The PSAT is worth your student’s time
Most parents of college-bound students know the SAT is important. But fewer may be aware of how significant the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) can be for a student’s future admissions chances and scholarship prospects.
Many students who take the PSAT do little to prepare, since the test is not officially a factor in admissions decisions the way the SAT or ACT is. Many think of it simply as practice for the SAT. That’s the way I regarded it when my daughter took the PSAT in the fall of her junior year along with more than 3.8 million other students.
Until she got her score back, we hadn’t paid close attention to one of the best reasons to take the PSAT. Turns out she did very well and may be a contender for National Merit Scholarship semifinalist status as a result.
If you’re not familiar with the PSAT and its relationship to National Merit Scholarships, it could pay — possibly a lot — to learn more. And there are other good reasons for your student to take the PSAT.
Why take the PSAT?
Administered by the College Board and co-sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, the PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is a 2-hour and 45-minute multiple-choice test with three sections: reading, writing and language, and math. The fall 2015 PSAT has been revised to mirror the upcoming redesigned SAT that will debut in March 2016.
A precursor to the SAT in content and format, the PSAT offers students a number of advantages:
• It provides valuable standardized test practice and prepares students for the SAT, which its format is closely aligned with
• It helps students and their advisors identify areas of strength and weakness, so students can better study for future tests
• It can reveal aptitudes that may indicate your student is suited for AP coursework in certain areas
• It is the official entry portal into the National Merit Scholarship Program
When should your student take the PSAT?
The PSAT/NMSQT is offered on two dates annually in October to 10th and 11th grade students. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT is administered by individual high schools rather than test centers. To register, students must contact their guidance counselor, as online registration is not offered.
The PSAT 10 test is also available to sophomores in the spring, but it does not qualify a student to enter the running for National Merit Scholarships — that opportunity is strictly for juniors in the fall.
It may be worthwhile for your student to take the PSAT in 10th grade, however, as practice for the test the following year. Should you wish your student to get an even earlier jump-start, the PSAT 8/9 is designed for 8th and 9th graders to establish a baseline for college readiness as students enter high school. The PSAT 8/9 is offered in the fall and spring — check with your student’s school or district office for dates.
The College Board makes a practice PSAT test with answers available online. Numerous PSAT study guides and practice test collections are also available from your local bookstore or Amazon.
What is the path to a National Merit Scholarship?
Achieving a National Merit Scholarship is an impressive honor. And it can be a ticket to major scholarship money, including full tuition (and often living stipends) at more than 50 colleges nationwide.
These coveted awards aren’t easy to come by. Among all 11th graders who take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year — almost 1.6 million students in 2014 — just 1 percent will be named National Merit Semifinalists, the elite pool from which an even smaller cadre of finalists will be chosen.
The first cut comes the spring after the test date when the top 3 percent — approximately 50,000 students — qualify for recognition based on their high PSAT scores. These top performers are attractive to admissions officers, a fact readily evident after my daughter attained this status and our mailbox was flooded with application invitations from a host of top-tier colleges that track scores.
But we’ll have to wait until September to find out if she will move forward: only those students in the top 99th percentile in each state become National Merit Semifinalists. The remainder receive Letters of Commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which are a nice addition to an application regardless.
Note, too, that your student’s chances of becoming a semifinalist will depend on which state you live in: in states like Massachusetts and California where PSAT scores trend high, students will have to perform better than their peers in states such as Arkansas or South Dakota, where a lower score will boost them into the top echelon. (See 2014 semifinalist qualifying scores by state here.)
Among the 16,000 or so who become National Merit Semifinalists, about half will ultimately win scholarships. They must first complete the National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes high school records, teacher recommendations and a personal essay. The student must also submit SAT scores. Finalists may receive a $2,500 scholarship from the National Merit Corporation or other substantial awards provided by many colleges and universities that wish to attract these top achievers.
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