you have other questions?  Just send me a comment and ask!

Wendy Segal


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