Is My PSAT 10 Score Good?

Question: I just got my PSAT 10 scores back from this fall and I got a 1270/1520- where does that fall on the scale out of 1600 or even 2400? Would this be considered a "good" score or does it need improvement to apply to selective colleges?

Students often ask “The Dean" if their test scores are “good" for “selective" colleges. And The Dean is always tempted to reply with her usual cop-out answer, “It depends." That's because “selective" means different things to different people. For instance, Stanford University, which accepts only about 5% of all applicants, is certainly a selective college, but so is, say, George Washington University, where about 40% of all applicants get good news. But, of course, median test scores vary from college to college, so in order to determine if your scores are good, it's helpful to have a few target colleges in mind already, even as a sophomore, and look up their median numbers.

Although viewing your current PSAT score (with its 320 to 1520 scale) through a “real SAT" lens (with a 400-1600 score range) does feel like you're making an apples-to-oranges comparison, the scoring system was actually set up so that your current score of 1270 is supposed to be the equivalent of a 1270 on the SAT. Don't ask The Dean (who hasn't had a math class in 47 years) to explain how this actually works. But the general idea is that the PSAT is intended to be easier than the SAT, so the premise behind the lower scale is that a perfect score on this easier test shouldn't be seen as being the same as a perfect SAT score. (As for the 2400 scale, just disregard it because colleges aren't using it anymore.)

So let's say that you do want to go to Stanford. Well, the combined Math and Reading median SAT scores at Stanford are about 1520. If you were to submit your 1270 there, you'd be at the lower end of the applicant pool. Thus, is your current score “good" for Stanford? Not especially. But the key word here is “current." You have plenty of time to improve, if a hyper-competitive place like Stanford is your goal. And at George Washington, the medians add up to about 1365, so your own results comes a lot closer and will most likely go up by the time you take the actual SAT.

Think of it this way: If you're a sophomore on the girls' track team, and your high jump personal best is 5 feet 8 inches, you're not going to win the national championship, but lots of folks will say, “That's good for a 10th grader!" The assumption is that, with a couple years of growth, maturity, and practice, you might indeed hit record-setting heights. Well, similarly, a 1270 now is nothing to sneeze at, but it's probably not your final figure either.

Another way to compare your PSAT 10 scores with SAT's is to go by percentiles. Check out the chart you'll find here:

You'll learn that your combined PSAT score puts you in the 96th percentile. Not too shabby, eh? This means that the vast majority of high school sophomores who took this test did far worse than you did! But a 1270 on the actual SAT drops you down to a percentile in the mid-to-low 80s. That's still commendable, but it will probably put the more competitive colleges out of reach. However, you don't have to spend a bundle of dough on pricey test-prep classes. Increasing your familiarity with the test should help your scores to go up. My son (who took the ACT, not the SAT) used a practice book on his own to prepare. Although he didn't put in nearly the time that I'd suggested (and I had to practically lash him to the dining room table to get him to do it at all!), with a couple hours a week over about four or five weeks, he was ready for the test and only had to take it once.

So, to answer your question without a flaky, “It depends," my response is, “Yes, 1270 is a 'good' score. But if your aim is to be admitted to that handful of picky places that accept fewer than one applicant for every 10 who apply, you'll need to make significant gains ... unless you're a recruited athlete or have some other big-time 'hook'."