For many students, receiving PSAT scores marks the “official start” of the college process. If your student is a sophomore that’s great, as I always suggest starting the college process during the student’s sophomore year. If your student is a junior, know that it’s not too late, but now is the time!
Make Plans for Taking the ACT or SAT
Here are some steps you can take to make the most of the time you have available no matter what year your student is in, regarding standardized testing.
Junior Year In High School
NOW is the time to start the college process if your student is a junior. Receiving the PSAT results can give you a good idea of the competitiveness of colleges your student should consider visiting. Of course the student’s GPA is also a critical component but the standardized test score will provide you with the types of colleges you can and should consider (not including test optional schools, a full list of test optional schools can be found at www.fairtest.org).
Before we get into more detail regarding what the PSAT scores mean, I’d like to share a couple of things that come from my 15 years of experience working with college-bound students.
1. If you are like most families your student didn’t prepare for their PSAT, which is fine. Therefore, whatever score they received will hopefully and most likely not be their best score.
Whether your student buys a book and studies on his/her own, uses one of the many online test prep services (free or paid) or works with a tutor and/test prep company, the added effort and work will most likely yield a higher result when they actually take the ACT or SAT for real. Also, this additional preparation should help their schoolwork, especially in math.
There are other factors that may apply and impact your student’s results, such as test anxiety and the student’s physical health at the time of the test. A common cold can impact the student’s ability to focus as they normally would on test day. Outside of those things you can typically expect a 10 to 100 point increase from the PSAT to the ACT/SAT on the Math and English sections, depending on the student.
2. With that said, I wouldn’t suggest banking on those increases when considering colleges to visit until the improvement is seen and experienced. Adding more selective colleges to the student’s list after their scores increase is often much easier than going in the opposite direction.
3. When it comes to the math sections of standardized tests, Algebra 2 is often a key driver. If at the time of testing, your student has already completed an Algebra 2 course, they should have the math skills necessary to optimize their math results. If the student hasn’t completed Algebra 2, the more they do to complete prior to testing, the better their results are likely to be.
4. Please don’t forget the ACT test option. Many students take the PSAT and proceed assuming they will take the SAT in the future, without knowing if that is even the right test for them.
If you haven’t already, now that you have the PSAT results, have your student take a full ‘practice’ ACT test either on their own or at a testing/tutoring center so you can compare the results, timing differences between the tests and the content assessed.
Knowing what test is best for them will help them focus on that testing style to maximize results. Doing so will also help you be efficient monetarily (if you are investing in tutoring or online prep). It will also help with your student’s time, so they are not spending time preparing for a test that is not best for them.
Nowadays, all colleges will take either the ACT or SAT equally when it comes to admission consideration and in my opinion there is no reason to take both.
Sophomore Year in High School
If your student is a sophomore in high school, the same guidance stated above (Numbers 1-4) still applies. However, I typically suggest you wait until the end of their school year, May/June time frame, for them to take a practice SAT and ACT.
At that time you can compare results, decide which test is best, and create a standardized testing plan for their junior year and see if there is potential for National Merit consideration.
In either scenario, the score should give you some idea of where to focus relative to college visits and future applications.
How To Understand PSAT Scores
Scores get reported in percentiles and are typically listed with the raw score. This may give you some indication of how well your student performed; however, the numbers are national and may be skewed higher or lower depending on the geographic area you are in or even the high school your student attends. This may require some additional research on your part for clarification.
It is important to check various data sources to see the ranges that are listed for the colleges you are considering. These sources include the specific college website, Collegeboard.org, Naviance or various books with listed standardized test score ranges for each college.
Also remember that having scores “in the range” listed regardless of the source doesn’t guarantee that the student is a good match for that college. I usually advise my clients that they want to be in the top 75th percentile of the published range to determine if the school is a solid potential match for admission.
Of course there are many other factors for acceptance that can be discussed another time such as the application strategy you chose (Early Decision, Early Action, etc.) and the major the student chooses for each specific college, to share a few.
However this is a general gauge to ensure you are not spending time considering colleges that may be a significant reach for admission and also may be a financial reach since your student’s test scores may not place them at the higher end of the admission pool (and therefore money grants/scholarships may not apply).
What’s A Good PSAT Score?
When it comes to the raw score meaning the number(s) you see on their score sheet, the question most people ask is… “What is a good score?” Well, the answer is, it depends. It depends on the academic ability of the student and the colleges they are considering.
To be clear there are great colleges for every student at every GPA and standardized test score level.
Please know that I feel strongly, and have seen firsthand over the years, that test scores and the specific name or brand recognition of the college the student attends is no guarantee of future academic or career success. Success can be had at any school by any student! It is what they make of it.
That said, in general, once a student gets a 1200 or greater on the SAT (out of a maximum score of 1600 and regardless of the individual Math or English score), or a 26 or greater on the ACT (composite score out of a maximum of 36 regardless of the individual English, Reading, Math and Science scores) students will have more options and their potential list of colleges will broaden to include additional colleges.
The important thing to know is whether your student is a sophomore or junior, and whether you have or haven’t started your student’s college process, receiving the PSAT scores should be the catalyst to starting the process or using the results to at least start creating a standardized testing plan.
If used efficiently you can save time and money as well as minimize the stress that can sometimes accompany the college application and admission process. This may serve as one of the first steps in making the college process easy or easier. I wish you the best of luck!
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by Russ Vitale, a speaker, independent college admissions counselor, cancer survivor and parent. Russ is the author of College:Making the Complicated Easy, an Amazon best seller and a comprehensive guide to the college application process. He has been an independent college admissions counselor for the past 15 years, helping students and families with athletic recruitment, college list creation, essays, financial aid and student positioning for highly selective admissions. You can contact and follow Russ at Academic Resources, his Facebook page, and Instagram (@thecollegeguy4you). He can be reached at [email protected]