The PSAT is the so-called pretest for the SAT (it is known as the Preliminary SAT). The test is produced by the College Board (the same test maker as the SAT). The PSAT covers critical reading skills, math problem-solving skills, and writing skills just like its older brother, the SAT. The PSAT is typically offered once during the week and once on the weekend in October (this year it is October 16 and October 19). Most often, schools decide which date to administer the test. Unlike the SAT, this test is run by the schools and so all registration processes will run through the high school (either the administration team or the counseling department).
For almost all students, colleges will not see the PSAT scores, so why has it become such a popular test?
National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT)
The PSAT is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Foundation’s scholarship search. This is somewhat of a complicated process. First, students must take the PSAT/NMSQT. Of the 1.5 million students who take the test, roughly 50,000 will earn scores high enough to receive recognition. Students who are at or above their state’s “selection index score” (out of 240) will be notified in September if they have been selected as a Commended Student or a Semifinalist. Of those aforementioned 50,000 students, 34,000 will receive a Letter of Commendation; the other 16,000 or so will become semifinalists.
As a semifinalist, a student must then complete a scholarship application (given to the high school) to continue to be considered for the finalist round. These students must also take an SAT to confirm their PSAT/NMSQT performance. In February, roughly 15,000 of the 16,000 are notified that they have advanced to finalist standing. Then come the scholarships.
8,000 of the finalists will receive a scholarship award – some are awards are sponsored by the Foundation itself ($2,500), others by corporations or colleges themselves.
For more information about the National Merit Scholarship Program, check out the student guide: http://www.nationalmerit.org/student_guide.pdf
Preparation for the SAT
Since the PSAT is based on the material on the SAT, the test is useful in helping students better understand their abilities and weaknesses. This allows them to better focus on what to study for the college admissions exams.
The PSAT is broken down into two 25-minute critical reading sections, two 25-minute math sections, and one 30-minute writing skills section. Obviously this is a lot shorter than the actual SAT. Critical reading still has sentence completions and reading comprehension questions. Math has both multiple-choice and student-produced questions. And writing includes identifying sentence errors and improving sentences and paragraphs questions. There is no essay on the PSAT.
Each section is graded between 20 and 80 (much like the SAT’s 200 to 800 grading system). The Selection Index is the sum of the three section scores, and it is this number that is used for the National Merit Scholarship Program.
While many students do not take the SAT (and opt for the ACT instead), many of them still take the ACT. If a student is scoring very high on practice ACT exams, it is certainly possible that s/he could qualify for National Merit Scholarships. Alternatively, the test could be used as another practice exam. This could be particularly helpful for students with testing anxiety as they get another proctored experience taking a standardized test to help destigmatize the experience.