15 Best Online SAT Tutoring Services for 2024 (75 Tutoring Services Reviewed)

Not sure which SAT online tutoring service is the best? We conducted days of research and compared the top 75 tutoring services, created in-depth reviews for 15 of them, and narrowed them down to the 4 best that will help you increase your SAT scores.

What is the Best Online SAT Tutoring?

  1. PrepMaven – best SAT tutoring overall
  2. Princeton Review – best of the big test prep companies
  3. Wyzant – alternative for families on a budget
  4. Khan Academy – honorable mention for self-guided SAT prep

The best of the rest:

  1. Kaplan – big test prep with high minimum purchase
  2. Prep Expert – budget rates with inexperienced tutors
  3. PrepScholar – overpriced tutoring with limited guarantee
  4. Tutoring Service of New York – new service with higher minimum package
  5. StudyPoint – corporate vibe with high minimum purchase
  6. Soflo Tutors – young service featuring memes
  7. Parker Academics – higher rates for outdated SAT tutoring
  8. LA Tutors – higher rates for less-qualified instructors
  9. Elite Ivy Tutors – pricey service with long sessions
  10. Summit Prep – less-qualified instructors
  11. Varsity Tutors – uneven quality, no extras
student studying for SAT with online tutor


Best SAT Online Tutoring in 2022

#1 - PrepMaven

Our Verdict — Best SAT Tutoring Overall

Price: $79–349/hour

It’s hard to beat PrepMaven for SAT tutoring!

PrepMaven has assembled an impressive team of Ivy-League tutors to provide one-on-one SAT tutoring. Most tutors are Princeton graduates with extensive teaching experience.

Founded by two brothers, both Princeton graduates passionate about education, PrepMaven offers more individualized learning experiences than bigger test prep companies. Tutors undergo a thorough training process that allows them to effectively teach students how to take advantage of the standardized nature of the test.

With a range of price points depending on tutor qualifications, families are able to find the right fit for their budget. Starting at $79/hour, families can work with current students at the most elite universities in the country. PrepMaven’s Master level provides one-on-one tutoring with Ivy-League graduates who have extensive teaching and test prep experience at just $149/hour — a lower price than other tutoring services, for more elite instructors. It’s also possible to work one-on-one with the very best tutors at $349/hr, and there is the opportunity to work directly with the founders of the company.

Recommended by US News, PrepMaven also provides free resources for the SAT and regularly shares insights garnered from connections with former admissions officers.

Best for:

PrepMaven’s one-on-one SAT tutoring is the best option for anyone looking for high-quality SAT prep.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $79–349/hour, depending on tutor qualifications
  • Tutor qualifications: Ivy-League students and graduates (mostly from Princeton) with extensive teaching experience

What we like:

  • Experienced Ivy-League tutors, selected for their passion for education and working with students
  • Competitive pricing — rates are lower than other options for highly qualified tutors
  • Impressive client reviews — hundreds of 5-star reviews on Google and other independent review platforms
  • More individualized learning experience compared to large companies

Northwestern University
Northwestern University (Image Credit: Joseph Gage Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

#2 - Princeton Review

Our Verdict — Best of the Big Test Prep Companies

Price: $167–190/hour

The Princeton Review actually has no connection to Princeton University.

However, they’re still well-known in their own right as a large educational company, as well as the publishers of many test prep and college admissions guides.

Tutors with the Princeton Review receive extensive training. They are not required to be Ivy-League graduates or have scored highly themselves on standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, or GRE.

Best for:

  • Princeton Review is a good option for families who want to work with one of the largest test prep companies.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $167–190/hour
  • Tutor qualifications: trained instructors; no specific requirements for high SAT scores or top school

What we like:

  • Large, established test prep company

What we don’t like:

  • No specific qualification requirements for tutors—although tutors have more extensive training than some other companies
Duke University
Duke University

#3 - Wyzant

Our Verdict — Alternative for Families on a Budget

Price: $20–600/hour

There are plenty of large platforms with large stables of part-time tutors and coaches available to work with students. Wyzant is one of the largest such platforms, with more than 65,000 tutors providing services through their website. Students and families can pick individual tutors to work with from their roster and arrange tutoring services directly.

One benefit of this model is that tutors can set their own rates, which vary hugely. Families on a budget can find online SAT tutors as low as $20 per hour. However, these tutors might not have any experience or training, and they may not have scored highly on the SAT themselves or graduated from a top school. Tutors with more qualifications may have much higher rates, as high as $600 per hour!

Best for:

  • Wyzant is a good option for families on a budget who are willing to find their own tutor and take a gamble on quality

At a glance:

  • Cost: $20–600/hour
  • Tutor qualifications: varies

What we like:

  • Marketplace platform means that some tutors list low rates for tutoring, which can make tutoring more affordable
  • Families can choose their own tutor directly

What we don’t like:

  • No training for tutors—which leads to uneven quality of instruction
  • Families are hiring individual tutors, which means tutor qualifications vary enormously, and there are no guarantees

#4 - Khan Academy

Our Verdict — Honorable Mention for Free Self-Guided SAT Prep

Price: $0

Khan Academy technically doesn’t belong on this list, since they don’t offer any live SAT tutoring. However, it’s such a fantastic resource that we’d be remiss not to mention it.

It’s hard to beat completely free, officially-approved SAT prep!

For motivated and organized students ready to work independently, Khan Academy has amazing content. A non-profit educational organization, Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board (the makers of the SAT) to provide free test prep that’s accessible to everyone. That means that apart from the official practice tests, Khan Academy’s materials are the only other materials officially approved by the College Board.

(Many companies will produce their own “practice tests” that mimic the test but are not official tests. All of the official tests are available for free online from the College Board or in the College Board SAT book.)

Students create a profile with a SAT Dashboard that guides them through video lessons, quizzes, practice questions with detailed explanations, and full-length practice tests.

Of course, this resource is quite limited as there’s no tutor or instructor to guide students, craft learning plans, and answer questions.

Best for:

  • Khan Academy’s SAT prep platform is the best option for anyone who wants to prep independently with just the test content, no strategy tips.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $0
  • Tutor qualifications: no instructor, but the materials are approved by the College Board

What we like:

  • Partnership with the College Board (makers of the SAT) means that materials are officially approved
  • Individual math concepts have particularly strong content, great for reviewing with short videos and then doing practice with instant feedback
  • It’s free!

What we don’t like:

  • Covers only test content, no strategy—and learning the test format and key strategies is an important component of test prep
  • Content is weaker for Reading and Writing sections, especially compared to their content for the Math sections
  • Self-guided platform means that students have to craft their own study plan and decide which areas to practice—and there’s no one to hold them accountable

SAT Tutoring Alternatives (that Didn’t Make the Cut)

#5 - Kaplan

Our Verdict — Big Test Prep with High Minimum Prices

Price: $115–200/hour, $1999 minimum package

Along with Princeton Review, Kaplan is one of the other large companies in the test prep space. Because of their size, their tutoring sessions have more of a corporate vibe.

They offer four tutoring packages of different sizes. Their minimum purchase is a package of 10 tutoring hours at $1999. This comes out to $200/hour for tutoring, which is a very steep price—especially considering that their tutors have no required qualifications like high scores themselves or degrees from top schools!

Their hourly rate does decrease if one purchases a large tutoring package, but their tutor qualifications remain less rigorous than other options.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $1999 for 10 tutoring hours, $2899 for 20 tutoring hours, $3799 for 30 tutoring hours, or $4599 for 40 tutoring hours
  • Tutor qualifications: no specific qualifications

What we like:

  • Large, established test prep company

What we don’t like:

  • Tutors have no required qualifications
  • You don’t know who the tutor will be
  • High minimum purchase of $1999 for 10 hours of tutoring

#6 - Prep Expert

Our Verdict — Budget Rates with Inexperienced Tutors

Price: $69–89/hour

Better known for their SAT prep group courses, Prep Expert also offers individual tutoring.

Their tutors are all top 1% scorers on the SAT themselves, which is a good background. However, the tutors may be inexperienced at tutoring and don’t benefit from training, so the quality of teaching may be uneven.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $69–89/hour; $356 for 4 hours ($89/hour), $632 for 8 hours ($79/hour), or $1104for 16 hours ($69/hour)
  • Tutor qualifications: top 1% scorers

What we like:

  • SAT tutors are top 1% scorers

What we don’t like:

  • Refund process is difficult and families have reported that the score increase guarantee may not be honored
  • Tutors don’t have training

#7 - PrepScholar

Our Verdict: Overpriced Tutoring with Limited Guarantee

Price: $130–249/hour, minimum $995 package

PrepScholar is another larger tutoring company that offers tutoring with top scorers.

A major promise that they make is their score increase guarantee of 160 points on the SAT after finishing their program. However, we found this promise a bit misleading—students who don’t manage to achieve the advertised score increase can claim a refund for only the value of their pre-recorded prep videos, which is $397. They can also request continued tutoring for the same number of hours that they originally purchased without additional cost. They can’t request a refund for the majoring of the tutoring cost!

We also noted that PrepScholar’s advertised hourly rate (of $50 per hour) is a bit disingenuous, since it relies on including the independent homework done by the student. Of course, any tutoring service can tutor for four hours at $250/hour, assign the student to practice and watch videos for 16 hours, and then claim that the hourly rate is $50/hour…but that hardly seems fair to clients.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $130–249/hour; $995 for “monitored prep” with 4 hours of tutoring ($249/hr), $1995 for 12 hours of tutoring ($166/hr), $2995 for 20 hours ($150/hr), or $6995 for 54 hours ($130/hr)
  • Tutor qualifications: top 1% scorers

What we like:

  • Tutors are top 1% scorers
  • Tutoring includes their “Automated Prep program”

What we don’t like:

  • More expensive than other options for comparable quality
  • No tutor bios or information about qualifications beyond high SAT scores
  • Disingenuous advertising that includes homework hours to calculate the hourly rate

#8 - Tutoring Service of New York

Our Verdict — New Service with Higher Minimum Package

Price: $112–160/hour ($1200 5-session minimum)

Founded by a former tutor with the now-defunct Ivy Global tutoring service, the Tutoring Service of New York offers test prep and subject-area tutoring online. Most of their tutors are current graduate students, particularly at Columbia University and NYU.

At $1200, their minimum package for SAT tutoring is on the higher side.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $1200 for five 90-minute sessions; $2000 for 10 sessions; $2700 for 16 sessions
  • Tutor qualifications: college graduates, mostly current graduate students at Columbia or NYU

What we like:

  • Qualified tutors, some with Ivy-League backgrounds

What we don’t like:

  • New service, so client reviews are still limited
  • Higher minimum tutoring packages

#9 - StudyPoint

Our Verdict — Corporate Vibe with High Minimum Purchase

Price: $??/hour

StudyPoint is an older company with more of a corporate feel. They do not have any specific qualifications for their tutors, like scoring highly on the SAT themselves or graduating from an elite university.

Their main claim is their “guarantee.” This is only available for students who complete at least 30 tutoring hours with their program, which is a lot of tutoring! If students don’t improve their SAT scores after completing their Comprehensive Program, they offer 18 additional tutoring hours (not your money back).

At a glance:

  • Cost: $??/hour; Intensive Program with 60 tutoring hours, Comprehensive Program with 30 tutoring hours, Review Program with 18 tutoring hours (no score increase guarantee)
  • Tutor qualifications: no specific qualifications

What we like:

  • Additional 18 hours of tutoring if students complete at least 30 tutoring hours and don’t improve by 140 points on the SAT (guarantee raises to 220 points if students complete 60 tutoring hours)

What we don’t like:

  • High minimum purchase
  • No specific tutor qualifications
  • Limited score increase guarantee
  • Secretive about pricing — clients need to call to receive pricing information, which is not available online or via email

#10 - SoFlo Tutors

Our Verdict — Young Service Featuring Memes

Price: $60–90/hour

Founded by a 24-year-old in Southern Florida (hence their name), SoFlo is a newer company with a young team.

Their tutors are top 1% scorers themselves and are current college students or recent graduates. We would have loved to see the bios of more of their tutors — they only provide six tutor bios on their website, and a few more in their brochure.

Their website has a younger feel, with a section devoted to SAT memes.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $60–90/hour; $90/hour for pay-as-you-go, $1500 for 20 hours ($75/hour), or $2400 for 40 hours ($60/hour)
  • Tutor qualifications: top 1% scorers from top schools

What we like:

  • SAT tutors are top 1% scorers and from top schools
  • Reasonable pricing

What we don’t like:

  • New company with young leadership, with less experience
  • No specific option to work with more experienced tutors who have graduated college

#11 - Parker Academics

Our Verdict — Higher Rates for Outdated SAT Tutoring 

Price: $200/hour

Based in New York City, Parker Academics is a high-end tutoring service offering online SAT test prep. Like PrepMaven and Elite Ivy Tutors, their tutors are graduates of Ivy-League institutions, but their fees are higher.

We noted that their materials online for the SAT are outdated, and appear as if they were created shortly after the last significant change to the SAT in 2016. However, the SAT no longer includes an Essay, and the test is about to undergo a major change in 2024, so it’s especially important to work with a SAT tutoring service that’s aware of the latest updates to the test.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $200/hour
  • Tutor qualifications: Ivy-League graduates

What we like:

  • SAT tutors are Ivy grads

What we don’t like:

  • More expensive than other options for comparable quality
  • Website is not up-to-date

#12 - LA Tutors

Our Verdict — Higher Rates for Less-Qualified Tutors

Price: $160–220/hour

Based in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, LA Tutors is a larger tutoring company. They offer limited “guaranteed results” for students who complete all tutoring sessions and homework, and take the SAT within a certain specified timeframe.

Their prices are on the higher side, but their tutors are not necessarily top scorers on the SAT themselves or graduates of elite universities.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $145–185/hour
  • Tutor qualifications: college graduates

What we like:

  • Good insights on their blog about college admissions and testing

What we don’t like:

  • Tutors are mostly not from Ivy-Plus schools — tutors are primarily college graduates but not from the most elite institutions
  • Fees are high given the credentials of the tutors

#13 - Elite Ivy Tutors

Our Verdict — Pricey Service with Long Sessions

Price: $200–300/hour

Elite Ivy Tutors (EIT) is a small team offering tutoring from Ivy-League graduates. However, they do not publish crucial information about pricing and tutoring logistics, and we found them to be slow to respond to client emails.

Unique among the tutoring services we researched, EIT schedules sessions that are two or three hours long, rather than sixty or ninety minutes long. This length of time can be challenging for students.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $200/hour, or $300/hour to work directly with the company founder
  • Tutor qualifications: Ivy-League graduates

What we like:

  • SAT tutors are Ivy grads

What we don’t like:

  • Website is confusing and lacks information
  • Long tutoring sessions of two or three hours at a time can be challenging for students
  • Higher prices than other tutoring services also offering the chance to work with Ivy-League grads

#14 - Summit Prep

Our Verdict — Less-qualified Tutors

Price: $130–155/hour

Summit Prep is a tutoring and admissions counseling company located in New Jersey. The majority of their tutors are not graduates of elite institutions, yet their fees are higher than services with comparable instructors.

At a glance:

  • Cost: $155/hour (reduced to $130/hour with 50-hour package)
  • Tutor qualifications: mostly college graduates

What we like:

  • Good insights on their blog about college admissions and testing
  • SAT tutors are full-time instructors with more extensive training

What we don’t like:

  • Majority of tutors are not from Ivy-Plus schools — tutors are primarily college graduates but the majority of them are not from elite institutions

#15 - Varsity Tutors

Our Verdict — Uneven Quality Without Budget Pricing 

Price: $75–95/hour

A bit like Uber for tutoring, Varsity Tutors is an enormous tutoring platform offering online instruction in all academic subjects and test prep, including SAT prep.

However, its size has many downsides — most notably, very uneven quality of teaching. Tutors can be very quickly approved and are paid lower rates than nearly any other tutoring company (just $15 for sessions that cost families $95), so it’s difficult for them to attract and retain good talent.

Varsity Tutors also does not provide any tutor materials, curriculum, or training, so it’s up to individual tutors to create everything from scratch, contributing further to the unevenness of quality.

For families on a budget, we’d suggest the Standard Tutor option at PrepMaven (Ivy-League students starting at $79/hour), Prep Expert ($59–89/hour), or SoFlo Tutors (current students at $60–90/hour). If those options still don’t fit the budget, we’d recommend looking for an independent tutor on Wyzant (quality varies but you might find a decent tutor under $40/hour).

At a glance:

  • Cost: $75–95/hour
  • Tutor qualifications: high school graduates

What we like:

  • Large number of tutors, so certain to find a tutor to fit your schedule

What we don’t like:

  • Uneven teaching quality due to lack of resources for instruction
  • No education or training requirements for tutors, along with low pay rates for instructors, means tutors are less-qualified than alternative SAT tutoring services

student studying for SAT with online tutor

Top 75 SAT Online Tutoring Services Considered

  • PrepMaven
  • Khan Academy
  • The Princeton Review
  • Kaplan
  • Prep Expert
  • PrepScholar
  • Peterson’s
  • Ivy Bound
  • College Prep Genius
  • Varsity Tutors
  • Sylvan
  • Green Test Prep
  • Higher Scores Test Prep
  • Excel Test Prep
  • Best in Class
  • CollegeVine
  • Prepare
  • College Drive
  • Love the SAT
  • Method Learning
  • SAT Blitz
  • The Answer Class
  • Trudeau Prep
  • Test Prep 4 Success
  • Private Prep
  • Manhattan Review
  • Olive Book
  • Veritas
  • Manhattan Elite Prep
  • Advantage Testing
  • New Summits
  • Parker Academics
  • LA Tutors
  • Summit Prep
  • Elite Ivy Tutors
  • Study Point
  • Huntington Learning Center
  • eTutorWorld
  • Manhattan Review
  • J & J Education
  • Boston Tutoring Services
  • Livius Prep
  • AJ Tutoring
  • Hack Your Course
  • Tiger Campus
  • Brains and Brawn
  • Bulldog Tutors
  • Denver Test Prep
  • Sexton Test Prep
  • First Choice College
  • Vint Hill Educational Services
  • Genesis Tutoring
  • Applerouth
  • Signet Education
  • Tutor Chase
  • Spires
  • Preply
  • TeacherOn
  • Socratic Summer Academy
  • MyGuru
  • Cates Tutoring
  • Kweller Prep
  • Krupnick Approach
  • Revolution Prep
  • Beyond the Test
  • Everest Tutoring
  • MathTowne
  • Gooroo
  • Bay Area Learning Center
  • McElroy Tutoring
  • Outschool
  • Leap2College
  • Tutor Corps
  • ClearPath Advantage
  • Cardinal Education
Harvard University
Harvard University

What is the SAT?

Each year, roughly 2 million high school students take the SAT.* 

Along with the ACT, the SAT is a key component of college admissions. Colleges use test scores to gauge a student’s college readiness.

(Many schools have instituted a temporary test-optional policy as a response to Covid. However, based on the available data, students at competitive schools are still submitting test scores.)

In addition to college admission, test scores can be used to earn scholarships or placement in special programs. Many schools that are test-optional are still using test scores for scholarships, so good scores can be an important way of avoiding student debt.

Younger students can also use test scores for admission to gifted and talented programs.

For students whose grades may have slipped during high school, test scores can also be used to show admissions officers your potential.

Finally, test scores are a handy tool for students to figure out where they might be a competitive applicant. Wondering if you have a chance at getting into Harvard? Not sure if University of Illinois is a reach school or a safety school for you? Test scores can help you there.

Check out our other posts for more information about how the SAT is scored, when to take the SAT, and how the SAT is different from the SAT. We also have many free test prep resources. For more test prep guidance, schedule a call with Jessica or one of our founders today!

* 2.2 million students of the class of 2020 took the SAT, a record high. Due to Covid, this number dipped to 1.5 million for the class of 2021. (source: College Board)

quad at Stanford
Stanford University

Why work with a private SAT tutor?

You may want to consider working with an SAT tutor if:

  • You have no idea where to start in order to prepare for the SAT
  • You feel overwhelmed by all of the different SAT prep books and materials and don’t know which to choose
  • You have a hard time keeping yourself on track and want an external structure to hold you accountable
  • You’re not sure how to track your progress
  • You’ve been practicing on your own but your gains have plateaued
  • You have a limited amount of time and need to be efficient in your studying
  • You want to learn techniques for managing test anxiety
  • You want insider tips about test strategies
  • You want more individualized attention than you’d get in a prep class with other students
  • You want to learn efficiently, with each lesson tailored to your exact needs
  • You’re a high scorer who would be bored in a general prep class
  • You’re a lower scorer who would benefit from more focused help
  • You have specific gaps in your knowledge (e.g. missed a few months of geometry due to Covid, an injury, a family move, etc.) and need a tutor to teach this material

With our SAT students, we typically see students increase their scores by about 100–300 points after working with a tutor. This can have a significant impact on college admissions.

University of Chicago
University of Chicago

What makes a good SAT tutor?

Like with any other test, it’s possible to improve your performance on the SAT with the right practice and preparation.

However, specific preparation for the SAT is usually not taught in schools, so students and families are on their own preparing for it.

Guidance with SAT prep comes in two main forms: group classes or individual tutoring. Many students combine the two, following an SAT group class with some one-on-one tutoring to focus on a tailored approach for that student’s strengths and weaknesses.

In this post, though, we focused on SAT individual tutoring.

These days, many tutoring sessions are online. This allows students to seek out the best tutor regardless of their physical location, which is great!

The most important aspect of a good SAT tutoring experience is the teacher. Tutoring sessions should be taught by experienced instructors who know the test inside and out and have helped many other students. The instructors should be people who scored highly on the test themselves, ideally in the top 1%

Classes should begin with a diagnostic test and a detailed score report to analyze a student’s starting point.

An SAT tutor can introduce the test format and de-mystify the test for students and families. A good tutor will make sure that students are using the best available resources for studying and practice.

Especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have had interruptions in their education, resulting in knowledge gaps that can cause difficulties on the SAT and for years to come. 

A perceptive tutor will find these gaps and help to fill them by teaching whatever material a student needs. Working one-on-one is unparalleled in its efficacy for remedying these interruptions in a student’s learning, since a tutor can notice these gaps much more easily than a teacher with a classroom full of students.

Whatever students are struggling with, a good tutor will spot those skill gaps and teach that material in an encouraging way.

Princeton University
Princeton University

Managing test preparation and studying can also be stressful for family dynamics. Working with a tutor means that parents don’t have to be involved directly — the tutor can be the one to assign homework, establish holistic studying schedules, and track progress.

A good SAT tutor takes a lot of the stress out of the SAT process and makes sure students are practicing effectively. Tutors can provide students with study materials and guide students in using them correctly

Thorough SAT tutors can also help students to make a holistic study plan and keep them on track, so that parents don’t have to be involved directly. 

Effective SAT tutors will assign structured homework so that students can practice constructively with official test questions. There are a very limited number of official practice tests, so it’s important to make the most of them! 

Good SAT tutors will help students work through missed problems and answer students’ questions.

In addition, there are many strategies and tricks that can make the test easier. Unlike some self-directed courses and books, a good SAT tutor can share these tricks with students and guide them through implementing test strategies.

Finally, a great SAT tutor will be a cheerleader for the student. An experienced SAT tutor can help students to learn ways to manage test anxiety and learn key study strategies — both of which will be super valuable for the rest of their academic careers and beyond. 

A great SAT tutor will encourage their students and leave them feeling confident and ready for the SAT!

Yale University
Yale University


Summary

Best overall: PrepMaven’s one-on-one SAT tutoring is the best out there both in terms of tutor quality and price. Starting at just $79/hour, students can work with current undergraduates at Princeton, Harvard, and other Ivy-League universities to prepare for the SAT. Families can also work with experienced, professional educators and Ivy-League graduates at $149/hour. As a boutique tutoring service, PrepMaven offers careful attention to each student and boasts amazing customer reviews.

Best of the big companies: The Princeton Review (no connection to Princeton University) is one of the biggest and most well-known companies. Their tutoring is pricey, but a solid option. Instructors go through a more extensive training process than at many other competitors, but there’s no requirement for instructors to be graduates of top schools or high scorers themselves.

Best on a budget: For families on a tighter budget, we’d suggest looking for an independent tutor on Wyzant. It’s a tutoring marketplace platform, so the quality varies hugely and there’s no oversight or qualification requirements, but you might find a decent tutor under $40/hour.

However, in our experience a good tutor can accomplish more with a student in one hour than an average tutor can do in five hours. With that in mind, it might be more effective to combine free resources like Khan Academy and the free practice materials available from the College Board with a few hours of high-quality tutoring.

Best self-guided: For self-guided online SAT practice, it doesn’t get much better than Khan Academy. This online educational platform is completely free and is the only service to partner directly with the College Board, the makers of the SAT. For students with enough self-discipline to stick to a study schedule, Khan Academy can be a powerful tool. We don’t recommend paying for self-guided courses unless students have already exhausted the resources available for free from Khan Academy and the College Board.

gate at Stanford
Stanford University

Next steps

Ready to begin SAT tutoring? Schedule a free test prep consultation with Jessica (Director of Tutoring) or one of our founders to see what would be the best fit for your family.

It’s always best to start early and not wait until the last minute to prepare for the SAT! Remember that test scores can be used to earn scholarships as well as college admission, so a few months of study now can pay off with up to $300,000 in tuition saved later. 

Students who achieve their goal score earlier on in high school can relax and not worry about testing at the end of their junior year (the most important year for grades, and when many students are focused on AP tests) or in the beginning of their senior year, when most students are working on college essays. 

High-achieving students will also want to take the PSAT seriously, as it offers another opportunity to win big scholarship money through the National Merit program.

To start one-on-one SAT tutoring today, set up a quick free consultation with our team.


Related articles

The 12 Best SAT Prep Courses for 2022 (32 Courses Reviewed)
Average SAT Scores: The Latest Data
Hardest SAT Math Problems
13 SAT Grammar Rules You Need to Know
SAT vs ACT: Everything You Need to Know
Converting SAT to ACT Scores (and vice versa)
When should you take the SAT or ACT?
10 Free Official SAT Practice Tests
How to Proctor Your Own SAT Practice Test
Your Complete SAT Guide for 2021



student thinking

What Does Test Optional Mean in 2024? — How to Decide Whether to Submit Your Test Scores

What Does Test Optional Mean in 2024? — How to Decide Whether to Submit Your Test Scores

Bonus Material: Check if you should submit your scores to colleges

Test-optional policies have been used by a small handful of schools since the mid-2000s, but in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, suddenly thousands of colleges and universities are now “test-optional,” at least temporarily.

What does test-optional mean? How can you use this information to prepare for college applications? Should you still submit your test scores?

We used our extensive expertise in test prep and the college admissions process to answer these questions.

If you want to make an informed decision about whether to submit your test scores to a specific college, download our free worksheet that will determine whether your test scores would help or hurt your application.

Download Free Test-Optional Guide

Jump to section:

What does test-optional mean?
Different types of test-optional policies
What is test-blind admissions and how is it different?
Which colleges are test-optional?
Why are colleges switching to test-optional?
Should you still take the SAT or ACT?
Should you submit your test scores to colleges?
Next steps


What Does Test-Optional Mean?

Since spring 2020, suddenly many more colleges and universities have adopted provisional “test-optional” policies. According to the US Department of Education, over 800 institutions shifted to a test-optional policy.

In a nutshell, “test-optional” means that students can submit their SAT or ACT test scores to colleges if they want, but it is not a requirement.

If a student does not submit any SAT or ACT scores, the admissions committee will simply weight all of the other elements of the student’s application more heavily.

A test-optional policy does not mean that colleges don’t care about test scores, or that they don’t want to see a student’s test scores.

Most students are still submitting test scores to colleges. In a recent survey, test-optional schools reported that close to 80% of their applicants choose to submit test scores. In our own research of top-tier schools, it’s clear that most of the students who were accepted did submit test scores.

Harvard University
Harvard University

For students who take the SAT or ACT, sending scores can strengthen their application. Colleges are receiving more applications than ever before, and strong test scores are one more way to stand out from the crowd.

Plus, even for test-optional schools, test scores might still be required for scholarships, financial aid, or honors programs or special study opportunities. 

However, if a student doesn’t submit test scores to a test-optional school, their application will no longer be automatically rejected. This is great news for students who had less access to testing previously, whether due to socioeconomic factors, personal health, extreme test anxiety, or other factors.

It’s important that students understand test-optional policies so that they can make informed decisions about whether to take the SAT or the ACT and whether to submit their test scores to colleges. Keep reading for more detailed information, and download our super-helpful worksheet to determine whether you should submit your test scores to a particular school.

Cornell University
Cornell University

Different Types of Test-Optional Policies

There are several different types of test-optional policies, and it’s important that students check the exact policy at the schools where they’re applying.

Option #1: Test-optional admissions for all applicants

At schools with test-optional admission for all applicants, students get to decide for themselves whether or not to include their SAT or ACT scores as part of their application.

Option #2: Test-optional admissions for some applicants

Some schools have created test-optional policies for students who meet other minimum requirements. For example, a school might make test-optional policies for students who have a certain minimum for their GPA or class rank. With this policy, a student with a higher GPA might not have to submit test scores, while a student with a lower GPA or class rank would still be required to submit their SAT or ACT scores.

In particular, students who are homeschooled or who attend a non-traditional or international school may be required to submit test scores, since their high school transcript may be harder to compare.

Option #3: Test-optional admissions, but scores required for scholarships or special programs

Many schools that have adopted test-optional policies still require students to submit test scores in order to be eligible for scholarships or financial aid. Test scores may also be required for admission to honors programs or certain majors. Always check the details with each school to which you’re applying to confirm.

Option #4: Test-flexible admissions

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, some schools had a “test-flexible” policy that meant that students could use other types of tests, not just the SAT and ACT. A test-flexible policy does not mean that testing is optional for that school. It just means that the school may accept AP tests, IB tests, or other school-administered placements tests. Some schools that have used this policy include NYU, Drexel University, and the University of Rochester.

Always check with each school to see their specific requirements, and remember that even if test scores aren’t required for admission, they may be required for scholarships and special programs.

These policies have been changing rapidly, so be careful where you get your information. It’s always best to consult the college’s website directly.


What is Test-Blind Admissions and How Is It Different?

Also sometimes called “test-free,” “test-blind” admissions policies are completely different.

A “test-blind” admissions policy means that the college will not look at your test scores. It’s not even possible to submit scores, and students who try to sneak them into applications may even be penalized for not following directions.

Only a small handful of schools are test-blind.

Most notably, all of the University of California (UC) campuses are now test-blind. That means that it is not possible for students to submit test scores to schools like Berkeley, UCLA, or UC Santa Barbara.

University of California, Berkeley
UC Berkeley

A few other test-blind schools are Reed College, Pitzer College, Washington State University, the Catholic University of America, and the College of Staten Island CUNY.

However, these policies are subject to change at any point. Many colleges are doing a trial of test-blind admissions, and may switch back to test-required or test-optional in the future. For this reason, we still recommend that students take the SAT or ACT to keep their options open.


Which Colleges Are Test-Optional?

The list of colleges and universities that don’t require the SAT or ACT to apply is changing all the time, since for most schools these policies were intended to be a temporary response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For example, MIT briefly had a test-optional policy for students entering as freshmen in fall 2021 and 2022. However, they have changed their policy and have returned to requiring test scores — students in the class of 2024 applying to MIT now do need to submit test scores to be considered for admission.

MIT
MIT

Other schools that do require test scores (and are not test-optional) are Georgetown, the University of Florida, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Tennessee (Knoxville), Florida State University, and the US Naval Academy, AIr Force Academy, and Military Academy at West Point. 

Always check directly with the college to confirm their policy, either by going to the college website or calling their admissions office. Your high school counselor can also help you to confirm this information.


Why Are Colleges Switching to Test-Optional?

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, colleges and universities switched to test-optional policies because many SAT and ACT testing centers were closed and students had literally no way to access testing in time to submit with their applications. For a few months, everything was a bit of a mess, as colleges had to scramble to adapt to the realities of the pandemic.

However, the idea of test-optional has been around for at least two decades, as part of a drive to make it easier for most students to apply to college. For the most part, by fall 2022 testing logistics are back to normal, but colleges are experimenting with test-optional as a way to make college more accessible (Washington Post). The pandemic just accelerated something that some schools were already considering trying.

Princeton University
Princeton University

Colleges don’t want for students to be held back by circumstances beyond their control. With test-optional policies, students who don’t have access to taking the test (because of financial means, geography, disabilities, or any other reason beyond their control) can still apply and be judged on the basis of their GPA, course rigor, essays, and other accomplishments. 

Some studies have suggested that test-optional policies have led to an increase in the representation of students who are first-generation, part of underrepresented minority groups (URM) in higher education, or Pell-grant recipients (lower-income). 

**Remember that financial means shouldn’t hinder students from taking the SAT or the ACT, since both tests have fee waiver programs and access to no-cost test prep materials for qualifying students. Download our free SAT Guide and ACT Guide for more information.

However, remember that these test-optional policies are temporary, and some schools have already switched back to requiring test scores for admissions. Always check the current requirements at each school to which you are applying by consulting the college’s website or calling their admissions office directly.


Should you still take the SAT or ACT?

In short, yes. If you are able to take the SAT or ACT, you should still take the test. To the best of your abilities, you should still prepare for the test and take it seriously.

Reasons to Still Take the SAT and/or ACT

There are many reasons why it’s a good idea to still take the SAT and ACT:

  • You’ll keep your options open. Not all colleges are test-optional, and policies continue to change. You don’t want for a lack of test scores to hold you back from applying to a school that would be a great fit.
  • Strong test scores will always help your application. If the other aspects of your application (GPA, course rigor, essays, extracurriculars, teacher recommendations) are also strong, then high test scores will help to confirm that information.
  • If you have a weak spot in your application, strong test scores can help to offset that. A high test score will signal to admissions officers that the student had potential and perhaps just had a rough time for a bit (could be due to a family issue, illness, setback with friends, focus on a sport, etc). Good scores will mean that admissions officers will look a little more closely at your application for clues to your full story. 
  • In particular, high test scores can balance a lower GPA. Strong scores on the SAT or ACT can prove to admissions officers that a student has the potential to succeed in college classes, because they’re another indication of your academic abilities.
  • At some schools, high test scores can mean automatic admission. Some schools even waive requirements (like essays) for students with high test scores.
  • Good test scores may win you scholarship money. (In fact, they’re often a requirement for eligibility for scholarships or financial aid, even athletic scholarships.) That could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Strong SAT or ACT scores may be requirements for admission to honors programs or other special academic programs, even at test-optional schools.
  • If your’re homeschooled or in another less-traditional academic setting, test scores can be especially useful to prove your academic abilities to admissions officers. Students who are in an unaccredited homeschool program should absolutely take the SAT or ACT.
student

Should you take both the SAT and the ACT?

Many students take both the SAT and the ACT, especially ambitious students who are applying to highly selective schools. 

Based on the available data, we know that at least 20% of the freshman class at most Ivy League and similarly competitive schools submitted scores for both the SAT and the ACT.

There’s no competitive advantage to submitting scores for both tests.

However, many students do better on one test than on the other. It can be a good idea to try both tests and see which one plays to your strengths. Fortunately, there are a lot of similarities between the two tests, and so it’s possible to prepare for both the SAT and the ACT at the same time. An experienced tutor can be especially helpful with this. 

Download our handy guide for deciding between the SAT and the ACT and determining which test plays to your strengths!

Once you have your scores, always submit the test with the higher score to colleges. Use our guide to convert your scores with the SAT-ACT Concordance and determine which score is higher.

student thinking

Will it be counted against you if you don’t submit test scores?

In theory, no. Schools with test-optional policies will just weight the other elements of your application more if you do not submit SAT or ACT scores.

For the class of 2021, who experienced the Covid-19 lockdowns of spring 2020 in their junior year (the peak time for students to take the tests), this was definitely true. Many students had no way of taking the test because testing centers were closed. 

However, by the end of 2022, most testing is back to normal. Most students can access test-prep and testing just like before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this context, the test-optional policies work a little differently.

While admissions officers have not made any explicit statements, we use logic and our decades of experience in college prep to read between the lines.

When colleges explain why they continue to use test-optional policies, they now only speak about increasing access to college for students who are lower-income, first-generation, or a member of underrepresented minority groups (URMs) in higher education.

In other words, privileged students who have always had relatively easy access to testing and test-prep are not the target audience for test-optional policies

student

We can guess that college admissions officers are more likely to assume that if students who seem to come from relative privilege don’t submit SAT or ACT scores, they either (a) are unwilling to prep for the tests or (b) didn’t do well on the tests.

Some college admissions officers have reportedly said that they worry that a high GPA but no test scores can indicate grade inflation, which studies show has increased rapidly in recent years. In theory, the SAT and ACT “offer an independent snapshot of college readiness and academic achievement,” and “without admissions tests that put grades in context, colleges can have a harder time keeping track of which schools hand out high grades and play transcript games in order to help their students get into college” (Forbes).

In that context, admissions officers are likely to assume that no test scores means low test scores for students who would have had access to test-taking.

It’s a little like “optional” supplemental essays at selective colleges: we recommend writing them if you want to look like a serious applicant.

However, if you are clearly a student with obvious significant barriers to testing and higher education — lower-income, first-generation, a member of underrepresented minority groups (URMs) in higher education, or with particular health or family challenges — then admissions officers will likely interpret a lack of scores differently.

So while we may not even know exactly how every admissions office is using this policy, the safest thing is to do your best to prepare for the SAT or ACT and earn your best possible score on the test.


Should You Submit Your Test Scores to Colleges?

Since 2020, we get this question from students every week. Should they submit their test scores to colleges? Is their SAT or ACT good enough for _______ school?

Fortunately, we have some great tools for determining if a given SAT or ACT score is competitive at each individual college.

You should submit your test scores if:

  • Your test scores are “competitive” at that school
  • You are an applicant from a homeschool program or another non-traditional academic program (especially if your program is unaccredited)
  • You need test scores to be eligible for a scholarship, financial aid, or honors program at that school

You should consider not submitting your test scores if:

  • Your test scores are low for that school

That’s it.

But how do you know if your test scores are competitive at a given college?

Fortunately, we have a lot of data that allows us to answer that question with confidence. Most schools publish something called the Common Data Set, a long document with lots of data. One component of that data is test scores for their incoming freshman class.

A competitive test score is one that is above the bottom 25% at that college. We typically look at the “middle 50,”  which is the 25th to 75th percentile at that school. 

(Percentile means the percentage of students compared to whom your score would be higher. So 15th percentile means that your score would be higher than that of 15% of other students, but that 85% of students would have a higher score than yours. Or 80th percentile means that you scored higher than 80% of other students. We use percentiles to talk about where an individual student falls within a given distribution.)

If your score is below the 25th percentile at that school, that would be a “weak” score at that school. Only a quarter of students at that school would have lower scores, and you can assume that those students have exceptional grades, extracurricular activities, essays, or other special qualities.

Duke University
Duke University

Remember, context is everything! A 1400 SAT is a low score at Princeton but a high score at the University of Connecticut. It’s important to check the data for each school individually.

For example, any SAT score above 1550 or a 35 or 36 on the ACT is a high score anywhere.

A 1520 SAT or 34 ACT is competitive (above the bottom 25%) at Ivy-League schools and other top-tier colleges like Stanford, MIT, and Duke.

A 1450 SAT or a 33 ACT is competitive at Williams, Northwestern, Pomona, Cornell (the least-competitive Ivy), and Notre Dame.

A 1300 SAT or 28 ACT is competitive at UCLA, Bryn Mawr, University of Florida, and UNC Chapel Hill.

A 1150 SAT or 23 ACT is competitive at the University of Minnesota, University of Iowa, University of Arizona, and Michigan State.

So if you’re deciding whether to submit your scores to a given school, you need to check the data for that school and see if your scores would be competitive. If they are, go for it! If they’re not, don’t include them — but know that unless you have another aspect of your application that’s outstanding, this is going to be a “reach” school for you.

Download our free worksheet to go step by step through the process of determining if you should submit your test scores.

If you don’t submit test scores, then every other aspect of your application will be even more important. In particular, make sure that your college essays are extra strong.


Next Steps

Now that you know it’s a good idea to take the tests seriously and take either the SAT or ACT (or both!), what’s next?

There are many excellent resources to prepare for the tests, some of which are free. A great test prep course or tutor can help students to make the most of their practice time.

student

We’re proud of providing the highest-quality SAT and ACT tutoring services with amazing Ivy-League tutors at the most competitive prices. Our students routinely see big increases in their test scores after practice with our experienced tutors. Sign up for one-on-one tutoring for expert guidance on how to prepare for the tests the most efficiently and effectively.

If you’ve already taken the SAT or ACT and you’re deciding whether to submit your test scores to colleges, it’s important to make an informed decision. Download our free quick guide to answer this question with our data-driven method.

Download Free Test-Optional Guide

Bonus Material: Decide if you should submit your scores


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Bonus Material: Decide if you should submit your scores



PSAT Score Ranges: How to Understand and Learn From PSAT Scores

PSAT Score Ranges

Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT

The PSAT is an important standardized test taken by many US students as a junior, and sometimes also as a sophomore.

The PSAT stands for “Preliminary SAT,” and it’s essentially a slightly shorter and easier version of the SAT. The SAT is the key test (along with the ACT) that students use to apply to colleges — strong scores on the SAT can help students to get into competitive colleges and universities.

Many students don’t know that the PSAT can also be used to win big scholarships! Students should check carefully to see if they have a shot at scoring highly enough to win a prize, and then prep accordingly.

In this post, we answer a frequently asked question about the PSAT. Many families are confused by the score ranges for the PSAT, which are different from those of the SAT.

Download a Free 30-minute Sample PSAT

We’ll cover:

What is the PSAT?
What are the PSAT score ranges?
PSAT and SAT percentile scores
PSAT vs SAT score ranges
What’s a good score on the PSAT?
How do students earn a score on the PSAT?
Do PSAT scores matter?
Next steps


What is the PSAT?

Some people refer to the PSAT as the “practice” SAT. That’s because it’s a slightly shorter version of the SAT, one of the two main standardized tests that students use to apply to US colleges and universities.

Stanford University
Stanford University

It’s worth taking these tests seriously. Even with the test-optional policies implemented by some colleges since 2020, strong SAT or ACT scores will almost always still give students an admissions advantage. High test scores can also be used to qualify students for special honors programs, scholarships, or financial aid. 

We introduce the PSAT in more detail here.

Download a 30-minute sample of the PSAT to see what it looks like!


What are the PSAT score ranges?

The PSAT score ranges are similar to those of the SAT. Students may be familiar with SAT score ranges, where students can strive for a “perfect 800” on each of the two sections, and a 1600 is a “perfect score” for the test as a whole.

The PSAT scoring is similar, just slightly lower. The two sections of the PSAT, Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, are each scored on a scale from 160–760. This means that a “perfect” PSAT score is 1520

PSAT score range

The main scores that students should pay attention to are the numbers for Reading & Writing and Math, which add up to the total PSAT score.

  • For example, Madison scored a 690 Math and a 610 Reading & Writing, so her total PSAT score is 1300. 
  • Parker scored a 530 Math and a 620 Reading & Writing, so his total PSAT score is a 1150. 
  • Shawn scored a 460 Math and a 450 Reading & Writing, so his total PSAT score is a 910. 
  • Parul scored a 720 Math and a 750 Reading & Writing, so her total PSAT score is a 1470 — and this score won her a prestigious scholarship, including full-ride offers to Fordham and UT Dallas!
PSAT high scores

Students will also get subscores and cross-test scores for the PSAT that provide additional information about areas of strength and weakness:

PSAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) 160–760
Reading (Test Score) 8–38
Writing and Language (Test Score) 8–38
Command of Evidence 1–15
Words in Context 1–15
Expression of Ideas 1–15
Standard English Conventions 1–15
Math 160760
Math (Test Score) 8–38
Heart of Algebra 1–15
Problem Solving and Data Analysis 1–15
Passport to Advanced Math 1–15
TOTAL (EBRW + Math) 3201520
Cross-Test Scores:
Analysis in History/Social Studies 8–38
Analysis in Science 8–38
Selection Index (used for National Merit) 48228

The PSAT subscores range from 1 to 15 and indicate student abilities in specific areas like Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math.

The PSAT cross-test scores for Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science range from 8 to 38. For example, the Analysis in Science subscore will indicate how well students can handle reading about science, analyzing graphs and charts about science, and solving math word problems about science.

For more guidance on how to interpret the detailed PSAT Score Report, check out our advice here..

An experienced PSAT and SAT tutor will be able to help students use these subscores to develop a customized plan for their SAT preparation. 

Because the SAT has the same subscores and types of questions, PSAT scores can be a powerful tool for creating a SAT prep plan. Our Ivy-League SAT tutors are experts in using each individual student’s data to improve their scores on the SAT. 

A student’s scores on the PSAT gives an indication of how they might score on the SAT without additional preparation. However, don’t be worried by a low PSAT score, because these numbers can change drastically with the right practice!

Some of our students have improved their SAT scores by over 300 points by learning material they missed on the PSAT and practicing effectively.


PSAT and SAT percentile scores

There’s a second important way that students may get a score for the PSAT.

In addition to a PSAT score from 360 to 1520, students will also get a percentile score

Percentiles show how students performed compared to other students. For example, scoring in the 65th percentile means that a student scored better than 65% of other students.

These percentile rankings indicate whether a student’s score is average, above-average, or below-average. 

table PSAT percentiles

To revisit our example students from above:

  • Madison scored in the 95th percentile for Math (690) and in the 79th percentile for Reading & Writing (610). Her total PSAT (1300) is in the 91st percentile — she’s in the top 10% of students! She’s on track to apply to some competitive schools, especially if she can raise this score a bit on the SAT.
  • Parker scored above-average for Math, in the 63rd percentile (530). His Reading & Writing score (620) is in the 81st percentile, in the top 20% of students. Meanwhile, his total PSAT score (1150) is in the 74th percentile. He’s definitely above-average, and on track to apply to college. He may want to target his Math score to see if he can improve that on the SAT.
  • Shawn scored in the 37th percentile for Math (460) Math and in the 29th percentile for Reading & Writing (450). His total PSAT (910) is below-average, in the 32nd percentile. Right now, he’s in the bottom third of students in the US, but he can improve this score with the right practice.
  • Parul scored in the 97th percentile for Math (720) and in the top fraction of a percentile (99+) for Reading & Writing (750), so her total PSAT score (1470) is in the top 1%. She’s on track to be a competitive applicant at the top schools in the US, especially if her grades and extracurriculars are equally impressive. Her high PSAT score will also make her eligible for the National Merit scholarship competition, one of the nation’s most well-known and prestigious awards for high school students.

Note that students will receive two different percentile rankings for their PSAT score. The first percentile ranking (“User Group Percentiles”) compares how students did to other students taking the PSAT. This tends to be a more competitive group of students, since students who are taking the test are more likely to be on a college track. Colleges and scholarship competitions tend to use this score.

The second percentile ranking (the “Nationally Representative Sample”) compares how students hypothetically performed compared to typical US students in their grade, regardless of whether they took the test.

The average PSAT score is the 50th percentile, so the average score for the total PSAT is 1010 for students who actually took the SAT (user group), or 960 for students in the US as a whole (nationally representative sample).

We explore PSAT score distributions in much more detail here, and we dive into SAT score data here. We regularly use this information to make data-driven customized study plans for our PSAT and SAT prep students. We provide one-on-one tutoring with Ivy-League instructors for students at all levels, as well as limited small-group classes with our founder, Kevin.


PSAT vs SAT score ranges

We can use the percentile data to compare the difference between PSAT score ranges and SAT score ranges.

The score distributions for both the PSAT and the SAT make a bell-shaped curve, which indicates that most students score about in the middle on both tests.

However, students need to score higher on the SAT if they want to maintain their PSAT percentile ranking.

For example, the top 10% for the PSAT is students with the score range 1280–1520, but the top 10% for the SAT is students with the score range 1350–1600.

Similarly, the top quarter of students on the PSAT is students with the score range 1160–1520, but the top 10% for the SAT is students with the score range 1200–1600.

The PSAT can serve as an indication of what score a student might get on the SAT without further study. We can see that the average scores and percentile rankings for the tests are a little different, so students will need to score higher on the SAT than on the PSAT to keep the same percentile ranking!


What’s a good score on the PSAT?

We explore what it means to get a “good” score on the PSAT in more detail here. Because this one of the most frequently asked questions, we’ll give a few quick benchmark score ranges here:

PSAT 1450–1520 (top 1%): these students are contenders for National Merit scholarships and are on track to be strong applicants at top-tier schools, including the Ivy League, if the other elements of their applications are also outstanding

PSAT 1400+ (top 3%): these students may be able to win “Commended” recognition through National Merit, and are also on track to be strong applicants for top schools

PSAT 1280+ (top 10%): these students are in the top decile of all of the students in the US, and are on track to be able to apply to excellent colleges

PSAT 1160+ (top 25%): these students are in the top quarter of students in the US and have shown potential for college admissions

PSAT 1020+ (top 50%): these students are above-average

If your PSAT score is lower than you hoped, don’t worry! It’s absolutely possible to raise your scores through the right studying and practice. We find that many of our students improve their SAT scores by as many as 300 points after working with our top-1% tutors.


How do students earn a score on the PSAT?

Students earn points on the PSAT by answering questions correctly. The questions will cover material from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, in addition to English grammar and vocabulary and reading comprehension and analysis.

On the current PSAT, each correct answer on each section counts as one point towards a student’s raw score. The new digital PSAT launched in fall 2023 may calculate scores slightly differently — the College Board hasn’t yet announced the exact mechanics of how they will calculate scores with the new adaptive style of testing. On the new adaptive PSAT, higher-performing students will get a harder version of the test, so the scoring calculations will have to be more complex to take this into consideration.

On the PSAT, there are no penalties for incorrect answers. One strategic consequence of this is that students should never leave a question blank. Even if they’re completely stumped, it’s always strategic to guess!

The PSAT will be significantly different in fall 2023, because the PSAT is changing to match the new digital SAT that will be launched for US students in spring 2024. We explain these big changes here.

Importantly, these changes mean that many published PSAT prep books and resources are now out-of-date. Students who are preparing for the PSAT should make sure that they are preparing for the new 2023 version of the test!

A top-notch test prep tutor can help students make sure they’re practicing the correct version of the test and using the most up-to-date strategies.


Do PSAT scores matter?

PSAT scores matter for two things: test prep planning and scholarships.

For most students, it’s fine to use the PSAT as a “practice” SAT that more closely mimics the actual testing conditions. 

The PSAT is a good chance for students to get familiar with the test structure and question types they’ll see on the SAT. Students can find out whether they get nervous on test day and score lower than they do on practice tests at home. If that’s the case, they can work on strategies to reduce test anxiety — a thoughtful SAT tutor can also help students to develop methods to lower their testing anxiety.

The PSAT will give students an idea of how they might score on the SAT, which is the test they’ll submit to schools as part of their college applications. The College Board says that “the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT are very similar tests, so your score on the PSAT/NMSQT can give you an idea of how you’ll do when you take the SAT.”

Of course, many students want to score higher on the SAT than they did on the PSAT! Fortunately it’s absolutely possible to raise your scores significantly with the right practice and study.

Students can use their detailed PSAT score report to craft an individualized plan for SAT prep. They’ll be able to see what their weaknesses are and target their practice accordingly. One-on-one tutors are great at helping students to use their PSAT scores to make a customized plan for SAT prep, but students can also make this plan on their own.

The second way that PSAT scores are used is to earn big scholarships and advantages in college admissions.

The top-scoring students on the PSAT win recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Program. 

These National Merit awards are a big deal. Many colleges compete to recruit National Merit students, and it’s an immediate signal to schools that you’re a top-tier student.

Even more importantly, there can be big money at stake. Some schools even offer automatic full-ride scholarships to National Merit Finalists!

It’s hard to think of another situation where you can earn $300,000 in three hours. That’s how much a full-ride college scholarship might be worth.

That’s why we advise students who typically score highly on standardized tests (in the top 5% or so) to really take the PSAT seriously. While other students can use the PSAT more as practice, top-scoring students have a real chance at earning some significant prizes.

If you’re not sure if you might be a high-scoring student, try taking a practice PSAT or practice SAT. You can even start with our short 30-minute sample of the PSAT — we’ll break down this 28-question quiz to give you a rough idea of your score. If your initial scores are in 95th percentile or above, then yes, you should definitely take the junior-year PSAT seriously.


Next steps

Students can absolutely improve their PSAT scores with the right practice. We recommend downloading our 30-minute micro PSAT to get a taste of the PSAT first. Then get started with studying or set aside a three-hour block to try a full-length practice test.

There is some great free practice material available from the educational non-profit Khan Academy. Their platform is for the SAT, but students can use the same materials to prepare for the PSAT.

Regardless of what program you follow, it’s important to make sure that you’re preparing for the correct version of the PSAT

If you’re taking the PSAT in fall 2023 (and the SAT from March 2024 onwards), you need to use the new digital SAT practice materials. The old paper SAT is going to be out of date!

Remember that if you’re a student who typically performs well on standardized tests (scoring in the top 5%), you’ll want to really focus on the PSAT — you’ve got a real chance of winning big scholarships through National Merit.

Whatever your goals, make a plan for how you’ll practice and strengthen your weak areas with targeted exercises and drills. By practicing with the right materials, we’ve seen students improve their PSAT and SAT scores significantly!


Related Articles

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National Merit PSAT Scores: How to Earn $300k in 3 hours
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How Long is the PSAT? Plus Updates for the New 2023 PSAT
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Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT



How long is the PSAT? Plus Updates for the New 2023 Digital PSAT

How long is the PSAT?

Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT

The PSAT, or the "Preliminary SAT," is a standardized test taken by many US students in the fall of their junior year. Some students also have the chance to take the PSAT as a sophomore.

Many students don’t realize that the PSAT is a chance to win important scholarships! Each year 7,500 high-scoring students win National Merit scholarships by scoring highly on the PSAT. Some schools also award additional scholarships to top scorers, including automatic full-ride scholarships. Top scores can also help with admissions to highly competitive schools, and many colleges compete to recruit students who excel on the PSAT.

One of the most common questions we receive is about the structure and length of the PSAT. This question is especially relevant in 2022 and 2023, because the PSAT is changing significantly in fall 2023. We share everything you need to know here.

Download a Free 30-minute Sample PSAT

Jump to section:

What is the PSAT?
How long is the PSAT?
Testing accommodations and extended time on the PSAT
How to take the PSAT
Next steps


What is the PSAT?

Many people have heard of the SAT and the ACT. These are the two main standardized tests used to apply to colleges in the US. Both tests are accepted equally for admissions purposes at colleges and universities, and these days the tests are taken by roughly equal numbers of students. Read more about how the SAT and the ACT compare here, and how to convert SAT and ACT scores here.

(Wondering whether tests still matter with the new test-optional policies? Yes, tests still matter. Even if the schools on your list are now test-optional, at the vast majority of schools strong test scores will still help your chances of admissions, and can be used to qualify for scholarships or special programs.)

The PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is the “practice” SAT. 

Most students take the SAT in their junior or senior year of high school. Typically the peak time for SAT testing is in the spring of junior year, although testing earlier can make the process less stressful for students.

The PSAT, on the other hand, is taken in the fall of junior year. Some students might also take the PSAT the fall of their sophomore year, but this score cannot count for the National Merit competition.

High scores on the PSAT can earn students awards from the National Merit program: Commended, Semi-Finalists, Finalist, or Scholar. Students can win a variety of scholarships directly through this program, and many schools also award additional scholarships to National Merit students. Some schools even give automatic full-ride scholarships!

student success

National Merit status is also a strong statement for college admissions, and many colleges compete to recruit these top students.

Because of this competition, the PSAT isn’t just a “practice” SAT — for top scorers, it’s also a chance to win big.

Download a 30-minute sample of the PSAT to try it out today!


How long is the PSAT?

The PSAT is very similar to the SAT, just a little bit shorter and a little bit easier.

The PSAT and the SAT are both in the midst of a major change. In March 2023, a new digital adaptive SAT is launching for students taking the test outside of the US. These changes will then affect all students from March 2024.

In line with the changes to the SAT, the PSAT is also changing from fall 2023.

Because of these changes, we’ll discuss the format of both versions of the PSAT — the classic PSAT (last test was October 2022) and the new digital PSAT (first test will be October 2023).

The current paper PSAT

Current PSAT test format (valid through fall 2022):

Section Length (minutes) Number of questions Seconds per question
Reading 60 47 76 seconds
Writing & Language 35 44 47 seconds
Math 70 48 87 seconds

The current paper PSAT that students have taken for the past eight years is two hours and forty-five minutes long. Students need to answer 139 questions in total.

On the Reading second, students have on average 76 seconds to answer each question. On the Writing & Language section, however, students have less than a minute — 47 seconds — for each of the questions, so they’ll have to move at a faster pace. 

The Math section averages to 87 seconds per question, but students will want to answer the easier questions more quickly to save time for the harder questions at the end.

Overall the PSAT gives students a little more time per question than the SAT, but pacing is still a significant challenge for many students. Completing timed practice sections at home is one of the best ways to improve this skill and get a sense for the pace necessary to complete the test.

Students who realistically aren’t aiming at a perfect score can also be strategic and skip the hardest questions to reserve more time to focus on the easier questions. However, remember not to leave any questions blank! There are no penalties for incorrect answers, so always at least write in a guess! Even a complete guess will have a 25% chance of choosing correctly and earning that point.

The new digital PSAT

Now, the College Board has not yet released specific information about the changes to the new digital PSAT.

However, in November 2022 they released examples of the new digital SAT.

Because the PSAT has always mirrored the SAT, we can make some educated guesses about the new digital PSAT coming in fall 2023.

We now know that the new digital SAT will be shorter than the current paper SAT, just a bit more than two hours (versus the current three hours).

There will be two main sections with a break in between: first Reading & Writing, and then Math.

On the current paper SAT, there are separate sections for Reading and for Writing. On the new digital SAT, these will be combined, and students will find Reading questions (about reading comprehension) in the same section as Writing questions (about grammar and the mechanics of clear writing).

Each section will be broken down further into two equal “stages.” The changes to the overall test structure will look like this:

Changes to the SAT format:

current SAT vs digital SAT

The new structure is due to the shift to adaptive for the new digital SAT.

Basically, adaptive means that the test will become harder or easier depending on how students perform on the first set of questions:

how the new digital SAT will be adaptive

We explain how this works in much more detail here.

Possible new digital PSAT test format (to be announced by the College Board):

Section Length (minutes) Number of questions
Reading & Writing I 30 minutes? 24 questions?
Reading & Writing II 30 minutes? 24 questions?
Math I 30 minutes? 20 questions?
Math II 30 minutes? 20 questions?
*this test structure is speculative based on releases thus far by the College Board — to be confirmed

Since the PSAT is usually slightly shorter than the SAT, and the new digital SAT will be two hours and fifteen minutes long, we can guess that the new digital PSAT might be about two hours long.

We’ll update this guide as soon as the College Board provides more information and examples of the new digital PSAT.


Testing accommodations and extended time on the PSAT

Like the SAT, the PSAT offers testing accommodations to students who need them.

Families will need to provide appropriate documentation of the need for accommodations. All students taking the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 with accommodations must have approval from College Board's Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD).

Families should check well in advance of test day with the school’s SSD coordinator to confirm that all necessary accommodations are in place with all of the required documentation. 

On testing day, students will need to bring their SSD eligibility letter.

One of the most common testing accommodations is extended time.

Since we don’t yet know the exact details of the length of the new digital PSAT, we’ll describe the current paper PSAT here.

Under standard conditions, the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 take 2 hours and 45 minutes with two breaks.

If students receive an accommodation of time and one-half (+50%) for the full test, the PSAT takes 4 hours and 9 minutes, plus breaks.

With double time (+100%) for the full test, the PSAT takes 5 hours and 30 minutes, plus breaks.

Students approved for extended time are also approved for extra breaks.

Depending on their accommodations, some students may receive extended time for certain sections of the test. For example, students approved for extended time for mathematical calculations, but not for reading, may receive extended time for only the PSAT math sections.

Consult your school counselor and school administration for more guidance, and read the official requirements on the College Board website.


How to take the PSAT

Whereas the SAT can be taken most months of the year, the PSAT is only offered once a year in mid-October

When students take the PSAT as juniors, their scores can be used for the prestigious National Merit competition. Each year 15,000 students across the US become National Merit Finalists and win big scholarships and a significant advantage in college admissions!

Younger students can also take the PSAT, but their scores cannot be used for the National Merit program.

The PSAT is taken through the student’s school, and there’s often no cost to students since fees are paid by the schools. 

Students typically register for the PSAT through their school. It’s possible for homeschooled students to sign up for the PSAT at a nearby school; families should contact the school at least four months in advance to register.

If you’re not sure if your school offers the PSAT, contact your school counselor or administration. We recommend taking the PSAT if it’s offered, since it’s a great opportunity to practice for the SAT and, for high-scoring students, a chance to win big scholarships.

We’ve provided free guidance for the PSAT covering average scores on the test, the score ranges necessary to win scholarships through National Merit, the types of questions found on the test, the difference between the PSAT and the SAT, and more. In addition, feel free to reach out to our test-prep team for a short educational consultation.


Next steps

Download our sample PSAT questions to get a taste of the PSAT!

Then make a plan for PSAT preparation. If you’re an ambitious student who often scores in the top 5% on standardized tests, you’ll want to take the PSAT seriously, since you have a serious chance of winning impressive scholarships — including full-ride college scholarships — through the National Merit program

To prepare for the PSAT, students should identify any weak spots and do a combination of targeted exercises and full-length practice tests to improve their performance on the test. A top-notch PSAT and SAT tutor can help students to make a customized prep plan based on their goals.

However, many published PSAT prep books and resources are now out-of-date. Students who are preparing for the PSAT should make sure that they are preparing for the 2023 version of the test!

An experienced test prep tutor can help students make sure they’re practicing the correct version of the test and using the most up-to-date strategies.

If you’re not in the top 5%, it’s fine to approach the PSAT more like a practice SAT — but you still may want to prepare for it so it’s a positive experience, and so that you can get the most out of the practice.

Fortunately, the PSAT is nearly the same as the SAT, so any prep for the PSAT also prepares students for the SAT.

Once you’ve taken the PSAT in October of junior year, it’s time to shift to SAT prep. If you’ve already taken the PSAT, know that it’s absolutely possible to earn a higher score on the SAT with the right practice and preparation!

To start one-on-one PSAT and SAT tutoring today, set up a quick free consultation with our team.


Related Articles

What is the PSAT? A Princeton Grad Explains Why this "Practice" Test Can Matter
National Merit PSAT Scores: How to Earn $300k in 3 hours
The 15 Best PSAT Tutoring Services for 2022
What is a Good PSAT Score? See What Scores You Need on the PSAT
The 12 Best SAT Prep Courses for 2022
Average PSAT Scores: See How Your Score Compares
When should you take the SAT or ACT?
Average SAT Scores: The Latest Data
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The SAT QAS: How to Use One of the Most Powerful Score-Boosting Tools
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Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT



Average PSAT Scores: See How Your Score Compares

Average PSAT Scores

Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT

The PSAT is short for the “Preliminary SAT.” It’s a standardized test taken by many American students in October of their junior year. Some younger students may also take the PSAT.

In our decades of test-prep experience, we’ve seen that the PSAT is an under-utilized opportunity to not only get a key data point about a student’s readiness for the SAT, but also to win big scholarships!

The average score on the PSAT is about 960 (nationally representative sample) or 1010 (user group). To score in the top ten percent of test-takers, students need to score at least 1280 on the PSAT.

However, a deeper dive into the data can give us powerful insights into test prep strategy and potential scholarship opportunities.

Download a Free 30-minute Sample PSAT

In this post we’ll cover:

What is the PSAT?
Average PSAT scores
What's on the PSAT?
How is the PSAT scored?
Do PSAT scores matter?
What's a good score on the PSAT?
What score do you need on the PSAT to qualify for National Merit scholarships?
How to improve your PSAT score


What is the PSAT?

The PSAT taken in a student’s junior year is more fully named the PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. That’s a mouthful!

The PSAT is sometimes also called the “practice” SAT. That’s because it’s basically a marginally shorter version of the SAT. They’re both made by the College Board.

The SAT is one of the two main standardized tests that students use to apply to colleges in the US (and sometimes universities outside the US as well!).

Along with the ACT, the SAT is one way that students can demonstrate their readiness for college-level courses. Even with the new test-optional policies implemented by some colleges since 2020, strong test scores still give students a definite advantage in college admissions. High scores on the SAT or ACT can also be used to qualify students for special honors programs, scholarships, or financial aid.

student

Because the SAT can be so important for college admissions, students often prepare substantially for the test. The PSAT can be a great tool for SAT preparation — and it can also be a chance for students to win some impressive scholarships.

Students take the PSAT in October of their junior year through their high school. (Homeschooled students can contact their nearby school to register for the test.) 

Some students may take the PSAT as a sophomore or younger. This is great practice, but these scores can’t be used to win scholarships (more on that below). Students may also take the PSAT 8/9 or the PSAT 10, which are created by the College Board specifically for students in 8th, 9th, and 10th grades.

We introduce the PSAT in more detail here.

Download a sample of the PSAT to try it today!


Average PSAT Scores

We can learn a lot about average PSAT scores from the percentile rankings published by the College Board. Percentiles show how an individual student performed compared to other students. For example, scoring in the 65th percentile means that a student scored better than 65% of other students.

Percentile rankings tell us immediately whether a student’s score is average, above-average, or below-average. An average PSAT score is the in the 50th percentile. Above-average PSAT scores are 51st percentile and up, while below-average PSAT scores are 49th percentile and below.

The average score for the total PSAT is 1010 for students who actually took the SAT (user group), or 960 for students in the US as a whole (nationally representative sample).

The first percentile ranking (“User Group Percentiles”) compares how students did to other students taking the PSAT. This tends to be a more competitive group of students, since students who are taking the test are more likely to be on a college track.

The second percentile ranking (the “Nationally Representative Sample”) compares how students hypothetically performed compared to typical US students in their grade, regardless of whether they took the test. Students will receive both percentile rankings in their PSAT Score Report, but colleges tend to look at the User Group Percentiles (the tougher ones).

The College Board publishes tables with percentile rankings each year for students who took the PSAT in 11th or 10th grade:

table PSAT percentiles

It's also possible to view percentile scores for the individual PSAT sections on the College Board site.

Excitingly, we can use the percentile data to visualize the distribution of scores for the PSAT.

This allows us to make some deeper observations about the data.

We can see that there’s a classic “bell-shaped curve” for the PSAT scores: most students score in the middle. Only 1% of students score below 630, and only 10% of students score below 750.

At the opposite end of the curve, very few students score very highly on the PSAT. Students need a 1280 to be in the top 10%. In order to be in the top 3% of test takers, students need to score a 1400 on the PSAT. The top 1% is even tougher: students need a 1450 on the PSAT to make the top percentile. These are the high scores that students will need to win important scholarships through the National Merit program.

When we look at the graphs for the individual sections, we see that the curves look a little different.

The 70th percentile starts at 550 for Math, but 580 for Reading & Writing — so if we’re looking at above-average on the PSAT, more students have moderately strong scores on Reading & Writing than on Math.

However, this is flipped when we look at the very highest scores. More students earn very high scores on the PSAT for Math than for Reading & Writing. That means that students need a near-perfect score on the PSAT Math (a 750 or 760) to be in the top 1% for Math. It’s a little easier to reach the top 1% for Reading & Writing; the top percentile starts at 730.

We can also compare the average PSAT scores to the average SAT scores. Check out lots more data and insights about average SAT scores here!

The PSAT can serve as a benchmark for how a student might do on the SAT without further study. We can see that the average scores and percentile rankings for the tests are a little different, so students will need to score higher on the SAT than on the PSAT to keep the same percentile ranking!

Our Ivy-League test prep experts use in-depth knowledge of testing data to help students craft individualized test prep strategies. Schedule a free short consultation to be matched with the tutor who best matches your specific needs!


What’s on the PSAT?

Like the SAT, the PSAT is designed to measure general college readiness. The test is under three hours long and covers reading comprehension, clear writing, grammar, and math skills from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.

The PSAT will be significantly different in fall 2023, because the PSAT is changing to match the new digital SAT that will be launched for US students in spring 2024.

Students will take the new digital PSAT on tablets or laptops instead of with paper and pencil.

The structure of the PSAT is also changing. The old PSAT separated the Reading and Writing questions into two separate sections, which were later combined for a “Reading & Writing” score:

Old PSAT (through fall 2022) test structure:

Section Length (minutes) Number of questions
Reading 60 47
Writing & Language 35 44
Math 70 48

The new PSAT will combine the Reading and Writing questions together.

The new PSAT (starting fall 2023) test will likely look like this:

Section Length (minutes) Number of questions
Reading & Writing I TBA TBA
Reading & Writing II TBA TBA
Math I TBA TBA
Math II TBA TBA

One big change with the new digital PSAT is that it will be adaptive, which means that the questions will adjust in difficulty based on the student’s performance. If the student performs more strongly on the first part of the test, they’ll get harder questions.

These changes mean that many published PSAT prep books and resources are now out-of-date. Students who are preparing for the PSAT should make sure that they are preparing for the new 2023 version of the test!

student

A top-notch test prep tutor can help students make sure they’re practicing the correct version of the test and using the most up-to-date strategies.


How is the PSAT scored?

The PSAT is scored very similarly to the SAT, just with slightly lower numbers. 

The two sections of the PSAT, Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, are each scored on a scale from 160–760. This means that a “perfect” PSAT score is 1520

Meanwhile, the corresponding SAT sections are scored from 200–800, so a perfect SAT score is 1600.

The score will depend on how many questions students answer correctly. On the current PSAT, each correct answer on each section counts as one point towards a student’s raw score. The new digital PSAT launched in fall 2023 may calculate scores slightly differently — the College Board hasn’t yet announced the exact mechanics of how they will calculate scores with the new adaptive style of testing. On the new adaptive PSAT, higher-performing students will get a harder version of the test, so the scoring calculations will have to be more complex to take this into consideration.

On the PSAT, there are no penalties for incorrect answers. One strategic consequence of this is that students should never leave a question blank. Even if they’re completely stumped, it’s always strategic to guess!

Students will also receive subscores and cross-test scores that can provide additional insight into areas of strength and weakness. For more guidance on how to interpret the PSAT Score Report, check out our guidance here.

PSAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) 160–760
Reading (Test Score) 8–38
Writing and Language (Test Score) 8–38
Command of Evidence 1–15
Words in Context 1–15
Expression of Ideas 1–15
Standard English Conventions 1–15
Math 160760
Math (Test Score) 8–38
Heart of Algebra 1–15
Problem Solving and Data Analysis 1–15
Passport to Advanced Math 1–15
TOTAL (EBRW + Math) 3201520
Cross-Test Scores:
Analysis in History/Social Studies 8–38
Analysis in Science 8–38
Selection Index (used for National Merit) 48228

The PSAT subscores range from 1 to 15 and indicate student abilities in specific areas like Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math.

The PSAT cross-test scores for Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science range from 8 to 38. For example, the Analysis in Science subscore will indicate how well students can handle reading about science, analyzing graphs and charts about science, and solving math word problems about science.

An experienced tutor will be able to help students use these subscores to develop a customized plan for their SAT preparation. The SAT has the same subscores and types of questions, so PSAT scores can be a powerful tool for crafting a roadmap for SAT practice. Our Ivy-League SAT tutors are experts in using this student-specific data to improve scores on the SAT.


Do PSAT scores matter?

PSAT scores matter for two things: test prep planning and scholarships.

For most students, it’s fine to use the PSAT as a “practice” SAT that more closely mimics the actual testing conditions. 

The PSAT is a good chance for students to get familiar with the test structure and question types they’ll see on the SAT. Students can find out whether they get nervous on test day and score lower than they do on practice tests at home. If that’s the case, they can work on strategies to reduce test anxiety — a thoughtful SAT tutor can also help students to develop methods to lower their testing anxiety.

student

The PSAT will give students an idea of how they might score on the SAT, which is the test they’ll submit to schools as part of their college applications. The College Board says that “the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT are very similar tests, so your score on the PSAT/NMSQT can give you an idea of how you’ll do when you take the SAT.”

Of course, many students want to score higher on the SAT than they did on the PSAT! Fortunately it’s absolutely possible to raise your scores significantly with the right practice and study.

Students can use their detailed PSAT score report to craft an individualized plan for SAT prep. They’ll be able to see what their weaknesses are and target their practice accordingly. One-on-one tutors are great at helping students to use their PSAT scores to make a customized plan for SAT prep, but students can also make this plan on their own.

The second way that PSAT scores are used is to earn big scholarships and advantages in college admissions.

Now, colleges do not see PSAT scores directly — only SAT scores can be sent to colleges (along with ACT scores and AP subject test scores).

However, the top-scoring students on the PSAT win recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Program. The top 3% of students on the PSAT can win Commended Student recognition awards, and the top 1% of students can become National Merit Semifinalists and go on to compete for scholarships.

Princeton University
Princeton University

These National Merit awards are a big deal. Many colleges compete to recruit National Merit students, and it’s an immediate signal to schools that you’re a top-tier student.

Even more importantly, there can be big money at stake. The direct scholarships from National Merit range from $2,500–$10,000 (annually or one-time), but some schools also offer additional scholarships to National Merit students. Some schools even offer automatic full-ride scholarships to National Merit Finalists!

It’s hard to think of another situation where you can earn $300,000 in three hours. That’s how much a full-ride college scholarship might be worth.

That’s why we advise students who typically score highly on standardized tests (in the top 5% or so) to really take the PSAT seriously. While other students can use the PSAT more as practice, top-scoring students have a real chance at earning some significant prizes.

If you’re not sure if you might be a high-scoring student, try taking a practice PSAT or practice SAT. You can even start with our short 30-minute sample of the PSAT — we’ll break down this 28-question quiz to give you a rough idea of your score. If your initial scores are in 95th percentile or above, then yes, you should definitely take the junior-year PSAT seriously.


What’s a good score on the PSAT?

The definition of a “good” PSAT score depends on your goals.

If you’re aiming at an Ivy-League or highly-competitive school, we know that you’ll need SAT scores that are at least 1450 (that’s the 25th percentile) in order to have a shot, and at least 1550 (that’s the 75th percentile) to be a strong applicant.

Harvard University
Harvard University

In order to be on track to achieve Ivy-League scores on the SAT, students would have to earn a near-perfect score on the PSAT, which is a little shorter and easier than the SAT.

But there are many fantastic colleges and universities where lower scores would still be competitive. In this post, we explain how to find the “middle 50” for each school and use this data to craft a balanced college list and strategize test prep.

Here are a few quick benchmarks:

PSAT 1450–1520 (top 1%): these students are contenders for National Merit scholarships and are on track to be strong applicants at top-tier schools, including the Ivy League, if the other elements of their applications are also outstanding

PSAT 1400+ (top 3%): these students may be able to win “Commended” recognition through National Merit, and are also on track to be strong applicants for top schools

PSAT 1280+ (top 10%): these students are in the top decile of all of the students in the US, and are on track to be able to apply to excellent colleges

PSAT 1160+ (top 25%): these students are in the top quarter of students in the US and have shown potential for college admissions

PSAT 1020+ (top 50%): these students are above-average

If your PSAT score is lower than you hoped, don’t worry! It’s absolutely possible to raise your scores through the right studying and practice. We find that many of our students improve their SAT scores by as many as 300 points after working with our top-1% tutors.


What score do you need on the PSAT to qualify for National Merit scholarships?

In order to earn recognition and scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Program, students typically need to score about a 1400 on the PSAT (for Commended letters) and about a 1450 (to win scholarships).

We explain the National Merit competition and the PSAT scores needed to win in more detail here

National Merit diagram

The exact scores needed for National Merit vary a little from year to year. The cutoffs are different depending on each state, with the toughest states in the US being Washington DC, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Connecticut:

map PSAT Selection Index cutoffs by state

In addition, the National Merit cutoffs are not calculated with a student’s PSAT score out of 1520. Instead, the cutoffs are calculated by something called the Selection Index, which goes from 48 to 228. We explain how to calculate your Selection Index score here

A student with a Selection Index score of 225–228 is virtually guaranteed to get National Merit Semifinalist, regardless of the state. A student with a Selection Index score of 218 may win Semifinalist status in some states like Montana or Florida, but not in more competitive states. Check out our table of Selection Index cutoff scores here.

Only 16,000 students across the US achieve National Merit Semifinalist status and go on to compete for Finalist and Scholar status, so this is a very elite competition.

As we’ve mentioned, there are big prizes at stake for the students who win, including full-ride scholarships to college!

That’s why we advise students in the 95th percentile and above to take it seriously. If that might apply to you, set up a free test prep consultation with our team here.


How to improve your PSAT score

Students only have one shot at taking the PSAT for National Merit. Whereas the SAT can be taken multiple times and is offered year-round, the PSAT only happens once a year in mid-October. Only the PSAT taken in a student’s junior year counts for National Merit.

Students can absolutely improve their PSAT scores with the right practice. We recommend downloading our 30-minute micro PSAT to get a taste of the PSAT first. Then get started with studying or set aside a three-hour block to try a full-length practice test.

There is some fantastic free practice material available from the educational non-profit Khan Academy. All of their practice is geared towards the SAT, but since the tests are almost identical it will also work for the PSAT.

Make sure that if you’re taking the PSAT in fall 2023 (and the SAT from March 2024) you’re using the new digital SAT practice materials. The old paper SAT is going to be out of date!

Use your practice test scores to identify any weak spots. Many students have more weak areas than usual after the interruptions to their schooling that occurred during the pandemic. If there’s material that you haven’t yet learned or don’t feel confident with, then now is a good time to learn it. Use the short videos available for free on Khan Academy, or work with a tutor for more individualized attention.

Remember that if you’re a student who typically performs well on standardized tests (scoring in the top 5%), you’ll want to really focus on the PSAT, since you have a serious chance of winning big scholarships through National Merit.

Regardless of your specific goals, make a plan for how you’ll practice and strengthen your weak areas with targeted exercises and drills. By practicing with the right materials, we’ve seen students improve their PSAT and SAT scores by as much as 300 points!


Related Articles

What is the PSAT? A Princeton Grad Explains Why this "Practice" Test Can Matter
National Merit PSAT Scores: How to Earn $300k in 3 hours
The 15 Best PSAT Tutoring Services for 2022
How Long is the PSAT? Plus Updates for the New 2023 PSAT
The 12 Best SAT Prep Courses for 2022
What is a Good PSAT Score? See What Scores You Need on the PSAT
When should you take the SAT or ACT?
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Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT



National Merit PSAT Scores: How to earn $300k in 3 hours with a great test score

National Merit PSAT Scores: How to earn $300k in 3 hours with a great test score

Bonus Material: Check if your math skills are strong enough for National Merit

The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most widely-recognized scholarship contests in the United States.

National Merit students can win money directly from the program, from US companies, or from colleges. Some colleges even offer automatic full-ride scholarships to National Merit finalists!

Many schools target recruitment of National Merit finalists.

Students can compete for National Merit awards by scoring very highly on the PSAT in the fall of their junior year.

Cutoff scores vary by state — if you take the test in a more competitive state, you’ll need a higher score to qualify for National Merit!

I was in the top 1% of scorers on the PSAT years ago, and this helped me win over $300,000 in scholarships offered by top schools like the University of Chicago. I was fortunate to win admissions to every college where I applied, including Ivy-League schools like Princeton. At the time I found the National Merit process a little mystifying, so I'll explain here all the things I wanted to know back then.

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In this post we'll cover:

What is the PSAT?
What is National Merit?
What's a good score for the PSAT?
What PSAT score do you need to qualify for National Merit scholarships?
National Merit qualifying scores by state
How to take the PSAT
How to prepare for the PSAT


What is the PSAT?

The PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is sometimes known as the “practice” SAT. 

The SAT is one of two tests (along with the ACT) used for college applications in the US. Most students take the SAT several times their junior or senior years. The PSAT, on the other hand, is taken only once in the fall of junior year.

(Some students may also take the PSAT as a sophomore, but this doesn’t count for the National Merit program.)

student studying for SAT with online tutor

The PSAT is a little bit shorter and a little bit easier than the SAT, but otherwise it’s the same test with the same format. The PSAT tests reading comprehension, grammar and clear writing, and math skills from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. The whole test lasts a bit less than three hours. We introduce the PSAT in more detail here.

The PSAT is also scored in the same way as the SAT, but with slightly lower numbers. The two sections, Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, are each scored on a scale from 160–760. This means that a “perfect” PSAT score is 1520. 

In 2023, the PSAT will change significantly to match the big changes coming to the SAT.


What is National Merit?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most widely-known and prestigious scholarship competitions in the US. 

Administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a private, not-for-profit organization, the National Merit Program recognizes high-achieving students across the country.

Back when I was in high school, I was a National Merit scholarship recipient. I won a scholarship directly from the program, and if I had chosen to attend certain colleges I could have had a full scholarship from the school.

Honestly, when I was a student I found the steps of the National Merit program a little confusing. We’ve tried to clarify it here:

The contest begins in the fall of a student’s junior year, when they take the PSAT through their high school. Approximately 1.5 million students take the PSAT and, by doing so, automatically enter the National Merit Scholarship Competition.

Students who score very highly on the PSAT have a shot at recognition from National Merit. Usually this means only missing a handful of questions on the entire test.

While students usually get their PSAT scores back in December, they have to wait nearly a full year before they hear if they’ve made the cutoff for National Merit!

There’s always some uncertainty about the cutoff scores because they’re different in every state and change slightly each year. We present past cutoff scores by state below.

In September of their senior year, 34,000 students across the country receive a Letter of Commendation recognizing high achievement on the PSAT. These students scored in approximately the 97th or 98th percentile on the PSAT. Commended students are not eligible to continue on in the competition, but this is a great award to include in college applications. They may still be eligible for some special scholarships provided by corporate and business sponsors!

At the same time, 16,000 students are notified that they have achieved Semifinalist status. These are the very highest scorers in each state, roughly the 99th percentile of students taking the PSAT.

The 16,000 Semifinalists are then invited to submit applications for the National Merit Scholarships. These applications are a little like college applications, and include high school transcripts / GPA, extracurriculars, and an essay.

In February of their senior year, 15,000 of the Semifinalists advance to Finalist status. This is an amazing achievement, and is a definite boost on college applications!

Finally, roughly half of the Finalists are awarded scholarships and become National Merit Scholarship winners. There are three types of scholarships:

  • The 2,500 highest-achieving students are awarded a one-time prize of $2,500 directly from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

  • More scholarships are awarded by approximately 340 different corporate sponsors. In order to be eligible for one of these, typically a student has to both be a Finalist and also have a parent who is employed by one of the sponsors. The prizes range from $2,500 to $5,000 one-time or $1,000 to $10,000 annually. You can see a list of the companies here. 

  • Many colleges and universities will also offer a scholarship to students who are both admitted and also achieve Finalist status. Prizes range from $500 to $2,000 annually. 
National Merit diagram

Of course, these are only the scholarships that are offered via the National Merit Program. There are many other colleges that offer larger scholarships to National Merit Finalists. Schools tend to compete to see how many of the National Merit Finalists they can attract, and some will even offer full-ride scholarships or guaranteed admission to National Merit students.

Some schools offering full-ride scholarships to National Merit students include:

  • University of Texas at Dallas — in addition to free tuition, UT Dallas also gives National Merit students room and board, a $4,000 per semester stipend, and a one-time $6,000 stipend for international study
  • Florida International University — their international business program is ranked #2 in the nation
  • University of Alabama — full tuition for five years for undergraduate and graduate studies, four years of on-campus housing, a $3,500 annual stipend for four years, $2,000 for summer research or international study, and $2000 book scholarship
  • University of Oklahoma — full tuition for five years (undergraduate and graduate), $5,500 freshman housing scholarship, $5,500 annually for fees, books, room and board, $5,000 cash stipend, $1,000 technology and textbook stipend, $1,000 research and study abroad stipend
  • Fordham University
  • University of Maine
  • Oklahoma State University — they offer free tuition for five years, a $5,500-per-year scholarship for room and board, and $19,000 in additional scholarships
  • University of South Florida
  • Washington State University
  • University of New Mexico

In short, for high-achieving students there can be a lot of money on the line with the PSAT! 

National Merit piechart

We advise students in the 95th percentile and above to take PSAT studying seriously. If that might apply to you, set up a free test prep consultation with our team.


What’s a good score for the PSAT?

The definition of a “good” PSAT score is subjective, really.

Each section on the PSAT is scored on a scale from 160–760. This means that a “perfect” PSAT score is 1520: 760 Math and 760 Evidence-Based Reading & Writing.

The College Board has set “benchmarks” to college readiness for each of their tests. For the PSAT/NMSQT, those numbers are 460 for Reading & Writing and 510 for Math. Students need to hit those benchmarks in order to be “ready” for college.

According to College Board, the average PSAT score is roughly a 920, and a score above 1210 puts you in the top 10% of test takers.

A PSAT score is a good predictor of a student’s SAT score if they don’t do any further studying or preparation.

Bear in mind: in order to be a competitive applicant for the Ivy League, students will need SAT scores of at least 1500.

Average SAT scores for the Ivy League

If we broaden that list to the top 50 colleges and universities in the US, students need SAT scores of 1390 (700 Math and 690 Reading & Writing) to be competitive.

Want more data? Read our deep-dive into average SAT scores at different schools.

If your PSAT score still falls below those cutoff scores, don’t worry! It’s absolutely possible to raise your scores through studying and practice. Our students commonly see a score raise of 100–300 points on the PSAT and SAT after working with our dedicated tutors.


What PSAT score do you need to qualify for National Merit scholarships?

Students qualify for National Merit scholarships by scoring very highly on the PSAT. 

The cutoff score for National Merit Semifinalist status depends on the state. To be competitive for National Merit Semifinalist status, students need to score about 1400 on the PSAT in less competitive states like Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota . . . or about 1470 on the PSAT in more competitive states like Connecticut or New Jersey.

However, the National Merit program doesn’t use the 320–1520 PSAT scores to calculate the cutoffs.

Instead, they compare your PSAT scores with those of other students in your state using their own Selection Index, which falls on a scale between 48 and 228. 

The Selection Index is calculated by adding each of the three section raw scores (Math, Reading, and Writing) together and then multiplying by 2. Each of the raw scores goes up to 38, and students earn separate raw scores for Reading and for Writing.

The upshot of this is that your Math score counts less for National Merit than it does for your straight-up PSAT or SAT score, where your Reading and Writing scores are averaged. 

For example, consider the following examples:

Ava scored a 740 Reading & Writing and a 700 Math on the PSAT. Her total PSAT score is 1440. Her Selection Index is (36 Reading + 38 Writing + 35 Math ) * 2 = 218.

Liam scored a 700 Reading & Writing and a 740 Math on the PSAT. His total PSAT score is 1440. His Selection Index is (36 Reading + 34 Writing + 37 Math) * 2 = 214.

Ethan scored a 760 Reading & Writing (a perfect score!) and a 680 Math on the PSAT. His total PSAT score is 1440. His Selection Index is (38 Reading + 38 Writing + 34 Math) * 2 = 220.

Aubrey scored a 700 Reading & Writing and a 700 Math on the PSAT. Her total PSAT score is 1400. Her Selection Index is (34 Reading + 36 Writing + 35 Math ) * 2 = 210.

The National Merit program will then look at the 48–228 Selection Index scores for each state and choose two cutoff numbers for that state that will result in approximately 3% of students (for Commended) and 1% of students (for Semifinalist). Every score at and above that cutoff number qualifies.

student

Cutoff scores vary by state, and they’re slightly different each year. Small differences in the set of students who take the PSAT nationwide, the difficulty level of that specific test, or even a few extra students guessing correctly on a problem can move the cutoff scores by a point.

While students receive their PSAT scores about 4–6 weeks after they take the test, the cutoff scores aren’t announced until almost a year later, in the fall of their senior year. That’s a long time to wait, especially for students who are right on the edge!

However, we can make some estimates based on past years. A student with a 225 Selection Index score can be fairly confident of being named a National Merit Semifinalist (and continuing on in the context to compete for Finalist status and scholarships). A student with a 220 Selection Index score can be confident that they’ll make the cutoff if they live in a less competitive state like Wyoming, but not if they live in a tougher state like New Jersey.


National Merit qualifying scores by state

The best way to estimate whether you’ll make the cutoff for National Merit is to look at the most recent data. Here are the qualifying scores by state for the past three years:

PSAT cutoff scores for National Merit

There was some disruption to the test due to the pandemic in 2021, which led to some unusual cutoff scores for that year.

Many students want to ask us which states are the toughest for National Merit. Here’s a map of the most competitive states, based on last year’s data! 

map PSAT Selection Index cutoffs by state

In recent years, the toughest states for National Merit have been:

  1. District of Columbia, New Jersey (tie)
  2. Maryland
  3. Connecticut, Virginia (tie)
  4. California, Massachusetts, Washington (tie)
  5. Illinois, New York, Texas (tie)

The easiest states to win National Merit have been Wyoming, Montana, and West Virginia. In those states, the Selection Index needed to become a Semifinalist and continue on in the scholarship contest is the same Selection Index as Commended status in other states.

If you’re living in a more competitive state, you’ll have to earn a higher score to qualify for Semifinalist! Fortunately, our Ivy-League tutors have helped students even in the toughest states to score very highly on the PSAT and SAT. Reach out to us to schedule one-on-one tutoring.


How to take the PSAT

Whereas the SAT can be taken most months of the year, the PSAT is typically offered once a year in mid-October

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The PSAT is taken through the student’s school, and there’s often no cost to students since fees are paid by the schools. Students typically register for the test directly through the school.  Check with your school to confirm if they offer the PSAT.

It’s possible for homeschooled students to sign up for the PSAT at a nearby school; families should contact the school at least four months in advance to register.


How to prepare for the PSAT

If you’re an ambitious student who often scores in the top 5% on standardized tests, you’ll want to take the PSAT seriously, since you have a serious chance of winning impressive scholarships. 

If you’re not in the top 5%, you can approach the PSAT more like a practice SAT — but you still may want to prepare for it so it’s a positive experience, and so that you can get the most out of the practice.

Fortunately, because the PSAT is nearly the same as the SAT, any prep for the PSAT also prepares students for the SAT. It’s often helpful for students to prepare for the SAT on the earlier side, anyhow, to avoid the stress crunch at the end of their junior year (when grades and AP tests are very important) and in their senior fall (when they’re focused on college essays).

The best way to prepare for the PSAT is by practicing, but it’s important to practice in the right ways in order to make effective progress. 

Our Ivy-League PSAT tutors help take a lot of the stress out of the PSAT and SAT process and make sure students are practicing effectively. Our experienced tutors provide students with targeted study materials and guide students in using them correctly

In addition, there are many strategies and tricks that can make the test easier. A good PSAT and SAT tutor can share these tricks with students and guide them through implementing test strategies.

For students who have already taken the PSAT, know that it’s absolutely possible to raise your score on the SAT with the right practice and preparation!

To start one-on-one PSAT and SAT tutoring today, set up a short free consultation with our team.


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The 12 Best SAT Prep Courses for 2022
Average PSAT Scores
When should you take the SAT or ACT?
Average SAT Scores: The Latest Data
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Bonus Material: Check if your math skills are strong enough for National Merit



10 Easy SAT Writing Tips to Get a Perfect Score in 2024

10 Easy SAT Writing Tips to Get a Perfect Score in 2024

Bonus Material: Download free grammar practice developed by Ivy-League educators

Scoring well on the SAT is an important part of the college admissions process. Even with the new test-optional policies, a strong SAT score will still help students get into college.

What’s more, strong test scores can be used to win scholarships or be admitted to honors programs and other special opportunities.

On the new Digital SAT, the Reading and Writing section combines questions on reading comprehension with questions that test your knowledge of key grammar concepts. The two Reading and Writing modules make up half of your potential score.

Fortunately, effective study and exercises can help students to improve their SAT Reading and Writing scores. Grammar is a set of rules that can be learned and practiced. I should know, because back when I took the SAT I earned a perfect 800 on the Writing section on my first try!

Through following these tips, we’ve helped students to improve their SAT scores by as much as 380 points!

Although the SAT itself is changing in 2024, we've got good news: English grammar is staying the same. That means that all of the rules covered in this post apply equally to the new and old versions of the SAT!

For our breakdown of the new, Digital SAT, check out our comprehensive post here.

For more tips and exercises, download our Essential Grammar Workbook!

Jump to section:

Tip #1: Don't avoid the "no change" answers
Tip #2: Pace yourself
Tip #3: The semicolon trick
Tip #4: Understand dependent vs independent clauses
Tip #5: Shorter is (almost always) better
Tip #6: Read it out loud
Tip #7: Don't change verb tenses
Tip #8: Know your transition words
Tip #9: Eliminate duplicate answers
Tip #10: Practice!
What is the SAT?
What is the SAT Reading and Writing section?
How is the Reading and Writing section on the SAT scored?
How can students improve on the SAT Reading and Writing section?


Tip #1: Don’t avoid the “No change” answer

One of the easiest ways to improve your performance on the SAT Writing section is to treat the “No change” multiple-choice answer just like any other option.

That’s because there is no difference between “no change” and the other answers. They are all equal contenders. For example, in this example, “no change” is definitely the correct choice!

from SAT Practice Test #1

Students often avoid picking “no change” because they feel like they have to do something to fix the sentence. But the “no change” option is just one of four possible ways of fixing it, all equal. It’s purely a formatting decision that the SAT has made — and it’s changing on the new digital SAT, perhaps because the College Board has realized that it tends to confuse students.


Tip #2: Pace yourself

Pacing is a challenging aspect of every part of the SAT. On the Reading and Writing section, students have two take two "modules," each of which gives you 32 minutes to answer 27 multiple-choice questions. The questions are not ordered by difficulty on the Reading and Writing section, but the difficulty of the questions in the second module depend on your performance on the first module.

If you spend too much time on a hard question, you’ll potentially run out of time and miss out on the chance to answer several easier questions.

If you find yourself spending more than a minute on a given question, make your best guess and move on. You can mark the question to come back to at the end of the section if you have enough time.

(This is why it’s a great idea to bring a watch with a second hand on test day.)


Tip #3: The semicolon trick

My favorite grammar hack is super short and sweet.

There are a lot of grammar questions about semicolons on the SAT. The semicolon is the punctuation mark that looks like this:

In your own writing, you may rarely use semicolons. However, our theory is that the SAT likes to focus on the semicolon because they’re a great way to check if students understand independent clauses (more on that in the next tip). On the SAT, you'll see lots of questions like this one:

from SAT Practice Test #1

There’s a great hack to tell if a semicolon is being used appropriately or not. Just replace the semicolon with a period.

Does it work? Do you have two complete sentences, each one with a subject and a main verb? Then great, that semicolon is being used correctly.

Does it leave you with a sentence fragment? Is one of the sentences lacking a subject or a main verb? Then nope, you can’t use a semicolon there.

Check it out in action:

Last summer, my family adopted a dog from the shelter; a black lab mix. → Last summer, my family adopted a dog from the shelter. A black lab mix. (This doesn’t work — the second sentence is a fragment!)

The shelter said the dog was about four years old; however, we’ll never know for sure. → The shelter said the dog was about four years old. However, we’ll never know for sure. (This works — both sentences are complete!)

We named the dog Apollo; after the ancient Greek god. → We named the dog Apollo. After the ancient Greek god.

I had underestimated how much work it was going to be making sure that Apollo got enough exercise every day; but it was worth it knowing that he was happy. → I had underestimated how much work it was going to be making sure that Apollo got enough exercise every day. But it was worth it knowing that he was happy.

My parents were also happy that Apollo was too tired from running and playing with me to make a mess at the house; that had been the one concern that my dad expressed before we got our dog. → My parents were also happy that Apollo was too tired from running and playing with me to make a mess at the house. The one concern that my dad expressed before we got our dog.

I’m looking forward to introducing Apollo to my friends; everyone has been asking to meet him, but we’re taking it slowly so he’s not too overwhelmed. → I’m looking forward to introducing Apollo to my friends. Everyone has been asking to meet him, but we’re taking it slowly so he’s not too overwhelmed.

Using this one trick will help you answer several questions on the SAT correctly!


Tip #4: Understand dependent vs independent clauses

Half of the questions on the SAT Writing section are about grammar, and if we had to pick one single grammar concept to know, it would be understanding how to identify dependent clauses versus independent clauses.

Why? Because so many of the grammar questions are fundamentally about this concept. Once you know how to identify if a clause is independent or dependent, you can memorize a few short rules about how to connect two independent clauses.

In a nutshell, a clause is independent if it can stand on its own as a sentence. With some rare exceptions, it will always have a subject + a main verb.

Here’s some examples, with independent clauses highlighted in green and dependent clauses highlighted in yellow:

Last spring, I took the SAT for the first time.

Some of my friends thought it was easy, but most of my friends thought it was hard.

I'm not sure how I did on the test; I'll have to wait a few weeks to get my scores back.

Fortunately, when we finished the test we all went out for ice cream together at the little shop that's near the school.

After I had spent three hours concentrating hard on the test, I felt like I deserved to get an extra scoop of ice cream.

If you have two independent clauses in one sentence, they can be connected with:

  1. A semicolon (or sometimes a colon)
  2. A period (just make them two sentences)
  3. A FANBOYS conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so

On the other hand, if you’re connecting a dependent phrase or clause to the rest of the sentence, you don't want to use any of the things on this list! Depending on the sentence, you'll either want no punctuation or just a comma. (We often work on the tougher nuances of this with our tutoring students.)

For more exercises and examples of independent clauses vs dependent clauses, check out our free Essential Grammar Workbook. Thousands of SAT students have used it to improve their Writing scores on the SAT!


Tip #5: Shorter is (almost always) better

Half of the questions on the Reading and Writing section are about grammar and punctuation, but the other half of the questions are about what the SAT calls “Effective Use of Language.”

In other words, the SAT will ask you to judge which version of a sentence or a paragraph is the best one, even if all of them are grammatically correct.

These questions often feel challenging to students because all of the sentences sound okay, and it feels subjective.

However, it’s less subjective than you might think! The trick is to think like a test creator, and know what the SAT considers to be “good writing.”

One of the biggest hacks on the Reading and Writing section is to choose the shortest answer, if all of the answers seem correct grammatically.

That’s because the SAT values concision, which is saying something in the shortest amount of time necessary and not using extra words.

Eliminate words or phrases that are repetitive, and avoid sentences that seem more convoluted than they need to be.

The shortcut here is to simply choose the shortest answer.

Check out this example:

from SAT Practice Test #1 — the correct answer is the shortest one, "A) no change"

Now, once in a while there will be something wrong with the shortest answer, and the correct answer will be the second-shortest answer. So ideally you should double-check your answer after using this shortcut.

But the vast majority of the time, yes, the shortest answer will be the right one.

Using this hack will make sure that you answer up to 18% of the questions on the Reading and Writing section correctly!


Tip #6: Read it out loud

One great way to tell if a sentence has correct grammar is to read it out loud.

When we read silently, our brains tend to “fix” the sentence for us. When we read it out loud, we can more easily “hear” any grammatical mistakes.

Of course, in the real test room on testing day you can’t make sound while you’re taking the SAT. However, it’s still a powerful tool to physically move your mouth as if you’re silently whispering to yourself!

Don’t worry about feeling silly doing this. It’s part of how I scored a perfect 800 on the first try!

student practicing the ACT

This hack is especially useful for determining whether you should have a comma or no comma. If reading the sentence without a pause sounds fine, then you don’t need a comma there!

(Use this to decide if you need punctuation or no punctuation — not what type of punctuation to use. It’s probably impossible to “hear” the difference between a comma and a semicolon, since they’re both a pause, but hearing the difference between a pause and no pause is definitely possible.)


Tip #7: Don’t change verb tenses (without a good reason)

On the Reading and Writing section of the SAT you’ll see lots of questions about verbs.

One easy tip is that you shouldn’t change the tense of the verb unless you have a specific good reason to do so. 

Most of the time, just take a look at the other verbs nearby and match their tense.

Here’s an example of how this will look on the real SAT:

from SAT Practice Test #1

We explain grammar questions involving verbs in a lot more detail in our free Grammar Guide, developed by Princeton graduates.


Tip #8: Know your transition words

Too often, SAT students spend hours trying to memorize vocabulary words with flashcards. 

We don’t recommend this, because it’s not a very effective way of studying and improving your score! It’s hard to memorize words out of context, and the chances that you’ll encounter the exact word you learned on the test is very, very small.

The one exception to this is transition words. These are words that signal how sentences relate logically to one another. Transition words are really important in clear writing!

Usually about 18% of the questions on the SAT Writing section are about transition words. That’s a lot!

Because of that, we do recommend making sure that you know the meaning of all of these transition words:

The SAT will ask you to choose the type of transition that makes sense, like this:

from SAT Practice Test #1

For more practice, check out our free guide to SAT Reading and Writing:


Tip #9: Eliminate duplicate answers

This is a sneaky hack that can be applied to many types of questions on the Reading and Writing section.

If you see two answers in the multiple choice that are essentially the same, you can eliminate both of them.

That’s because the SAT is never going to make you choose between two answers that are equally correct. 

As much as the Writing section might feel subjective at times, it’s really not. There’s always only one right answer, and if you know the rules, the right answer is usually very clear.

That’s how I got a perfect 800 score on the Writing section — I knew the grammar rules and how to pick the most concise or clear version, so it was always clear which answer to choose. I’ve also used the same grammar and writing rules to help professors at Harvard and Yale edit their books for publication!

For example, if you see two choices on a transition-word question that mean the same thing, you can eliminate them both. 

In this example, “in addition” and “also” mean the same thing, so neither of them is correct, because the SAT will never make us choose between them!

Same thing with many grammar questions. If you see both a period and a semicolon in the multiple-choice, neither is correct, because they are grammatically pretty much the same! (see tip #3)

This is an example of how thinking like test creators can help us to answer questions more accurately.


Tip #10: Practice!

In the end, the best way to improve on the Reading and Writing section is to practice.

Drill specific concepts with targeted practice that focuses on that one grammar or writing skill. A great SAT tutor can help you find good exercises for this kind of drill, or even create custom practice sentences to help you truly understand.

Then put everything together by taking full timed practice sections from real SAT tests. Track your progress over time! 

student success

With hard work, our test prep students have improved their SAT scores by as much as 200–400 points. The trick is to make sure that you’re practicing effectively and not wasting your time with the wrong practice.

Sign up for one-on-one tutoring with our Ivy-League tutors for experienced guidance!


What is the SAT?

The SAT is one of two main tests (along with the ACT) used by colleges and universities in the US and sometimes internationally for admissions purposes.

The SAT covers basic high school material and is used to measure college readiness.

Since the spring of 2020 and challenges to testing caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, many schools have adopted temporary test-optional policies.

However, test scores are still an important way to show colleges your abilities. (These days, if you can take the test and don’t submit your scores, colleges are likely to assume that your scores were low.)

If you are able to take the SAT or ACT, you should still take the test. To the best of your abilities, you should still prepare for the test and take it seriously.


What is the SAT Reading and Writing section?

The Reading and Writing section on the SAT tests students’ abilities in reading comprehension, grammar, and “effective writing,” which is writing in a way that is concise, clear, and logical.

Students have to take two modules, each of which gives them 32 minutes to answer 27 multiple-choice questions. Why have two sections with the same exact format? Because the new adaptive SAT will tailor the second "module" based on your performance on the first.

Roughly half of the questions in this section are about grammar and punctuation. Unfortunately, we’ve found in our work helping students that many schools no longer teach students grammar rules!

That’s where our free Essential Grammar Guide can step in and help.

The other half of the questions in the Reading and Writing section present different versions of a sentence or a paragraph and ask students to choose the one that makes the most sense.

Students working with our one-on-one tutors receive a free companion guide that covers these questions about Effective Use of Language.

There is no longer an Essay component for the SAT. All of the Reading and Writing questions are multiple-choice, and students will not have to write their own answers.


How is the Reading and Writing section on the SAT Scored?

Students are scored based on the number of questions they answer correctly. Every question is worth the same amount of points, and there are no penalties for wrong answers.

The Reading and Writing part of the SAT makes up exactly half of your total Digital SAT score. The Reading & Writing section is scored out of 800. The average score for this section in the US is 533.

Distribution of SAT scores

Students also earn a score out of 800 for the Math section, and their total SAT score is out of 1600. Anything above 1060 is above-average, and students should aim for a score in the 1500s to be competitive applicants at the most selective colleges and universities.

For a decade (between 2005 and 2016), Writing was a separate score out of 800 on the SAT. Students earned up to 800 points for Reading, Writing, and Math, with total SAT scores out of 2400. In spring 2016, the SAT went back to a 1600-point scale with combined Reading & Writing scores.

SAT historical averages, 1967-2021


How can students improve on the SAT Reading and Writing section?

If you’re planning years in advance, there are some general activities that students can do that will lead to higher scores on the SAT Reading & Writing section. 

Reading extensively, with whatever books or other media students enjoy the most, is incredibly powerful. 

Studying another language besides English is also helpful for understanding grammar better. Languages that share a significant etymological history with English like Spanish, French, Latin, and Ancient Greek are especially useful.

student writing research paper

However, there are lots of things that students can do to improve their scores on the SAT Reading and Writing section with only a few months or even weeks of effort! In fact, grammar questions on the Writing section are some of the most common question types where students tend to see the most improvement.

It’s important for students to familiarize themselves with the general structure of the test.

Students should also learn the main grammar rules tested on the SAT. These rules are absolutely predictable — because I knew the rules of English grammar, I earned a perfect score on the SAT Writing on my first try.

Unfortunately, most schools these days don’t teach the rules of grammar. Many of the students we work with don’t know grammar rules, and that’s not their fault — they never learned grammar at school.

A great SAT tutor can help students to learn the rules and feel confident on the SAT. Our tutors are from the Ivy League and many have impressive backgrounds in professional writing, publishing, and teaching.

Finally, the best way for students to improve on the SAT Writing section is to practice effectively, using the right materials. There is some limited SAT writing practice available for free via Khan Academy. Our experienced tutors can also guide students through the best practice exercises tailored to their specific needs.

Request a short test-prep consultation today!

Bonus Material: Download our free Essential Grammar Guide, developed by Ivy-League educators




student

What is a Good PSAT Score? See What Scores You Need on the PSAT

What is a Good PSAT Score?

Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT

What’s a good PSAT score? Students and families often ask us this question.

Any score above 1010 is above-average, and a score above 1450 is a top-tier score that makes students competitive for big scholarships and admission to elite colleges.

However, the full definition of a “good PSAT score” is a little more complex, so we wrote this thorough guide. We’re Princeton grads with decades of test-prep experience, and we drew from our extensive knowledge to answer the most frequently asked questions about PSAT scores.

Download a Free 30-minute Sample PSAT

This post covers:

What is the PSAT?
What is a good PSAT score for a junior?
What is a good PSAT score for National Merit?
What is a good PSAT score for a sophomore?
What's on the PSAT?
How is the PSAT scored?
Do PSAT scores matter?
How to improve your PSAT score


What is the PSAT?

The complete name for the PSAT is the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT).

That name may be ridiculously long, but it accurately describes what the test is. It’s a very slightly shorter and easier version of the SAT — hence the “preliminary SAT” part of the name — and also the test that students take as juniors to compete in the National Merit scholarship contest.

student taking standardized test

The SAT is more well-known than the PSAT. Along with the ACT, the SAT one of the two main standardized tests that students use to apply to colleges in the US. The SAT tests students’ skills in reading, writing, and math, and gives colleges an indication of their readiness for college-level coursework.

Because the SAT can be so important for college admissions, we strongly recommend students to take the PSAT if it’s offered by their school. The PSAT is a great chance to practice the test in the same testing conditions. Students can find out if they have any test anxiety and get a sense whether they’re on track to meet their goals.

In addition, the PSAT can be a chance to win big scholarships. The highest-scoring students on the PSAT can win recognition through the National Merit competition. Winners of the competition can earn scholarships, including full-ride scholarships to some schools, and many colleges compete to recruit these elite students. 

National Merit status is always impressive and gives students a significant advantage in college admissions!

We introduce the PSAT in more detail here.

Download a 30-minute sample of the PSAT to try it out today!


What is a good PSAT score for a junior?

This is the PSAT that matters most, because only the PSAT taken in October of a student’s junior year can be used to compete in the National Merit competition to win elite scholarships.

Students can use percentiles to see how their PSAT scores compare. Here are a few quick benchmarks:

PSAT 1450–1520 (top 1%): these students are contenders for National Merit scholarships and are on track to be strong applicants at top-tier schools, including the Ivy League, if the other elements of their applications are also outstanding

PSAT 1400+ (top 3%): these students may be able to win “Commended” recognition through National Merit, and are also on track to be strong applicants for top schools

PSAT 1280+ (top 10%): these students are in the top decile of all of the students in the US, and are on track to be able to apply to excellent colleges

PSAT 1160+ (top 25%): these students are in the top quarter of students in the US and have shown potential for college admissions

PSAT 1020+ (top 50%): these students are above-average

Look up your exact score on this table to see how your score compares to other students across the US:

You can also check the percentile ranking for your section scores on the College Board website.

Of course, the meaning of a “good” PSAT score depends on your individual goals.

We’ve done extensive research and used the data to figure out what would be a good PSAT score for a junior in different situations.

What’s a good PSAT score for students aiming at the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier universities?

The majority of students (over 75% of students) at the most elite colleges have SAT scores above 1450. If you’re aiming at an Ivy-League or highly-competitive school, we know that you’ll need SAT scores that are at least 1450 in order to have a shot, and at least 1550 to be a strong applicant.

In order to be on track for those scores on the SAT, students would have to earn a near-perfect score on the PSAT, which is a little shorter and easier than the SAT. That means a good PSAT score for students aiming at “Ivy Plus” schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, and Duke would be at least 1450.

Princeton University
Princeton University

What’s a good PSAT score for students aiming at a top-50 school?

If we expand our list of schools to the top 50 colleges and universities in the US, then we know that students need at least a 1390 on the SAT to apply, and a score of 1530 to be a strong applicant.

That means that a good PSAT score for a student aiming at a top-50 school is at least a 1390.

What’s a good PSAT score for students aiming at the best public universities?

Most students at the best public universities in the US have SAT scores above 1320. If you’re aiming at a fantastic public university like the University of Michigan or the University of Virginia, we know that you’ll need SAT scores that are at least 1320 in order to have a shot, and at least 1500 to be a strong applicant.

In order to be on track for those scores on the SAT, students would have to score about 1320 on the PSAT.

 

University of Wisconsin – Madison
University of Wisconsin – Madison

What’s a good PSAT score for other students?

There are many fantastic colleges and universities that are less competitive than the top-tier schools. Students can consider factors like school size, specific academic programs, location, and campus culture to craft a college list of great schools where they could be a competitive applicant.

In this post, we explain how to find the “middle 50” for each school and use this data to craft a balanced college list and strategize test prep.

If your PSAT score is lower than you hoped, don’t worry! It’s absolutely possible to raise your scores through the right studying and practice. We find that many of our students improve their PSAT and SAT scores by as many as 300 points after working with our top-1% tutors.

Plus, any practice for the PSAT applies to the SAT as well, because the tests are nearly identical. That means students who prepare for the PSAT have a head start on SAT prep

We often recommend that students take their first SAT no later than March of their junior year, so that they can avoid the end-of-semester crunch that happens in May, when AP tests and grades for coursework are extremely important. By starting earlier, students will have plenty of time to improve their scores if necessary. And if they reach their goal score on the first try, they can relax and focus on AP tests, grades, extracurriculars, and college essays! 


What’s a good PSAT score for National Merit?

In order to earn recognition and scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Program, students typically need to score about a 1400 on the PSAT (for Commended letters) and about a 1450 (to win scholarships).

We explain the National Merit competition and the PSAT scores needed to win in more detail here

National Merit diagram

The exact scores needed for National Merit vary a bit from year to year. The cutoffs are different depending on each state. The toughest states in the US are Washington DC, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Connecticut:

map PSAT Selection Index cutoffs by state

The exact cutoffs needed for National Merit are a little complicated, because the National Merit program does not use the 320–1520 scores for the PSAT. Instead, the cutoffs are calculated by something called the Selection Index, which goes from 48 to 228. We explain how to calculate your Selection Index score here

A student with a Selection Index score of 225–228 is virtually guaranteed to get National Merit Semifinalist, regardless of which state they live in. A student with a Selection Index score of 218 may win Semifinalist status in some states like Montana or Florida, but not in more competitive states. Check out our table of Selection Index cutoff scores here.

student

The Selection Index and the different cutoffs from year to year and from state to state make it a little tricky to give a short answer, but we can summarize that a good PSAT score for National Merit is 1450 and above.

There are big prizes at stake for the students who meet this cutoff for National Merit Semifinalists and go on to win, including full-ride scholarships to college!

That’s why we advise students in the 95th percentile and above to take the PSAT seriously. If that might apply to you, set up a free test prep consultation with our team here.


What is a good PSAT score for a sophomore?

Some students take the PSAT as freshmen or sophomores in high school. This is a great chance to gain familiarity with the test and practice the material. 

However, remember that PSAT scores from 9th grade or 10th grade can’t be used for National Merit, even if you get a top score. Only the PSAT taken in 11th grade can be used to compete in the National Merit competition.

Students can use percentiles to see how their sophomore PSAT scores compare. Here are a few quick benchmarks:

PSAT 1370–1520 (top 1%): these students are on track to be competitive for National Merit scholarships and are likely to be strong applicants at top-tier schools, including the Ivy League — if the other elements of their applications are also outstanding

PSAT 1290+ (top 3%): if these students continue to improve as juniors, they may be able to win “Commended” recognition through National Merit; they’re also on track to be strong applicants for top schools

PSAT 1180+ (top 10%): these students are in the top decile of all of the sophomores in the US who take the PSAT, and are on track to be able to apply to excellent colleges

PSAT 1060+ (top 25%): these students are in the top quarter of sophomores taking the PSAT and have shown potential for future college admissions

PSAT 920+ (top 50%): these students are above-average as sophomores

Look up your exact score on this table to see how your score compares to other students across the US:

table PSAT percentiles 10th grade

You can also check the percentile ranking for your section scores as a sophomore on the College Board website.


What’s on the PSAT?

Like the SAT, the PSAT is designed to measure general college readiness. The test is under three hours long and covers reading comprehension, clear writing, grammar, and math skills from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.

The PSAT will be significantly different in fall 2023, because the PSAT is changing to match the new digital SAT that will be launched for US students in spring 2024.

Students will take the new digital PSAT on tablets or laptops instead of with paper and pencil.

The structure of the PSAT is also changing. The old PSAT separated the Reading and Writing questions into two separate sections, which were later combined for a “Reading & Writing” score:

Old PSAT test structure:

Section Length (minutes) Number of questions
Reading 60 47
Writing & Language 35 44
Math 70 48

The new PSAT will combine the Reading and Writing questions together.

New PSAT test format:

Section Length (minutes) Number of questions
Reading & Writing I TBA TBA
Reading & Writing II TBA TBA
Math I TBA TBA
Math II TBA TBA

One big change with the new digital PSAT is that it will be adaptive, which means that the questions will adjust in difficulty based on the student’s performance. If the student performs more strongly on the first part of the test, they’ll get harder questions.

These changes mean that many published PSAT prep books and resources are now out-of-date. Students who are preparing for the PSAT should make sure that they are preparing for the new 2023 version of the test!

A top-notch PSAT or SAT tutor can help students make sure they’re practicing the correct version of the test and using the most up-to-date strategies.


How is the PSAT scored?

The PSAT is scored very similarly to the SAT, just with slightly lower numbers. 

The SAT has two sections, Reading & Writing and Math, that are each scored from 200–800. That means a perfect SAT score is 1600. 

Mirroring the SAT, the PSAT gives two section scores, for Reading & Writing and for Math. Each of the two sections is scored on a scale from 160–760. This means that a “perfect” PSAT score is 1520

A student’s score depends on how many questions they answer correctly. There are no penalties for wrong answers. (So one PSAT tip is to never leave a question blank, even if you simply guess!)

The College Board hasn’t yet announced the exact details of how they will calculate scores with the new digital PSAT launching in fall 2023. On the new adaptive PSAT, higher-performing students will get a harder version of the test, so the scoring calculations will have to be more complex to take this into consideration.

PSAT Section Scores

On their PSAT Score Report, students also get subscores and cross-test scores that can provide additional insight into areas of strength and weakness. For more guidance on how to interpret the PSAT Score Report, check out our guidance here.

PSAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) 160–760
Reading (Test Score) 8–38
Writing and Language (Test Score) 8–38
Command of Evidence 1–15
Words in Context 1–15
Expression of Ideas 1–15
Standard English Conventions 1–15
Math 160760
Math (Test Score) 8–38
Heart of Algebra 1–15
Problem Solving and Data Analysis 1–15
Passport to Advanced Math 1–15
TOTAL (EBRW + Math) 3201520
Cross-Test Scores:
Analysis in History/Social Studies 8–38
Analysis in Science 8–38
Selection Index (used for National Merit) 48228

The PSAT subscores range from 1 to 15 and indicate student abilities in specific areas like Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math.

The PSAT cross-test scores for Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science range from 8 to 38. For example, the Analysis in Science subscore will indicate how well students can handle reading about science, analyzing graphs and charts about science, and solving math word problems about science.

An experienced tutor will be able to help students use these subscores to develop a strong plan for their SAT preparation. The SAT has the same subscores and types of questions, so PSAT scores can be a powerful tool for crafting a roadmap for SAT practice. 

Our Ivy-League SAT tutors are experts in using each student’s individual data to create a customized plan for improving their scores. We carefully match our tutors to meet the needs and personalities of each student. Schedule a short test-prep consultation to find the perfect-fit tutor and improve on the PSAT and SAT!

PSAT Percentile Scores

In addition to these numeric scores, students will also receive percentile rankings. The percentiles show how students performed compared to other students. For example, scoring in the 65th percentile means that a student scored better than 65% of other students.

These percentile rankings indicate whether a student’s score is average, above-average, or below-average. 

Students will receive two different percentile rankings for their PSAT score. The first percentile ranking (“User Group Percentiles”) compares how students did to other students taking the PSAT. This tends to be a more competitive group of students, since students who are taking the test are more likely to be on a college track.

The second percentile ranking (the “Nationally Representative Sample”) compares how students hypothetically performed compared to typical US students in their grade, regardless of whether they took the test.

We explore this data in more detail in our post about Average PSAT Scores. In a nutshell, the data tells us that the average score for the PSAT is 1010, and the “bell-shaped curve” means that most students score in the middle, with a few students scoring very high or very low.

Our Ivy-League test prep experts use in-depth knowledge of testing data to help students craft individualized test prep strategies. See the difference that even a few hours of one-on-one tutoring can make!


Do PSAT scores matter?

PSAT scores matter for two things: test prep planning and scholarships.

For the majority of students, it’s fine to use the PSAT as a “practice” SAT that more closely mimics the actual testing conditions. 

The PSAT is a good chance for students to get familiar with the test structure and question types they’ll see on the SAT. Students can find out whether they get nervous on test day. Test anxiety affects many students, but fortunately there are many easy tricks to reduce test anxiety, and an encouraging SAT tutor can also help students to practice methods to remain focused and confident even while taking a high-pressure test.

student

The PSAT will give students a sense of how they might score on the SAT without further prep. According to the College Board, “the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT are very similar tests, so your score on the PSAT/NMSQT can give you an idea of how you’ll do when you take the SAT.” Remember that the SAT, not the PSAT, is what students will submit to schools as part of their college applications. 

Of course, many students want to score higher on the SAT than they did on the PSAT! It’s rare that students don’t need to do further preparation for the SAT. Fortunately many students raise their SAT scores significantly compared to their PSAT scores with the right practice and review.

In fact, taking the PSAT gives students some great tools for SAT prep. Students can use their detailed PSAT score report to craft an individualized plan for SAT prep. They’ll be able to see what their weaknesses are and target their practice accordingly. Use our free resources for advice on how to use PSAT scores to make a customized plan for SAT prep, or work with an experienced test-prep tutor to take advantage of their insights.

The second way that PSAT scores are used is to earn big scholarships and advantages in college admissions.

Colleges do not see PSAT scores directly, but top-scoring students on the PSAT can win a definite advantage in college admissions through the National Merit Scholarship Program. The top 3% of students on the PSAT can win Commended Student recognition awards, and the top 1% of students can become National Merit Semifinalists and go on to compete for scholarships.

These National Merit awards are a big deal. Many colleges compete to recruit National Merit students, and it’s an immediate signal to schools that you’re a top-tier student.

Even more importantly, students can earn a significant amount of scholarship money by scoring highly on the PSAT. The direct scholarships from National Merit range from $2,500–$10,000 (annually or one-time), but some schools also offer additional scholarships to National Merit students. Some schools even offer automatic full-ride scholarships to National Merit Finalists!

It’s hard to think of another situation where you can earn $300,000 in three hours. That’s how much a full-ride college scholarship might be worth!

That’s why we advise students who typically score highly on standardized tests (in the top 5% or so) to really take the PSAT seriously. While other students can use the PSAT more as practice, top-scoring students have a real chance at earning some significant prizes.

If you’re not sure if you might be a high-scoring student, try taking a practice PSAT or practice SAT. You can even start with our short 30-minute sample of the PSAT — we’ll break down this 28-question quiz to give you a rough idea of your score. If your initial scores are in 95th percentile or above, then yes, you should definitely take the junior-year PSAT seriously.


How to improve your PSAT score

Students only have one shot at taking the PSAT for National Merit. 

While the SAT can be taken multiple times and is offered seven times during the year, the PSAT only happens once a year. Only the PSAT taken in a student’s junior year (in mid-October) counts for National Merit.

Some students may take the PSAT as a sophomore or younger. We certainly encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity to take the PSAT as a sophomore for the practice, but these scores can’t be used to win scholarships.

Students who don’t feel like they have a “good” PSAT score yet for their goals can absolutely improve their PSAT scores with the right practice. We recommend downloading our 30-minute micro PSAT to get a taste of the PSAT first. Then jump right into studying, or try a full-length practice test to get the most accurate gauge of the current level.

There is some fantastic free practice material available from the educational non-profit Khan Academy. All of their practice is geared towards the SAT, but since the PSAT and SAT are almost identical this prep material will also work for the PSAT.

Make sure that if you’re taking the PSAT in fall 2023 (and the SAT from March 2024) you’re using the new digital SAT practice materials. The old paper SAT is going to be out of date!

student

Use exercises and practice test scores to identify any weak spots. Across the nation, many students now have more gaps in their knowledge than usual after the interruptions to their schooling that occurred due to the Covid-19 pandemic. If there’s material that you haven’t yet learned or haven’t completely mastered, then now is a good time to learn it. Use the short videos available for free on Khan Academy, or work with a tutor for more individualized attention. 

Remember that if you’re a student who typically performs well on standardized tests (scoring in the top 5%), you’ll want to really focus on the PSAT, since you have a serious chance of winning elite scholarships through National Merit.

Regardless of your specific goals, make a plan for how you’ll practice and strengthen your weak areas with targeted exercises and review. By practicing with the right materials, we’ve seen students improve their PSAT and SAT scores by as much as 300 points!


Related Articles

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National Merit PSAT Scores: How to Earn $300k in 3 hours
The 15 Best PSAT Tutoring Services for 2022
How Long is the PSAT? Plus Updates for the New 2023 PSAT
The 12 Best SAT Prep Courses for 2022
Average PSAT Scores: See How Your Score Compares
When should you take the SAT or ACT?
Average SAT Scores: The Latest Data
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Bonus Material: Try a sample of the new PSAT



student writing

How to Write a "Why This College" Essay + Examples that Worked for the Ivy League

How to Write a "Why This College" Essay + Examples that Worked for the Ivy League

Bonus Material: Download 30 Real College Essays that Got Students Into Princeton

College admissions have never been more competitive. With acceptance percentages for top colleges in the low teens (or lower for Ivies!), you need to take every opportunity to stand out from other applicants. 

We all know the importance of grades, test scores, and the personal statement. But there’s one part of the process that students all too often underestimate: the supplemental essays.

 In this post, we’ll take you through how to approach one of the most common supplemental prompts: the “Why this college?” essay. 

Jump to section:

Why do colleges ask this question?
Types of “Why this college?” prompts
Step 1: Research unique offerings!
Step 2: Link to your story!
Step 3: Create a frame for your essay
A list of Don’ts
Rules to remember
Next steps


Why do colleges ask this question?

This is one of the most common supplemental questions asked by colleges, especially by some of the most competitive ones! For example, six of the eight Ivies have an essay that basically asks you to answer that simple-sounding question: “Why us?”

Princeton University
Princeton University

You might be tempted to think these questions are silly or unimportant. But the truth is that they matter a whole lot. What colleges are looking for in these essays is, at heart, two things: proof that you’re a good fit, and proof that you’re actually committed to attending. 

Think about these essays as conveying to the college two fundamental things: that you’re interesting, and that you’re interested

Why does that matter? Well, think about it from the college’s perspective. Elite colleges are committed to admitting only a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of applications they receive yearly. 

Because of that, it’s massively important that those lucky and exceptional few they do accept will actually contribute to the community. They want the best!

At the same time, these colleges don’t want to “waste” an acceptance on a student who then goes on to enroll somewhere else. They want to be reasonably confident that, if they accept you, you’ll take them up on their offer.

It’s a little like dating: they want to be sure you’re good relationship material, but they also don’t want to ask you out if it doesn’t seem like you’re interested. 


Types of “Why this college?” prompts

Sometimes, the prompt will really be as simple as “Why Dartmouth?” Other times, though, these prompts will highlight some particular aspect they want you to focus on. Take a look at the below prompts, and see if you can spot the difference:

Considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected, how will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? (150-200 words)

How will you explore community at Penn? Consider how Penn will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape Penn. (150-200 words)*

In 300 words or less, help us understand how you might engage specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities here. We are curious about what these specifics are, as well as how they may enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond.

These are all “Why us?” essays. But UPenn splits this question into two separate prompts: the first is specifically about “intellectual and academic interests,” while the second is specifically about “community.” The third prompt, from Northwestern, is more general: it’s really about any aspects of the university that draw you in. 

University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school

Colleges will generally ask the “Why us?” question in one of three ways:

  1. An overall question asking you to focus on anything that appeals to you about the school.
  2. A specific question asking how you’ll use the school’s resources to pursue your academic interests. 
  3. A specific question asking how you’ll engage with non-academic elements of the school, often framed around community.

Though these questions are all being asked for the same purpose, they’ll require you to discuss different aspects of the school and of yourself. 

Now that you know what these prompts look like and what they’re for, let’s take a look at how you should start answering them. 


Step 1: Research unique offerings!

It might sound obvious, but you cannot write one of these essays without first doing serious research into the school’s offerings. Get on the computer, go through the school’s website, and note down specific offerings that interest you. For academics, some things to look into might be:

  • Whether the school has a unique approach to the core curriculum (e.g., Brown or Barnard).
  • Research opportunities for undergraduates. 
  • Unique service learning or study abroad opportunities. 
  • Unique work opportunities (e.g., Northeastern’s CoOp program)
  • Opportunities within your planned major (unique tracks, specializations, etc.)

You might notice I used the word “unique” a lot there. It may sound repetitive, but it does stress the point: you need to focus on aspects that are unique to the school you’re applying to!

Brown University

Anyone who’s worked with college essays has seen a fair share that say something like:

Part of what I’m excited about at School X is the robust Economics department, where I’ll be able to take classes like Introduction to Microeconomics and International Economics.

What’s the problem there? Well, every school with an economics department is going to offer those classes! It’s not unique, and it suggests that the author of that sentence didn’t do their research or, even worse, doesn’t really have any specific reason for choosing School X. 

If you’re looking to discuss community aspects, you should do the same kind of research, perhaps focusing on:

  • Unique college-wide initiatives (e.g., Dartmouth’s Sophomore Summer)
  • Student clubs/organizations
  • Anything specific the college stresses as a point of pride in terms of values, diversity, etc.

Researching unique offerings from these schools can be difficult: how do you know what’s unique enough to mention? Or what a particular school really prides itself on?

If you’re struggling with this first key step, reach out to one of experienced college essay coaches, who can help you through the process so you know what to write about before you start.


But that research is only half the battle. Schools don’t just want a list of what they do well. Remember our two guiding principles for these essays: prove you’ll be a good fit, and prove you’re interested. 

To do that, you’ll have to connect any specific opportunities you mention with your own narrative. What about you—your experiences, passions, values, successes, failures—has led you to be interested in these specific opportunities presented by the school? 

Remember that all college essays are stories. When these “Why us?” essays are perfect, it should make the admissions committee feel that your journey up to this point has naturally led you to apply to their school. 

So, don’t think of this as an essay about the school itself. It is, like all these college essays, an essay about you as a person. The only difference is you have to show how your story intersects with what this particular college can do for you

As an initial brainstorming exercise, make two columns. In the first, list all of those specifics you researched in step one. In the second column, put what connects you to each of those specific offerings. Activities you’ve been involved with, important moments in your life, values you hold dear. Wherever you have the strongest connections, that’s what you’ll write about. 

Thinking strategically, you can especially focus on strong connections that also tie in to your most impressive achievements, whether academic or extracurricular, because you’ll get another chance to reference them in your supplemental essays.

For inspiration, check out 30 examples of real college essays by some of the most successful applicants in the world, who told their stories in interesting and unique ways.


Step 3: Create a frame for your essay

Each of these essays should be personalized to the school you’re applying to. But, because this is at heart an essay about yourself, you can create an introduction and conclusion (a “frame”) that you tweak only slightly for multiple schools. 

The first paragraph, whenever possible, should be eye-catching and specific to you. Often, the best way to do this is with some small anecdote or mini-story from your life that contextualizes the rest of the essay. 

Are you going to apply to these schools as a Math major? Well, then you might want to start the essays with a short description of the moment you fell in love with math, or with what burning questions drive you to pursue it in college. 

Your last paragraph (which should be very short) can return to this story or to some other key element of yourself that explains your goals within the context of the essay. With the first and last paragraph, you should have a deeply personal frame that gives context for what you say in the body of your essay.

student success

This frame doesn’t have to change much: if it fits for the prompt, reuse it! But do change the body paragraphs. Since those paragraphs are all about the specifics for the school you’re applying to, each of those needs to be written from scratch. 


A list of Don’ts:

Writing these essays can get pretty complicated. There’s a lot of nuance, a lot of potential pitfalls, and a lot on the line (which is why you should look into working with one of our experts). But one good place to start is with what you shouldn’t do:

  • Avoid all generalizations about the strength of the program, the prestige of the faculty, or the rigor of the academics. 
  • Avoid talking too much about the location of the school, especially for schools in major cities like NYC. 
  • Except in rare cases, avoid name-dropping professors or classes. This will almost always come off inauthentic: very few high schoolers are actually interested in specific professors’ research or specific courses.

    • Exception: if your application can show a demonstrated interest in a particular field (e.g., if you’ve already done research with a professor, or published something in a relevant journal), then it will seem much more believable when you reference a professor or coursework. 

  • Similarly, avoid name-dropping specific buildings or locations at the school as if you’ve already been there. Generally, don’t say things like “I can already see myself walking through the doors of Firestone Library.”
  • Do your best to avoid stock/cliche sentences like, “I am passionate about [...]” or “[...] really stands out to me as an incredible opportunity.” It’s more than likely some of these will sneak into your writing, but cut as much of them as you can.
  • Don’t spend too much time describing the college’s program/club/etc. without tying it specifically to you. The admissions officers already know that their school is great, and they don’t need you to explain their special community-building outdoor adventure program! What they want to know is what is specifically attractive about that adventure program to you and how it ties into your past accomplishments and future plans.  
student writing college essay

Rules to remember

By far the best way to excel on these essays is to work with a qualified college essay coach. There’s nothing like a second set of eyes to give you perspective and guidance on your work! But regardless of whether you get assistance or set out on your own, keep the below rules in mind:

  • There are no “optional” essays! If a school offers you a prompt, always write a response.
  • Balance school specifics with your own narrative. Always show how what you like about the college connects back to your experiences
  • Every sentence should be specific to you and/or the school: if you read a sentence and it could have been written by someone else or about some other school, you need a better sentence. 
  • Avoid generalizations; focus on specifics

So, now that you’ve read this post and gotten a better idea of what colleges want, how do you start writing?


Next steps

Our college essay coaches can help you through every step of the process, from that initial research to final proofreading for clarity and polish. Not only have our coaches helped students gain admission into some of the top colleges in the country, but they’ve successfully navigated that process themselves. 

Princeton University
Princeton University

In the meantime, take a look at the examples we collected from 30 students admitted to Princeton so you can get a sense of what’s been successful in the past. 


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How Colleges Read Your Application: A 4 Step Process
What College Admissions Officers Look For: Your Data-Backed Guide
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teacher with whiteboard

What Kind of Math is On the SAT?

Bonus Material: Test your knowledge with 20 of the Hardest SAT Math Questions ever

If you’re applying to college, you’ll most likely need to score well on the SAT.

Since half of your total score is going to come from the Math section, you’ll want to know exactly what kinds of questions you’re going to see on test day.

In this post, we’ll provide an in-depth explanation of what concepts the SAT Math section tests, and how it tests them. 

This information is crucial to make sure you're studying the right things for the SAT! Often students waste their time focusing on questions that won't appear on the SAT at all, or make up a small fraction of the math problems. Follow our advice to study effectively.

Then, test your knowledge with our Hardest SAT Math Questions Quiz.

Download our quiz with 20 of the hardest SAT Math problems

Jump to section:

What Does the SAT Math Section Look Like?
Main Categories of Math Questions
Algebra of Lines
Non-Linear Algebra
Data Analysis and Problem Solving
Geometry
Foundational Math Skills (and imaginary numbers)
Next Steps


What Does the SAT Math Section Look Like?

The SAT Math Section is split into two portions. The first section contains 20 questions and does not allow you to use a calculator. The second section contains 38 questions for which you can (and usually should) use a calculator. 

You get one total score for both sections combined, based on the raw number of questions you get correct out of the possible 58.

This post will cover the specific content you need to know on the SAT Math. For a more general guide to structure and strategy, check out our post here.

Did you know that the SAT will change significantly in the next two years? The math on the new digital SAT will test similar concepts but with a different structure. Read more about the new digital SAT here, and check if the changes will affect your test dates.


Main Categories of Math Questions

The bad news? The SAT presents math concepts in ways that you may not be familiar with. The great news? Because the SAT has to be consistent from test to test, it is highly predictable and you can absolutely prepare yourself for everything you’ll see. 

Below is a chart that shows how the College Board classifies the four main areas of questions and how often they come up. Because their terminology is a little unspecific (“Heart?” “Passport?”), we’ve translated those into what they actually mean. 

math concepts on the SAT

In a nutshell, the main “families” of questions are: Algebra of Lines; Non-linear Algebra; Data Analysis; Geometry. 

Those categories are helpful to give you an idea of what content the SAT expects you to know. Below, we’ll get more specific: we’ll go through what specific operations the SAT Math section asks you to do.

Aiming for a perfect score on the SAT Math? You'll have to be able to answer the toughest questions flawlessly. Try out 20 of the toughest SAT Math questions ever with our Hardest SAT Math Questions Quiz.


Algebra of Lines

At the heart of this section is one little equation: y = mx + b. When we talk about “lines” or “linear equations” on the SAT, we’re really talking about y = mx + b. If you can master how the SAT tests the uses of this particular equation, you’ll have the tools to answer 19 of the questions. That’s one third of the Math test!

Perhaps this is old news to you, but if you need a refresh: y is the dependent variable (or output); x is the independent variable (or input); m is the slope (or rate of change); b is the y-intercept (or what you get for y when you plug in 0 for x). 

student working on math problem

But it’s not as simple as just memorizing the equation. There are specific things the SAT will expect you to be able to do, and understanding the elements of this equation is only the starting point. Below is a specific set of tasks the SAT will set for you, roughly in order of difficulty:

  1. Matching a graph of a line to its equation (and vice-versa)
  2. Finding the slope of a line. 
  3. Finding the midpoint of a line. 
  4. Modeling a real-world situation with a linear equation. 
  5. Solving for one variable in a linear equation when given the other elements. 
  6. Finding the equations of parallel and perpendicular lines. 
  7. Modeling a real-world situation with an inequality. 
  8. Graphing an inequality. 
  9. Solving systems of linear equations and inequalities. 
  10. Graphing systems of linear equations and inequalities. 
  11. Graphing and solving equations with absolute values. 

Here's an example of a classic type of linear function problem that typically shows up on every SAT test:

SAT Math question from test #6

No student should go in to take the SAT without a complete mastery of the linear equations and y = mx + b. Fortunately, there are lots of resources to help you get that mastery. Students can do independent practice on Khan Academy or using the College Board’s official practice tests. For expert guidance on SAT Math concepts, students can work with one of our experienced Ivy-League tutors.


Non-Linear Algebra

The questions in this category test your ability to work with the equations and graphs of quadratics, exponents, and radicals (or roots). Nearly a third of questions belong in this category, but this category covers a far wider range of topics than the previous one.

Still, the core of this section is the quadratic equation. All quadratic equations can (and usually should) be written in the form ax^2 + bx + c = 0. You need to know this equation inside and out: what’s a? What’s b? What’s c? Here’s specifically what the SAT will ask you to do with Quadratics:

  1. Matching a graph of a parabola to its equation (and vice versa).
  2. Factoring/solving quadratics.

    • Factoring normally.
    • Factoring differences of perfect squares.
    • Factoring with the Quadratic Formula.
    • Factoring by grouping.
    • Factoring by completing the square (specifically for the equation of a circle)*. 

  3. Finding the vertex (also known as the minimum/maximum value) from a quadratic equation. 
  4. Solving systems of equations that include at least one quadratic equation. 
  5. Polynomial division of a quadratic.*
  6. Using the discriminant to solve a quadratic equation.*

* Something worth noting: there are a number of questions on the SAT Math that you can reliably expect to see exactly once per test. These tend to be difficult if you’re not expecting them. These are marked with an asterisk (*).

Here's an example of a more abstract question involving a quadratic equation and the graph of a parabola:

SAT Math question from test #6

And here's a more challenging problem involving a discriminant:

SAT Math question from test #6
SAT Math question from test #6

But that’s just the quadratic stuff! You’ll also be expected to work with radical and exponential equations. Specifically, you need to understand:

  1. Exponential equations

    • Modeling exponential growth/decay from a word problem. 

    • Graphing exponential equations. 
    • Solving exponential equations. 
    • Exponent rules. 

  2. Radical equations

    • Graphing radical equations. 
    • Solving radical equations (and avoiding extraneous solutions). 
    • Simplifying radicals.
    • Rationalizing a denominator that contains a root (or imaginary number).*

  3. Manipulating polynomials.

    • Finding common denominators for rational expressions. 
    • FOIL-ing. 
    • Simplifying. 

Here's an example of a real exponent problem from a past SAT:

SAT Math question from test #6

We've worked with thousands of students to prepare for the SAT, and we've found that students are often a bit rusty with exponential operations. Fortunately, a little bit of targeted practice can iron out any confusions!

There are a lot of concepts tested here, but by reviewing past tests and other resources, you can learn exactly what to expect. As with the previous section, you want to make sure you have a strong grasp on each of these concepts before going in to take the test. If any of these concepts feel a bit shaky, our test prep experts can help. 

Feeling confident about these advanced algebra topics? Try out 20 of the toughest SAT Math questions ever with our Hardest SAT Math Questions Quiz.


Data Analysis and Problem Solving

This subset of math questions tests your ability to perform specific operations that aren’t necessarily linked to linear or non-linear equations. A key element of this section is understanding probabilities and some basic statistical measures

You’ll be tested on your ability to: 

  1. Perform unit conversions.
  2. Create and solve equations with ratios and proportions. 
  3. Perform percentage calculations.

    • Finding percent change given two values. 
    • Finding the original value when given the final value and the percent change. 
    • Finding final value when given the original value and the percent change. 

  4. Understand and find basic measures of center:

    • Finding Mode.
    • Finding Range.
    • Finding Median.

      • They will often ask whether the mean or median of a particular data set will be more affected by an outlier. 

    • Finding Mean/Average (this is the most heavily tested).

      • Solving Mixture problems.
      • Solving equations that include a mean/average.

    • Understanding standard deviation.

      • This one sneaks up on people! You won’t be expected to calculate standard deviation, but you will be expected to know what it is, and which of two number sets has a higher/lower standard deviation. 

  5. Calculate probabilities

    • Finding the probability of a particular outcome. 

  6. Understand graphs and tables

    • Finding a line of best fit. 
    • Scatter-plots
    • Bar graphs
    • Histograms 
    • Stem-and-leaf plots
    • Box-and-whisker plots

  7. Understand basics of experimental design

    • Understand sampling bias. 
    • Understand what makes a study reliable. 

There are a lot of concepts here, but a couple worth paying extra attention to. Many, many students struggle at first with percentages and ratios. These can be highly unintuitive, and you’ll benefit from doing a comprehensive review of these concepts. 

The statistical concepts don’t usually require much math or calculation on your part. But you do need to understand each of these concepts thoroughly to answer the questions presented. If you can’t immediately think of how to quickly compare median and mean for a data set, or if you aren’t sure what a histogram looks like, it’s probably time to study up or reach out to a tutor.

SAT math answer key

Here's an example of a common type of question asking students to find the mean of a small data set, and then use that to solve a short algebra problem:

SAT Math question from test #6

Geometry

About 10% of the questions on the SAT will test your knowledge of geometric figures, mostly triangles and circles. Though lots of students stress out over geometry, there’s actually a fairly limited number of concepts you need to master to succeed on these questions. 

Here’s what you’ll have to know:

  1. Triangles

    • Solving right triangles with the Pythagorean theorem
    • Solving for Sin/Cos/Tan in right triangles
    • Solving similar triangles (they always ask about these!)
    • Using special right triangles (30-60-90 and 45-45-90)
    • Solving for area of a triangle
    • Using triangle properties to solve for an angle or side

      • Interior angles sum to 180
      • The biggest angle is always opposite the longest side, etc. 
      • Any two sides of a triangle must sum to be greater than the third

  2. Circles

    • Using the equation of a circle to solve for center or radius*
    • Finding area and circumference
    • Converting between radians and degrees
    • Solving for the angle measure/arc length/area of a slice of a circle*

  3. Miscellaneous Geometry

    • Solving for the area and perimeter of rectangles and squares
    • Solving for the area of other polygons (this can always be done by cutting up the polygon into rectangles and triangles). 
    • Solving for missing angles in transversals
    • Finding the interior angle measure of any regular polygon (hint: there’s an equation!)
    • Solving for the volume of regular shapes (the equations will be given)
    • Comparing the areas/volumes of shapes

Here's an example of a classic geometry problem implementing similar triangles and the Pythagorean Theorem:

SAT Math question from test #6

Ready for a challenge? Try some more advanced geometry problems on our Hardest SAT Math Questions Quiz.


Foundational Math Skills (and i)

In addition to asking you to do all of the things outlined above, the SAT also checks your knowledge of foundational math skills. These are basically baked into the rest of the problems, and you likely do some or all of these things without thinking about them:

  1. Order of operations
  2. Simplifying expressions
  3. Finding common denominators to combine fractions
  4. Isolating variables
  5. Understanding i and imaginary numbers

    • This gets tested every time: do you know what i represents? Do you know what to do when it’s in the denominator?

math chalkboard


Next Steps

If you’ve read through this list carefully, you now know just about everything the SAT will ask you to do.

Our SAT experts have guided thousands of students through studying for the SAT in the most effective way, focusing on the types of questions that, when mastered, will improve scores the most. We've shared some of those insights here.

Now, it’s time to make sure you can handle these math concepts yourself! We recommend Khan Academy for math review. If you feel like an expert, test your skills with our popular quiz featuring the 20 hardest SAT Math questions ever found on real SAT tests.

If some of those questions stump you, or if some of the concepts listed above aren’t crystal clear, there’s nothing better than an experienced one-on-one tutor to help you master the SAT Math. Our Ivy-League tutors will make sure that you know exactly how to prepare for the SAT most efficiently and effectively. Our co-founder, Kevin, also offers a limited number of small-group SAT MasterClasses that help students to reach their full potential on the SAT.

To reserve a spot in a SAT MasterClass or start one-on-one SAT tutoring today, set up a quick free consultation with our team.

In the meantime, happy prepping!

Download our quiz with 20 of the hardest SAT Math problems

Bonus Material: Download our quiz with 20 of the hardest SAT Math problems ever


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Bonus Material: Download our quiz with the Hardest SAT Math Questions from real SAT tests