For many high school students, the PSAT is their first big standardized test. The PSAT is often considered a practice test, but it is technically a preliminary test for the SAT, with one big distinction: Scoring well can get you named as a National Merit Scholar finalist and earn you cash for college. It’s the perfect test to figure out your best strategies for test prep, especially if you’re a sophomore taking it for the first time.
The PSAT has three categories worth 80 points each: reading, writing and math. A perfect score would be 240 Points. The test takes about 2 hours from start to finish. It can be taken freshman and sophomore year as true “practice,” which means your scores are not reported to colleges or saved as a National Merit qualifier. The test is administered only once a year in October on a Wednesday or Saturday (the school’s choice) and does not have to be taken at your home high school. Results are not announced until December of junior year when the student will find out how they ranked versus others in the state.
Unfortunately, most students don’t study or prepare for the test.
Here's why you should study and take the PSAT seriously:
1. It’s a win/win for the student
Taking the test prepares you for the SAT. You can take it freshman and sophomore year and your score doesn’t matter, except to prepare you for the qualifying test.
2. The PSAT opens the door for scholarship opportunities
If you study, you have a good chance of outscoring other students in your state. Outscoring means you open up multiple scholarship opportunities. Why would any student neglect this amazing opportunity?
3. It’s the only way you can qualify for a National Merit Scholarship
In the National Merit® Scholarship Program, three types of Merit Scholarship®awards are offered to finalists: National Merit $2,500 Scholarships, corporate-sponsored merit scholarship awards, and college-sponsored merit scholarship awards. Special scholarships are awarded to outstanding students who are not finalists and meet a corporate sponsor’s criteria. Awarded to 2,500 students across the United States each year, the National Merit Scholarship is a great honor that can also expand a student’s educational opportunities.
By outscoring others in your state, you can become a National Merit Semi-Finalist. In order to do this, you don’t necessarily need to have a perfect score. You have to score as well or better than the state index. By outscoring others in your state, you can become a semi-finalist. Your goal is to beat the state index. For a list of state index scores click here.
4. This qualification is key to major college scholarships and awards
After being chosen as a semi-finalist, there is a 96 percent chance of becoming a finalist. The only students who do not move up to finalist rank are those who do not submit any information about themselves, do not have good grades, do not take the SAT, or fail to score well on the SAT.
When you complete the semi-finalist paperwork, you will indicate the college of your choice. Only one college can be selected, however; be thoughtful when making the selection. Colleges who have money set aside for the finalists will use merit aid to entice you to attend: full tuition, room and board, books and fees, laptops, study abroad and even spending money. They might also offer automatic entrance into the honors college, the best housing and priority registration until graduation.
5. If you qualify, you’ll gain access to the National Achievement Scholarship Program
The NASP is a scholarship program that’s only available to African American high school students and is responsible for 700 scholarships of $2,500 each. Like the National Merit Scholarship, the door is also opened to corporate scholarships. Nearly 5,000 black students are honored each year, and out of those, 3,100 get college referrals as promising candidates. The PSAT also puts African American students on the radar of advisors and recruiters through the National Scholarship Service.
[Need help studying for the PSAT, SAT, or ACT? A tutor or test-prep service can help you!]
6. It’s a “preliminary test” preparing you for the SAT
The proof that taking the PSAT pays off is already out there: the College Board found that last year, students who took the PSAT scored 145 points higher on the SAT than their peers who skipped the test.
7. You need to take it to compete with your classmates
With college competition fierce, you need every advantage when stacking up against your classmates. Your peers may have made it even more important to take the PSAT your junior year, because some of them have already taken it once or even twice by their junior year. The College Board reports over half (56%) of the PSAT-takers in 2011 were sophomores or younger, which on average helps them score 3.5 points higher on each section of the PSAT their junior year.
8. It puts you on a college’s radar
It’s to your advantage as a college-bound student to make it as easy as possible for colleges to get ahold of you. Through a program called the Student Search Service (SSS), the College Board (the group that administers the PSAT and SAT) allows students to share “personal and preferential”information with more than 1,100 colleges and scholarship boards for no cost. The service is opt-in, and you won’t get bombarded by spam mail. The SSS is a great way to hear from colleges you may never have considered. And if you score well on the test, colleges will court you for their student body and offer scholarships.
9. You can take advantage of My College Quickstart
Every student who takes the PSAT gets access to a program called My College Quickstart. It’s a free resource that lets you use your PSAT scores to predict your future SAT score, go over questions you got wrong on the test, see a list of recommended colleges that are a match for your stated degree interest, have a customized SAT study plan created for you, and even view suggested majors and career choices that might be a fit for you.
10. It helps you determine your strengths and weaknesses
Once you’ve used My College Quickstart to review what kinds of questions you missed on the PSAT, you’ll be armed with invaluable knowledge about where to target your studying. We know it’s the real world, and you have only so much time to dedicate to SAT prep, so why waste time studying for a subject you clearly already have down cold?
With all this at stake, it makes sense for you to put a great amount of focus on studying and preparing for the PSAT.