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Struggling to Improve Your PSAT Score? Here Are 6 Tips to Get Your Score Up

college prep high school test prep Jul 29, 2021

The common question once PSAT scores are released is always “what is a good PSAT score?” The College Board, makers of the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams, releases the data online in December, along with a number of charts and graphs. Unfortunately, their score chart is nearly as confusing as their tests!  Let me help you understand what is considered a good PSAT score. When you are done with this post, come back and read the top three strategies to getting a better score on the PSAT.

Before you continue, please let me remind you that this is a multiple-choice exam that tests critical reading skills, math reasoning skills, and grammar errors (no essay on the PSAT, only the SAT).  This is not a test of your intelligence and/or your future happiness! Please have the proper perspective about your PSAT scores before moving on.

First, you will need to log on to the College Board’s website to view the scores.

PSAT Sign In

After sign in, you will be taken to your results page:

PSAT Score Explanation

The welcome screen will have three main scores: the Total Score, the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score, and the Math Score. Though the PSAT gives many other sub-scores, for most students and parents, these are the three numbers you will be most concerned with.

The Total Score represents the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score plus the Math Score. This is the number that most people will remember 10 years from now and the one you will tell your friends about.

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score is a combination of two sections, the Reading Test and The Writing and Language Test. The Reading Test challenges students ability to read extended passages and answer questions based on their critical reading skills. The Writing and Language section requires students to identify grammar errors in a multiple-choice format primarily looking for the ability to recognize errors in grammar, punctuation, and usage.

The Math Score is a combination of two math sections: Calculator and No Calculator sections.  These two sections both are math based but the No Calculator section challenges problem-solving skills more than the Calculator section. Both tests require knowledge of math fundamentals, Algebra I and II, and very basic trigonometry.  There is no pre-calculus or calculus required on either test.

To view a sample of the PSAT, click here.

What Do These Score Mean

Each section of the PSAT has a score range from 160 to 760 and a combined score from 320 to 1520. For comparison, the redesigned SAT has a section score range from 200 to 800 and combined score from 400 to 1600.

While people may commonly refer to the combined score, converting this combined score to a relative percentile is a much more useful number to use.  The relative percentile allows students to understand how their scores compare to other student scores.  A combined score of 1000 is approximately the national average, which represents the 50th percentile (students who score 1000 score right in the middle, with 50% of the people scoring higher and 50% of the students scoring lower).  A combined score of 900 is the 31st percentile, (students scored higher than 31% of the people but unfortunately, 69% of the students scored higher).  On the other end of the spectrum, a score of 1220 is the 85th percentile (students scored higher than 85% of the of the people and only 15% of the students scored higher).

For college admissions, these numbers are very important. In a recent survey by the College Board of American colleges, 85% of the schools found test scores to be a key factor in determining admissions.  With college admissions becoming more and more competitive, the emphasis on tests scores has increased.

National Merit Scholarship

For 11th graders, the PSAT also represents a chance to be considered for the National Merit Scholarship contest. The top 50,000 scorers on the PSAT are recognized by the National Merit program and sent letters of commendation. Approximately 10,000 students will share $45 million in scholarship money ($2,500 a year scholarships). Students in their junior year who take the PSAT are the only ones eligible for National Merit Scholarships.

College and Career Readiness Benchmarks

The College Board has determined that students are considered college and career-ready when their section scores meet the verbal and math benchmarks. Their studies have determined that students who score at or above the benchmark score will have a 75% chance of earning a C in the corresponding course.  For example, a math score of 510 will meet the standard and therefore gives a student a 75% chance of earning a C in a credit-bearing college math course.  A score of 460 will meet the standard and give a student of 75% chance of earning a C in a credit-bearing course in history, literature, or writing class.  An example of the benchmark graph is below.

PSAT Scores Explanation

What Do I Do Now

The PSAT is just one indicator in terms of whether a student is college and career-ready. Other factors such as persistence, desire, and family support can be every bit as important as a test score. The test scores do often reveal weaknesses that should not be overlooked. While the College Board is comfortable stating that a benchmark score will yield a 75% chance at a C, as a parent, I am looking for better odds. While it should be said that a higher score does not guarantee success, it does often make things easier when students get to college.

If the Evidence-based Reading and Writing scores are near the benchmark, congratulations!  However, is this enough? With the great costs involved in college, you may want better than a 75% chance at a C average? If so, you may want to investigate ways to improve critical reading and writing skills. For those of you that are concerned that school and the Common Core aren’t doing enough to prepare students for college, here is an interesting article about what college professors think.


  • Read and read a lot.  Don’t just read for pleasure, however. Make certain to stop and question what is occurring in the story, how the characters interact, and what the author is setting up that is not clearly stated.
  • Write about your experiences. Daily writing is one way to improve. Be careful, however. Practice makes permanent, not perfect. If you reinforce a bad habit daily, it will be very challenging to change. As you write, continue to edit and improve your work. Periodically show this work to someone who will be able to edit for content and grammar. It can be difficult to ask people to read your writing, but this is a necessary step in order to improve.
  • Don’t practice on test materials! Too often students will work on sample practice tests and get frustrated that they did not improve. Those practice tests are measuring fundamental skills, so why not practice and master the fundamentals.


  • Know the fundamentals. Nearly 40% of the test is based on elementary and algebra I skills. If there are any weaknesses in these areas, the PSAT, SAT, and ACT will exploit them.
  • Learn to reason! The No Calculator section does not contain much difficult math, but it does contain very difficult and challenging reasoning questions. If reasoning questions are very difficult, then practice by working on logic games.  Sudoku, New York Crossword puzzles, and chess are all great ways to improve reasoning skills.
  • Master advanced math skills.  The redesigned PSAT and SAT have put a greater emphasis on algebra II and trigonometry. In order to get top math scores, students need to understand this subject matter very well.

If you find that improving these skills is too difficult or you are uncertain how to go about this, contact me. I have 30+ years of experience in teaching PSAT, SAT, and ACT prep as well as most other academic subjects in school.  You can reach me by email at [email protected] or (408) 495-3800.

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