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PSAT: What is it and why is it important?

Most people have at least heard of the PSAT, but many don’t know exactly what it is. Is it just a practice SAT? Do colleges look at PSAT scores? Why does the PSAT 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 is important to take it as seriously as the SAT.

The PSAT and SAT are similar tests published by the College Board that are designed to assess a student’s ability to think critically. Many think of the PSAT as a “baby” SAT, which is actually quite an accurate description. The main differences are:

  1. Long. The SAT consists of ten sections and lasts almost four hours (3 hr 45 min); The PSAT has five sections and lasts a little over two hours (2 h 10 min).
  2. happy. Both tests assess the same subject areas: writing, critical reading, and mathematics, but the writing section of the PSAT does not include an essay portion and the mathematics section of the PSAT does not cover Algebra 2 concepts.
  3. Punctuation. The maximum achievable score on the SAT is 2400 and each subject area is worth 800 points. The maximum score on the PSAT is 240, and each subject area is worth 80 points.
  4. Test dates. The SAT is offered seven times a year; the PSAT is offered once a year, generally in the third week of October. However, there may be more than one test date within that week.
  5. Meaning. Both exams are important stepping stones on the path to college admission. Most people are already very familiar with the direct role that the SAT plays in the college application process, but fewer clearly understand the importance of the PSAT. Many put the PSAT aside, thinking, “it’s just a practice SAT” or “it doesn’t really count for college” – enormous error:

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 2,500 students in the United States each year, the National Merit Scholarship is a great honor that can also expand a student’s educational opportunities. Even simply being named a National Merit Scholar finalist or semi-finalist can be advantageous to a student. Many schools actively reach out to these students through special programs and scholarships not only because it is an indicator of a student’s academic prowess, but also because those schools can benefit in the rankings if students choose to attend.

“But a lot of people get perfect scores on the PSAT, so how can my child compete even if they qualify?” you might ask. A high PSAT score is just a qualification requirement – the proverbial foot in the door. A true scholar of national merit should have a full set of accomplishments, extracurricular activities, and other qualities to propel him the rest of the way.

PSAT barometry
Although only juniors can qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, students can also take the PSAT as sophomores. Taking it as a sophomore (or even earlier, if mom insists), offers two advantages:

  1. Since the SAT and the PSAT are so similar, it is 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 identify weaknesses, gauge how much preparation is needed, and decide when to begin preparing for the SAT. And since both tests are written by the same people, if a student finds that he or she simply does not answer the College Board questions well, then there is still plenty of time to start researching the ACT.
  2. It is important to note that students only have one chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Unlike the SAT, if a student performs poorly on the PSAT, this is it. There is no second chance. It is a good idea for students to take the exam as sophomores to see how close their scores are to the cutoff and, again, decide on a test prep action plan.

Two tests, one stone
The SAT and PSAT are 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 kills both Goliaths on standardized tests 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 miss 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 complete it before it passes and disappears in the storm.

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