What is the PSAT and why it matters!


With the PSAT on the horizon on October 13th (or 16th), many students are struggling to factor this test (yet, another one!) into their college admissions plans and profile. To help students and parents navigate this stressful period we offer you this insight into the role the PSAT plays.

Let’s start with the basics:

  1. The PSAT is a shorter, slightly easier practice SAT
  2. The PSAT is offered in schools to Juniors and many Sophomores (and even some Freshmen)
  3. PSAT scores are not sent to colleges
  4. The PSAT contains the same multiple choice Critical Reading, Math, and Writing questions the SAT does
  5. The PSAT does NOT have the written essay that the SAT does

So for most students, the PSAT is nothing more than a practice test that offers the opportunity to learn what the SAT will look like and how they will perform if they were to take the SAT on that day. Most students should use the PSAT as an opportunity to learn what areas they need improvement in and to understand when and how to begin preparation for the upcoming junior year SAT.

For a few students, the PSAT is a greater opportunity. It’s an opportunity to bolster a college resume. An opportunity to draw the attention of colleges. An opportunity to get on a list with the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, film director M. Night Shyamalan, and astronaut Mae Carol Jemison.

In addition to the non-tangible benefits of accolades and awards, the PSAT offers the more tangible benefit of entry into scholarship contests. The second half of the monster acronym PSAT/NMSQT stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The PSAT is used as a qualifier for several scholarships, the two most prominent being the National Merit Scholarship and the National Achievement Scholarship. Even if a student does not win one of these scholarships, the bragging rights associated with being a National Merit or National Achievement scholar adds another feather in a student’s proverbial cap.

So what does a parent or student do with this information? Plan and prep (the theme of the entire college application process). If a student takes the PSAT as a sophomore and scores in the top 10 – 15%, that student should prepare aggressively for the 11th grade PSAT in hopes of winning one of the scholarships the following year (and potentially finishing with the SAT earlier than all his/her friends). This means that for any student scoring well on the PSAT, college admissions planning begins right after PSAT scores are returned to families in December or January and test preparation probably begins in the summer after sophomore year.

For a different and also very true perspective check out the Fat Envelope blog by our friend Jenn Cohen at www.word-nerd.com

Here are a few links for more information about the PSAT and its scholarships:

  • 2010 Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT – info on the associated scholarships Click here
  • CollegeBoard PSAT information site – general overview from the test-maker. Click here
  • Data on average scores for the 2009 test – find out what the average score is for juniors and sophomores. Click here

Good luck and good learning!

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