Most people have at least heard of the PSAT, but many don’t really know exactly what it is. Is it just a practice SAT? Do colleges look at PSAT scores? Why does the PSAT even matter, if at all? How is the PSAT related to the SAT? The purpose of this article is to shed some light on what the PSAT is, how it differs from the SAT, and why it’s important to take it just as seriously as the SAT.
The PSAT and SAT are similar exams published by the College Board that are designed to test a student’s ability to think critically. Many think of the PSAT as a “baby” SAT, which is actually a fairly accurate description. The main differences are:
Length. The SAT consists of ten sections and is almost four hours long (3 hr 45 min); the PSAT has five sections and is slightly over two hours long (2 hr 10 min).
Content. Both exams test the same subject areas: writing, critical reading, and math, but the PSAT writing section does not include an essay portion, and the PSAT math section does not cover Algebra 2 concepts.
Scoring. The maximum achievable score on the SAT is 2400, and each subject area is worth 800 points. The max score on the PSAT is 240, with each subject area worth 80 points. The score range for the SAT and PSAT are roughly equivalent because the exams are so similar.
Test Dates. The SAT is offered seven times a year; the PSAT is offered once a year, usually in the third week of October. There may, however, be more than one test date within that week. (Just in case you miss the PSAT, read this article to find out how to make it up.)
Significance. Both exams are important stepping stones along the college admissions path. Most people are already very familiar with the direct role that the SAT plays in the college application process, but fewer clearly understand the significance of the PSAT. Many push the PSAT to the side, thinking, “it’s just a practice SAT” or “it doesn’t really count for college” — huge mistake:
The National Merit Scholarship
The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualification Test (NMSQT). As the name suggests, students who perform well on the PSAT may qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Awarded to 2500 students across the United States each year, the National Merit Scholarship is a great honor that can also expand a student’s educational opportunities. Even just being named a National Merit Scholar Finalist or Semifinalist can be advantageous to a student. Many schools actively reach out to these students through special programs and scholarships not only because it’s an indicator of a student’s academic prowess, but also because those schools stand to benefit in rankings if students choose to attend. “But lots of people get perfect scores on the PSAT, so how can my son/daughter compete even if he/she qualifies?” you might ask. A strong PSAT score is just a qualification requirement — the proverbial foot in the door. A true National Merit Scholar has to have a well-rounded body of accomplishments, extracurricular activities, and other qualities to propel him or herself the rest of the way through.
Even though only juniors can qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, students can take the PSAT as sophomores as well. Taking it as a sophomore (or even earlier, if mom insists), affords two advantages:
Since the SAT and PSAT are so similar, it’s reasonable to say that a student’s performance on the PSAT indicates how well they will do on the SAT. Taking the PSAT early will help students and parents pinpoint weaknesses, gauge how much preparation is needed, and decide when to start preparing for the SAT. And since both tests are written by the same people, if a student finds that he or she just doesn’t respond well to the College Board’s questions, then there’s still plenty of time to begin looking into the ACT instead.
It’s important to keep in mind that students only have one chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Unlike the SAT, if a student performs poorly on the PSAT — that’s it. There is no second chance. It’s a good idea for students to take the test as sophomores to see how close their scores are to the cutoff and, again, decide on a test prep plan of action.
Two Tests, One Stone
The SAT and PSAT are both extremely important tests in slightly different ways. Fortunately for students and parents, the two are very similar. A student who is prepared for the PSAT will also be prepared for the SAT. Prepare early; practice consistently; and slay both Goliaths of standardized testing with ease. Even if a student plans to take the ACT, test preparation has many principles that apply to any test, at any age, at any time.
It’s easy to overlook the PSAT in the hurricane of information surrounding the college admissions process, so be sure to keep an eye out for this small but extremely important test and nail it down before it blows by and disappears into the storm.