The PSAT: Way More Than a “Practice” Test

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Many students and parents alike assume that the ‘P’ in PSAT stands for “practice.” While this assumption isn’t correct, it’s easy to see why so many students fall into this line of thought. The PSAT is a precursor to the SAT and for many students it does serve as important practice.


In reality, though, the PSAT is far more important than simply a practice round for the SAT. In this post, we’ll discuss what the PSAT is, when you should take it, and why high scores can be beneficial far beyond SAT practice.


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 CollegeBoard.


The PSAT was redesigned in 2015. It still tests reasoning skills, but in keeping with the changes made to the SAT, it now has an increased emphasis on the knowledge and application of skills required in real life. 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 and 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 College Vine article, “Are PSAT Scores Related to SAT Scores?”  


There are two versions of the PSAT available, and students may take the test only once per year. The PSAT-10 is taken by tenth graders during the second semester of 10th grade, while the PSAT is taken by 11th graders during the first semester.


While the PSAT does provide insight into your possible performance on the SAT, it is much more than a practice round.

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The PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship

One important reason to take the PSAT seriously is its use as the only qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. In fact, it is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). 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, or about 50,000 students, will qualify for recognition by this program.


About 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. Though this isn’t a major deal to most college admissions committees, it is a good thing to include if you don’t have many other formal honors to list. 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. As such, it is harder to become a Semifinalist if you come from a high-scoring state, since the average scores are higher and you thus 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.


Other Scholarships Available

National Merit Scholarships are not the only scholarships awarded based on PSAT scores. There are also corporate and college sponsored scholarships. 


Corporate sponsored scholarships generally are awards for children of company employees, for residents of a community where that company operates, or for Finalists 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


It’s also noteworthy that 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!


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.


To learn more about the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship Program, don’t miss these top CollegeVine posts:


Are PSAT Scores Related to SAT Scores?

What Does My PSAT Score Mean?

How to Qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program

National Merit Scholarships Cutoff for 2019

What Is National Merit?


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.