Are My PSAT Scores Good?

This month, with many high school juniors receiving their first college testing results, “The Dean” has been flooded with queries that ask, “How good is a PSAT Selection Index of ______”? And the numbers have been all over the map: 220, 180, 130, 103 and 85. A variation on that theme was, “Is a 79 in math a good score?” or “Should I be happy with a 78 in Critical Reading?” As my 12-year-old son would say, “Ya think??” ;-)

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be snide. I realize that many first-timers could use a Cal Tech degree just to interpret the score reports. Moreover, “good” scores are relative. What might be considered a strong showing for a so-so student may seem mediocre to a very able one. Likewise, “good” or “bad” scores will depend on how high an applicant is aiming. What passes muster at Slippery Rock might not wow admission folks at Stanford.

Above all, keep in mind that PSAT results are just a starting point. Most scores will go up at SAT time … even for those students who don’t prepare. Often the test experience alone is enough to produce some improvement the next time around. On the other hand, if a student’s PSAT scores are way below the typical admitted-student range at a dream college, then it’s time to realize that this may be a dream deferred … at least until graduate school.

So how do you know if your scores are “good” or not?

Here’s a sample score report to check out as you continue reading or you can use your own real report, if you have it handy:

For starters, forget the Selection Index (over on the right side of the page), at least for now … that’s the total of the three test sections (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing).

Next, forget the Writing score. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Look at the Critical Reading score. It’s very easy to find. It will be near where you see “Your Scores,” and it’s a number between 20 and 80. The Math score will be next, also a number between 20 and 80.

Now stick a 0 on the end of each of those two-digit numbers. For instance, the Critical Reading score of 50 on the sample becomes 500, and the Math score of 520 becomes 520.

These figures will give you an approximate sense of what your SAT scores will look like. Remember, the numbers will probably go up when you take the SAT, even if you do nothing to study. But now you’re in the ballpark, and this can help you determine if your scores are “good.”

Where can you get into college with SAT scores of 500 and 520? Well, hopefully you don’t plan to head to Harvard. The median SAT scores there are about 745/740 (Yikes!). Don’t start packing for Princeton either But, according to the College Board’s Matchmaker, there are over 1800 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. where 500/520 would fall smack into the median range. :-)

So add those zeroes to the ends of your own PSAT Critical Reading and Math scores, and then check out the SAT score ranges at the colleges you’re considering. ( is one place to find these ranges. Type in the name of the college that interests you and then click on that name when you spot it in the “Results” list on the next page. Then select the “Admissions” tab. You’ll see the score ranges on the lower right-hand side.)

What about the Writing score? Several years ago, when this section of the SAT was new, most colleges paid little heed to it. Although this is changing, it is rarely given the same weight as the Critical Reading and Math components. So don’t focus on it for now …. unless your Writing score is really low. Then it could be a flag that you need to get some help before it’s SAT time.

What about the Selection Index? This is simply the total of the three section scores and is used for National Merit Scholarship purposes. That’s a whole separate issue for another day (and don’t get me going on that!) :-(

What about the percentiles? These numbers allow you to compare yourself to other students in your grade who took the same test, but they can be confusing, too. Colleges don’t care about percentiles, so don’t waste too much time on them, but they can help you answer the “Are my scores good?” question. The student in our sample had an overall percentile of 47. (You’ll see it just below the Selection Index on the right.) This means that 52% of all other high school juniors did better and 46% did worse. In general, I’d call this student’s scores neither good nor bad but “okay.” BUT .. if these scores were earned by a student who is usually at the top of the class, then they’re not so hot, and if they were earned by someone who is ordinarily a terrible student, then they’re great. That’s what I meant before about good and bad scores being “relative.” (If you took the test as a 10th grader, your score report will include sophomore percentiles that compare you to other students your age, which can be useful, too.) The score reports also show percentile breakdowns for each of the individual test sections.

I hope this helps to put your test scores in perspective so that you can determine if they’re “good” for you or not. But, regardless of what you decide, do keep in mind that, although test results may play a role in where you eventually go to college, they are only one part of a very big picture and they never define who you are and what you can become.

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What Do These PSAT Scores Mean?

Question: My son just got his PSAT scores back. He got a 60 Verbal, a 55 in Math, and a 65 in Writing. Does this mean he is competitive for some sort of scholarship? Are these considered good scores?

If you go to this site:

you can read about PSAT score interpretation. Also on that page, you’ll find a link to a chart that offers estimates of how junior PSAT scores predict junior SAT scores (You’ll find that link in the section titled “Using PSAT/NMSQT Scores To Estimate SAT Scores.”)

According to that chart, if your son takes the SAT I this spring, his results should fall in this range:

Verbal: 550-650
Math: 510-610
Writing: 590-730

Are those scores good? That’s largely in the eye of the beholder. I would certainly call them “good” but not “great.” They are at or above the median range at many fine colleges and universities and below it at others (e.g., the Ivies and their equivalents). By using one of the mega-tome guidebooks on the market or by visiting college Web sites, you can look up median scores at a range of institutions and see where your son fits in. (Keep in mind, though, that these score predictions are very rough estimates. Your son’s junior SAT scores may be better–or worse–than the chart claims. They may also go up when he retakes the SAT as a senior.)

Another good way to find median SAT scores is at this site:

Once you get to the home page, type in the name of a college that interests you near the bottom where it says “Name of Institution.” Then hit “Search.” On the next page, you will see the name of the school you typed in and possibly several others with similar names. Click on the college you want. Then, at the top of the next page, you’ll see several menu items. If you click on “Admissions,” you’ll have access to median SAT scores. If you click on “Enrollment,” you’ll get gender and racial breakdowns.

Is your son competitive for scholarships? Colleges typically offer two types of aid: Need-based Aid and Merit Aid. The first is awarded strictly according to your family’s financial need. Once a college determines that an applicant is admissible, they try to make it possible for him to attend. Merit aid goes to students the college is trying to recruit, regardless of whether or not the family can pay without assistance. Most often, merit-aid candidates are those whose “numbers” (test scores and GPA) are significantly higher than those of the average admitted freshman at that school. So, yes, your son will be eligible for need-based aid if your family requires it and he should also be eligible for merit aid at those college that award it where average test scores are well below his.

If you haven’t already done so, also check out This is a no-cost way to access information about private scholarships for which your son may qualify. The online questionnaire takes about 10 minutes to complete. You’ll find that the majority of resulting scholarships tend to be in the $500 to $1,000 range, though there are a few “biggies” on the list, too. Needless to say, the greater the award, the more competition your son will face, but you may enjoy reading about what’s out there. Keep in mind, however, that in most cases, the best financial aid comes from colleges themselves in the form of need-based or merit-based grants.

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Average Soph PSAT Scores

Question: What are the average PSAT scores for sophomores? How much improvement is normal between sophomore and junior year? My son’s initial scores were low, with a total in the low 120′s. What is the best way for him to improve? I should add that his standarized test scores have always been on the low side, yet he manages to get mostly A’s & B’s in a highly ranked high school.

Below is some data on soph PSAT results from the College Board Web site. You also ask about the best way for your son to improve. Well, one tried and true method is to to urge him to read, read, read. It’s not too late to encourage him to turn off the TV and put down that joy stick and instead grab a book or even a newspaper or magazine. This won’t help his math scores a lot, of course, but even math questions require some reading, and if he builds his overall academic confidence, he’ll probably do better in everything he tackles.

In addition, while we’re reluctant to admit it because the price tags are so high, professional coaching courses can make a difference. It may be more the confidence-building thing again rather than the “test-cracking” strategies that such programs often claim to provide, but they do seem to work for many kids. Of course, before shelling out any big bucks, ask around for suggestions on which test-prep outfit has the best reputation in your community. Princeton Review and Kaplan are the “Coke and Pepsi” of test preparation, but there may be other local options (less expensive ones, too) where you live. It’s a buyer-beware situation. The success of the program is linked to the quality of the instructor, and that can vary widely.

Depending on your son’s study habits and probably on family dynamics, you may be able to also do some test preparation on your own, using one of the many books or software packages available. The College Board and ACT folks both rack up plenty of profits by selling study aids that are geared to their own tests. If you do spring for home-study materials, make sure the ones you buy include complete practice tests along with explanations of the correct answers.

As you forge ahead, however, you need to weigh the value of promoting test preparation with the amount of stress it will put on your son. Some kids are simply not good testers, and you don’t want to make him feel that he’s let you down if his scores aren’t up to snuff. There are plenty of great colleges that aren’t as score-oriented as the Ivies and their equivalents, and a growing number of top colleges don’t require standardized tests at all.

Now, here’s the info about soph scores. You can also find it yourself by going to:

and there is a state-by-state report on soph statistics from 2002 at )

Highlights of 2002 Sophomore Data

54.4% of sophomores who took the PSAT/NMSQT were female.
Of those noting racial/ethnic background, 37.2% of sophomores indicated a category other than “white.”
Sophomore average scores for 2002 (with comparison to 2001 data):
Verbal: 44.4 (0.7 decrease)
Math: 45.5 (no change)
Writing Skills: 45.9 (0.3 decrease)

By way of comparison, the Junior average scores for 2002 (with comparison to 2001 data):

Verbal: 48.0 (0.3 decrease)
Math: 49.2 (0.2 increase)
Writing Skills: 48.8 (0.1 decrease)

We couldn’t locate any information on the current 10th-grade class (your son’s) but the numbers are probably comparable.

Posted in Other College Issues    

Understanding PSAT Scores

Question: On my PSAT I received 149 for my selection index. (My scores were 500 Verbal; 480 Math; 510 Writing.) But I don’t understand how everyone says that means I got 1490 out of a possible 1600 points because you can get up to 800 for each section of the test which means it’s 1490 out of 2400, right? Are my scores good?

You are correct when you note that a “perfect” PSAT score is 2400, not 1600 (that’s if you add a zero to your total to compare it to the SAT scoring system). The PSAT scoring system, as explained by the College Board, is below:

The PSAT/NMSQT score reports provide three different scores on the 20-to-80 scale. One each for verbal skills, math skills, and writing skills. The average verbal, math, and writing skills score for juniors is about 49.

Also on your score report is the Selection Index, which is the sum of the three scores (V + M + W). The Selection Index ranges from 60 to 240. The average Selection Index of juniors is about 147.

Those who have told you that your score was actually a 1490 out of 1600 are probably confused because the old PSAT was composed of only two scores–not three–since the writing component was recently added.

Thus, as you can see from the College Board information, your scores are slightly above the national average. That makes them “good” in many eyes but not so good if you are aiming for Ivy League universities or other highly competitive schools. However, there are many factors that go into admission decisions–not just test results–and these are only PSAT’s, not the real deal.

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PSAT Scores Online?

Question: I took the PSAT this fall, and I heard the scores would be posted online. Where can I find this?

If you visit the College Board Web site (, you will see that PSAT results are sent to your school, and you are not able to retrieve them online. (Note the Q&A from that site, below.)

Q: When and how will I receive my PSAT/NMSQT scores?
A: Your score reports are mailed to your high school principal by mid-December. Each school decides how and when to distribute the scores to students. Check with your counselor if you have not yet received your scores. PSAT/NMSQT scores are not available by phone or online. Go to the Truth about Your Scores for more information about score reports.

Students who take the SAT, however (and pay a supplementary fee) can get those scores either online or by telephone. This is probably why you were led to believe that PSAT scores are available electronically as well.

While you won’t find the information you seek about your specific scores, if you visit the College Board site and click on “Taking the Tests” and follow the links to the PSAT, you can access some general information about score interpretation and other useful details about the test.

You were wise to take the PSAT as a sophomore, because now you are in a position to work on weak spots before you have to take your SATs. Also keep in mind that, if you are in classes this year that you won’t be taking at a higher level down the road (e.g., perhaps biology), you may want to take the SAT II Subject Test in that area this spring.

Posted in College Admissions    

PSAT-SAT I Score Correlation

Question: Do PSAT scores generally closely correlate to future SAT scores? Also, what are the differences in the SAT II Math IC and Math IIC? Is one “better” than the other?
Read the rest of this entry &raquo

Posted in College Admissions