The PSAT: Way More Than a “Practice” Test
Many students and parents alike assume that the ‘P’ in PSAT stands for “practice.” In reality, though, the PSAT is far more than simply a practice round for the SAT. In this post, we’ll discuss what the PSAT is, when you should take it, and which prestigious opportunities are available for students who score well.
To learn more about the PSAT and why it shouldn’t be thought of as simply a practice test, keep reading.
What Is the PSAT?
The PSAT is a standardized test overseen by the College Board, the same company that oversees the SAT and AP exams. The PSAT is similar to the SAT, and the P in its name used to refer to “Preliminary SAT.” Now the test is simply known as the PSAT, with the acronym no longer used officially by the College Board.
In 2015, the PSAT was redesigned to emphasize real-world skills and knowledge. It still tests reasoning skills but focuses on topics such as the modern job market, studies on the workplace, and emerging fields. The test is administered over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and is divided into three sections: Evidence-Based Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. Each section has roughly 45 questions. A calculator is allowed on most, but not all, of the Math section.
The highest score you can receive on the PSAT is a 1520, as opposed to the SAT’s 1600. To read more about how the PSAT is scored, and how your scores might correlate to the SAT, check out the CollegeVine article, “Are PSAT Scores Related to SAT Scores?”
There are three versions of the PSAT available. The PSAT 8/9 is for eighth and ninth graders. The PSAT-10 is taken by tenth graders. Both of these tests can be taken multiple times, and many test dates are available. In 11th grade, students may finally take the PSAT/NMSQT, referred to simply as the PSAT or the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.
The PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship
Perhaps the most important reason for taking the PSAT is that your score may qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship. Each year there are approximately 1.6 million high school juniors who take the PSAT. These students are automatically entered into the National Merit Scholarship Program and the top three percent, about 50,000 students, will qualify for recognition by this program.
Two-thirds of the recognized students receive Letters of Commendation. Commended Students do not advance in the program, but may choose to include this honor on their college application. A Letter of Commendation basically serves as recognition of high achievement on a standardized test.
The remaining third of the high scorers then become National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists. This determination is based on how their scores rank within their state, not on the national level.
Here is a quick breakdown of cutoff scores by state. You will notice that these scores are based on the Selection Index out of X rather than students’ scaled scores out of 1520. The Selection Index is calculated by doubling a student’s three section scores, each out of 38, then adding them together. The maximum possible section score is 228.
|State||Selection Index Cutoff Scores|
It is harder to become a Semifinalist if you come from a high-scoring state, since the average scores are higher. In high-scoring states, you must perform exceptionally well in order to stand out.
Semifinalists are invited to submit a complete scholarship application including grades, SAT scores, and other important documentation of their academic and leadership skills. This includes materials similar to a college application, such as an essay and letters of recommendation. Of the approximately 16,000 Semifinalists, 15,000 will go on to become Finalists.
About 7,500 Winners will then be selected based on grades, test scores, written recommendations, and the submitted essay. These $2,500 one-time scholarships are need-blind, but they are not the only awards available.
Corporate Sponsorship and College Awards
Even students who do not go on to become National Merit Scholars may receive sponsorship from the college they attend or a company that wishes to encourage them. These awards range from a few thousand dollars to full ride scholarships, complete with living and travel stipends.
Corporate sponsorship awards are granted to high-scoring children of company employees, residents of communities where that company operates, or scholars with career plans the sponsor wishes to encourage. Some corporate sponsored awards are single-time payments and others are renewable for up to four years.
College sponsored awards are for Finalists who have been accepted for admission and have informed NMSC that the sponsor college or university is their first choice. These awards are generally renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study.
There are currently around 420 independent sponsors of Merit Scholarships. A list of corporate organizations that sponsor National Merit Scholarships or Special Scholarships is available in the PSAT Student Guide.
Additionally, some schools will automatically grant full rides and acceptance to honors programs if a high schooler is a National Merit Semifinalist. This could save your family hundreds of thousands of dollars when it comes to college tuition!
How to Prepare for the PSAT
Given the huge advantage students gain by scoring well on the PSAT, it pays to practice. If you are not yet in 11th grade, the best way to start preparing is to sign up for an official PSAT 8/9 or PSAT 10 in January–April. Taking a proctored practice test will closely simulate test day conditions and give you a good sense of how you would score on the PSAT/NMQST if you took it today.
When you receive your score report, read it carefully to discover your strengths and weaknesses. Moving forward, make sure your practice targets your weaknesses. For example, if you performed well on Mathematics in general but struggled with questions that require knowledge of Algebra, brush up on that subject instead of doing general PSAT prep.
If you want to get started right away, carve out three hours to take a PSAT practice test at home. Afterwards, self-grade your response using the answer key so you know where you stand. You also can download the College Board’s Daily Practice App to get used to thinking like a test-taker.
The most effective preparation strategy is the one students often neglect—pay attention in school. All the core subjects you are learning in class will be assessed on the PSAT. It’s the same material, just formatted differently. If you want to hit two birds with one stone, be a diligent student to score well on the PSAT and qualify for awards and scholarship dollars.
The PSAT is the first exposure that many students have to the CollegeBoard’s standardized testing, but its importance goes much further. The PSAT is also important for its role in scholarships and in formal recognition for high-achieving students. Without it, you are not eligible for many scholarships that use these scores are part of the qualifying process.
Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.
To learn more about the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship Program, don’t miss these top CollegeVine posts:
Want more SAT tips sent to you?
Sign up below and we'll send you expert SAT tips and guides.