Are My PSAT Scores Good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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