Understanding the PSAT
The PSAT is a big focus of many students’ sophomore and junior years.
Freshmen can take it as well.
Some families use it to help their student prepare for the SAT, but it is much more than a practice test.
According to The Princeton Review, “more than 3.4 million high school students (mostly juniors and sophomores) take this nationwide, multiple-choice test every year.”
So, 3.4 million high schoolers and their parents must know the potential value of the exam, right?
You can only take the test once per year, but you can take it in multiple years.
Here’s what you need to know to understand the PSAT.
What is the PSAT/NMSQT?
The latter part of the full name of the PSAT, National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, indicates that it’s far more valuable than being just a trial run for the SAT.
While many families do use it so their child can see how the SAT will feel in real testing conditions, there’s also a very valuable scholarship opportunity involved as well.
Many of the students who take the PSAT are hoping they will do well enough to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.
There are three parts to the PSAT: evidence-based reading, writing and language, and math. The PSAT score range, different from that of the SAT score range, is from 320 to 1520, and there’s no penalty if your student guesses and gets the wrong answer.
Half of the PSAT score range (760 points) comes from the math section and the other half from the reading and writing sections.
A “good score” on the PSAT puts your student in the 75th percentile, or better than 75% of test takers in their grade.
A very good score is in the 95th percentile, and of course an excellent score is in the 99th percentile.
Why Take the PSAT?
There are various reasons to take the PSAT, but in reality, three reasons are the most prominent.
First and foremost, it will give your student a taste of what they can expect on the regular SAT their senior year.
It is shorter than the SAT but the math, reading, and writing questions are very similar.
The PSAT score can be translated into an expected SAT score, which can help you predict how your student will stack up against others in the freshmen class at a targeted college.
Secondly, many parents are eager for their student to win the scholarships that are available through the PSAT.
The biggest and most noteworthy is the National Merit Scholarship.
Getting an excellent score will generally qualify you to move forward with the National Merit application process.
Finally, doing well on the PSAT can help schools notice your student even before the application process begins.
Your student may be invited for campus visits with small perks like a free meal during the visit, or they may be able to apply to specific schools without paying an application fee.
When is the PSAT?
The PSAT can be taken once a year, generally from 9th – 11th grade.
The 9th-grade score can give your student a baseline for studying, and the 10th-grade score can let you know if your student should prepare for a Merit application in 11th grade or simply get ready for the SAT.
The PSAT 8/9 can be taken during the fall or spring of a student’s 8th or 9th-grade year.
It doesn’t have questions that are as advanced as the PSAT 10 or the PSAT/NMSQT taken in the junior year.
The PSAT 10 is for sophomores and has the same content as the 11th-grade version.
However, scores on the PSAT 10 cannot be used for consideration for the National Merit Scholarship.
This exam is taken during the spring of the sophomore year.
The PSAT/NMSQT is the 11th-grade exam and is taken in October of the 11th-grade year.
The score on this exam can be used as part of a National Merit Scholarship application if it qualifies.
The National Merit cutoff varies from state to state, but generally must be in the top 1%.
The score is converted into a Selection Index number, which is used by each state to determine who will be a National Merit Semifinalist.
Preparing for the PSAT
There are a number of paid and free options for preparing for the PSAT.
You can use a PSAT study guide, online tools, and more.
Students approach the test very differently.
There are some who don’t prepare at all, and others put in a lot of work before the test.
It depends on your student’s natural testing ability and the goals you have for the exam.
We asked the members of our Paying for College 101 Facebook group for some insight about their PSAT prep experience.
Multiple parents expressed regret that their student missed the National Merit cutoff by only a few points due to lack of preparing for the exam.
“Re PSAT/NMF – A friend told me that her daughter had just barely missed NMF because she did no test prep whatsoever and she advised me to pay for prep….”
“Our experience – my niece missed the cutoff by mere points several years ago. They did not know to prep for test. My older brother advised me to have my kids prep for it as they are strong test takers.
Oldest took PSAT for practice in 10th grade and was in the 97% with a 1350. He did a self-study and then an online Kaplan PSAT course the summer and fall before 11th grade PSAT. He ended up focusing on official practice PSAT tests (free) and studying on his own at the end. That was when he saw a big jump in scores. He ended up with an 11th grade PSAT score of 1480 and an SI of 221. His later ACT and SAT scores were also in the 99+percentile range.
Assuming DS is definitely moving forward, this is a game changer for our family. While he will throw his hat in the ring for scholarships at two non-NMF schools, he also knows he now has an almost free ride to a complete free ride at several schools that he would be very happy to attend. This means his college fund can move over to finish his much younger sibling’s college fund.
Main takeaway – NMF is a long shot for even the best students (especially in states with high cutoffs) but it is worth it to prep and try to make it. The studying does not go to waste and will help with later testing. High stat students do not need expensive prep programs as they really already have the content down. But taking multiple free official practice tests will help them fine tune their knowledge of the material and familiarize themselves with the format.
If you are chasing merit, the payoff is huge!”
A good strategy is to use the PSAT 10 to determine whether your student has a chance to meet the National Merit cutoff.
If they do, preparing for the 11th-grade test is a great way to ensure they have the best shot at being a National Merit Finalist.
Even if they don’t make it, the preparation will not be for nought – it will be a big help when they take the official SAT as juniors or seniors.
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