The PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) will be offered in high schools around the country in October (check here for specific dates). Sophomores are usually required or are strongly encouraged to take the exam, and juniors have the option to take it. For each group of students, the PSAT is worth considering and taking seriously. Even though college admission offices will not use the scores to assess admissions applications, the PSAT is important and students should familiarize themselves with the test ahead of time. Here’s why:
For sophomores and juniors alike, the PSAT is great prep for the SAT and a diagnostic tool for determining which college entrance test to take (SAT or ACT). If students come out of the PSAT feeling like the test was doable, perhaps they should focus on studying for the SAT. If the test proves too challenging, students might consider the ACT. The PSAT is slightly shorter than the SAT (165 minutes vs. 180 minutes), but the structure and content are the same on both tests. Even though there are slightly fewer questions per section on the PSAT, the amount of time allotted per question is also the same (except for math, where PSAT takers have a few more seconds/question). The main difference between the two tests is the scale (the PSAT is out of 1520 points; the SAT is out of 1600) and the fact that the PSAT does not have an essay (it is optional for SAT test takers).
With the PSAT, students will get a feel for the no-calculator math section, the “great global conversation” passages in the reading section, and the charts and tables in the writing section. You will gain a better sense of which sections present pacing problems, as well as an awareness of math or grammar content that might catch you by surprise. With that knowledge, and score results (released in December), students will be better prepared to decide either to take the SAT or switch tests and prepare for the ACT, since both are accepted at colleges without preference. PSAT scores can also give students insight into how competitive an applicant they are for their college list, which juniors should start creating the 2nd half of the school year.
In addition to exposing students to the content and pacing of the SAT, the practice of taking the PSAT under testing conditions is great conditioning for taking any standardized college admissions test. Part of being a successful test-taker is being able to work at peak capacity for an extended length of time, without getting too nervous or too fatigued. Students are no longer reading books for enjoyment, and studies show this contributes to struggles with intense concentration for long periods of time, as well as having less critical thinking skills. Plus, it is natural to feel nervous about taking a test that carries such weight, as it appears to in college admission chances. As with many things, being successful at taking college admission tests requires practice in order to improve concentration and control anxiety.
Some schools use the PSAT for AP course placement (check with your counseling office if you are unsure). If this the case, you might want to do some preparation between now and next week to ensure the score you will provide to your school represents your best. Download the two, free practice PSATs from the College Board website and devote time this weekend to working through some timed sections. Also, consider using some test strategies. You might consider guessing on the last few difficult math problems to save time for the low-to-mid level questions, if during your practice sections you are unable to answer all questions in the allotted time. If there are specific question types that trip you up, you should go to Khan Academy for tips and practice problems. Perhaps you should practice annotating the reading passages in order to catch as much detail as possible the first read through. In addition to these strategies, you’ll want to check with your school to determine the AP qualifying policy and relevant cut-off scores for your desired classes.
For juniors, the PSAT is used by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) as an initial screen of candidates for the National Merit® Scholarship Program, an academic competition for recognition and scholarships. Recipients and finalists must score in the top one tenth of one percent. The cutoff scores to become eligible for the corporate scholarships and college-sponsored scholarships offered by some colleges and universities varies by year as well as by state (Oregon’s Class of 2018 cutoff was 220). In some cases, these scholarships cover full tuition, in other cases, $2,500. For more information, visit NMSC’s website (or see the FAQ below).
There are many free resources to familiarize yourself with the PSAT test. A few hours of preparation can make the 2-hour and 45-minute test less painful, and perhaps even profitable (by earning a scholarship). Overall, the PSAT is great practice and a great launching point for college planning. Please contact me if you have questions or to see how I might help with your college planning needs.