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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How is COVID-19 Impacting the PSAT/NMSQT?

For academically strong high school students, the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is more than a fantastic opportunity to practice for the SATit’s also a chance to become a National Merit Finalist and to compete for a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship. Like so many other aspects of students’ lives in 2020, COVID-19 has changed traditional timelines and processes, including that of the PSAT/NMSQT.


Keep reading to learn about the COVID-19 related changes to the PSAT/NMSQT and get some tips for winning one of these prestigious awards. 


Changes to the National Merit Finalist Selection (Seniors)


Because COVID-19 limited the number of administrations of the SAT and ACT, having taken one of the exams is not required to qualify for Finalist standing in the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program. In the past, SAT or ACT scores were necessary and used to confirm a candidate’s exceptional performance on the PSAT/NMSQT.


Changes to the PSAT/NMSQT (Juniors)


The PSAT/NMSQT is traditionally offered every October and that held true this year as well. This year’s October dates were:


  • Primary test day: Wednesday, October 14, 2020
  • Saturday test day: October 17, 2020
  • Alternate test day: Thursday, October 29, 2020 


The College Board has also added a January PSAT/NMSQT test date in response to the disruption that COVID-19 caused to many schools and testing schedules. This test will take place on Tuesday, January 26, 2021, and scores will be returned in mid-March. Note that students may only take the test once in their junior year to qualify for the National Merit.


The January PSAT/NMSQT has all of the same benefits as its October counterpart, including eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship and other National Merit Scholarship Corporation programs. The January administration also gives schools more options for reducing the number of students taking the exam at one time and makes it easier for them to adhere to local health and social distancing guidelines. 


Along with the new January PSAT/NMSQT date, the College Board has taken additional steps to provide students with the greatest opportunity to take the exam in a safe and healthy environment in the time of COVID-19. Additional steps include:  


  • Allowing schools to stagger arrival and dismissal times to ensure social distancing guidelines are met. 
  • Giving administrators the power to double the length of scheduled breaks so that health and safety guidelines are met and students can access hallways and bathrooms safely. 
  • Eliminating the requirement of submitting an offsite plan for approval when administering the PSAT/NMSQT at multiple locations, making it easier to spread students out. 


The College Board requires schools to follow local public health guideline and supports schools taking safety precautions such as: 


  • Requiring and/or providing PPE like face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer 
  • Spacing test-takers six feet apart 
  • Encouraging regular handwashing 
  • Advising both students and staff to stay home if they are sick

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Tips for Preparing for the PSAT


Only about 16,000 of the highest scorers on the PSAT (top 1%) qualify as semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarships. About 90% of semifinalists become finalists, and 50% of them go on to win a scholarship. If consideration for this valuable award is on your mind, you better prepare for the PSAT. 


Take a Diagnostic Test


Your time is a limited resource—therefore, it’s incredibly valuable to know where/how to allocate it. Taking a diagnostic test is an excellent way to discover where your strengths and weaknesses are, and shows you where to best devote your time and energy. The College Board (the group that administers the PSAT) has two sample tests available for download on their website, along with a scoring key for each test and explanations for the answers. 



The closer you simulate exam day when taking your practice test, the more predictive your results. For example, take your practice PSAT in a quiet place with no distractions and follow the section timing on the test (including the breaks, which are 5 minutes after Reading, and another 5 minutes after Math No-Calculator).   


Section  Time (in minutes) Questions 
Reading 60 47
Writing and Language 35  44
Math No-Calculator 25 17
Math Calculator 45  31


Use the results of your practice PSAT to identify the areas you need to work on the most. For example, if you scored well on math but poorly on reading, carve out extra time in your PSAT preparation to work on grammar and vocabulary. If your answers were right, but your ability to answer all of the questions in the allotted time sunk your score, use your prep time to work on picking up your pace. Conversely, maybe you made careless mistakes and can benefit from slowing down. 


Taking a practice PSAT has the added benefit of familiarizing yourself with the test and its format, which means you’ll know exactly what to expect on the big day.


Target Your Weaknesses, But Practice All Types of Problems


A study plan should focus on your weaknesses but not avoid any part of the test. For example, even if you scored well on the reading section and poorly on the math sections of your diagnostic test, you shouldn’t totally neglect to work on reading comprehension just to crunch numbers. A smart study strategy for the PSAT seeks to strike a balance between drilling the areas that need the most practice and reviewing the concepts that you’re an ace at. Plus, working on strengths provides a great confidence boost after practicing more challenging material. 


Take a Practice Test


Much like a diagnostic test is a great way to find your strengths and weaknesses, a practice test is a fantastic way to judge how your studying is paying off. Similar to the diagnostic test you took, try to simulate conditions as close to test day as possible. In addition to particular section scores, look for other little things that might cost you points, for example: 


  • Are you misunderstanding questions? 
  • Are you rushing your work? 
  • Did you guess a lot? 
  • Did you run out of time in a section? 
  • Did you leave any answer bubbles blank? (Remember that there is no wrong-answer penalty.)


In addition to the two practice PSATs (PSAT 1 and PSAT 2), a quick internet search will reveal a host of great PSAT resources, many of which are available for free. 


Prep for the SAT at the Same Time


Because the PSAT and SAT share the same format—the SAT is 15 minutes longer, contains more challenging questions, and features an essay option—prepping for the SAT is fantastic practice for the PSAT and can make the PSAT feel easier than it otherwise would. Since many students taking the PSAT will go on to take the SAT, this time is particularly well spent. 


One of the big benefits of studying for the SAT simultaneously with your PSAT preparation is the enormous amount of available resources compared to those for the PSAT. For example, check out these two great guides to available SAT resources: 



The College Board has also partnered with Khan Academy (a non-profit educational organization) to offer eight official SAT practice tests and results-based personalized study plans for free. Keep in mind, these are the best prep materials available for the SAT, so save a few practice exams for future use. 


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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.