Familiarize yourself with the PSAT: what is it and why should you take it?

This fall, many rising juniors will have the opportunity to take the PSAT/NMSQT through their schools. At its most basic level, the PSAT is a practice version of the SAT—which means it's a great way for students to get a taste of SAT-style questions and begin figuring out their strengths and areas for improvement. The PSAT is also the qualifying exam for students seeking National Merit Scholarships. While the PSAT can be an important exam for those reasons, students shouldn't let it intimidate them.

Let’s walk through the length, format, and types of questions students will see on the PSAT so that they can feel cool, calm, and collected come test day.


The PSAT is slightly shorter than the SAT, lasting 2 hours and 45 minutes. This time is split up between four sections:

  • Reading: 60 minutes, 47 questions
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions
  • Math (No Calculator): 25 minutes, 17 questions
  • Math (Calculator): 45 minutes, 31 questions

There are also two breaks during the test: a five-minute break after the reading section and another five-minute break after the math no-calculator section. Therefore, the entire sitting will take students, under standard testing conditions, about 3 hours.

Format and common question types

Click here to download a two-page guide to the format and common question types of each section of the PSAT.

The reading section tests students' abilities to comprehend and analyze fictional, historical, and scientific reading passages.

The writing section tests students' mastery of grammatical concepts (punctuation, verb conjugation, etc.) and the rhetorical expression of ideas.

There are two math sections. On the first section, the arithmetic can be done by hand, so a calculator is not allowed. On the second section, the arithmetic will be a little more difficult, requiring the student to use a calculator. These sections test students' mastery of algebra, geometry, data analysis, trigonometry, and other math concepts. Students will answer multiple-choice questions and grid-in questions on both sections.

PSAT Overview

All in all, the PSAT allows students to demonstrate what they already know and shows students what they can improve upon for the SAT/ACT and college-level work. The College Board itself says the best way students can prepare for this test is to take challenging courses, keep up with homework, and follow other standard school practices students are likely already doing. It’s important for students to take the PSAT seriously, especially if they're interested in qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship Program, but they should try not to stress about it too much. You’ve got this!


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About ArborBridge

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Erika Anclade

About Erika Anclade

Erika loves education and grew up in a household devoted to its pursuit: her father is a high school science teacher, and her mother works at her elementary school library. Erika scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, and she was both a National Merit Scholar and an AP Scholar with Distinction. Erika enjoys making the test prep process fun while simultaneously challenging students to continue growing.

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