We often hear from parents who are interested in having their students prepped for the PSAT in their sophomore or junior year. In most cases, we recommend against preparing specifically for the PSAT. However, there is a pretty compelling reason that you may want to do so.
The Purpose of the PSAT
The PSAT is designed to give juniors and, increasingly, sophomores and freshmen practice on the types of skills that are tested on the SAT. The PSAT is 5 test sections completed in 2 hours and 10 minutes versus the SAT which is 10 test sections completed in 3 hours and 45 minutes. Aside from the length, the only major differences between the two tests are that the SAT includes a 25 minute essay and the PSAT does not, there is less of an emphasis on Algebra II level math on the PSAT, and the PSAT is reported on a selection index scale of 60-240 versus the SAT score range of 600-2400. Most importantly, the PSAT is not used for admissions purposes.
For the average student the PSAT is a great tool for highlighting areas on which a student needs to focus in preparation for the SAT come junior and senior year. For the top echelon of students, the National Merit Scholarship Program can provide a huge leg up in college admissions and financial aid.
The National Merit Scholarship Program
Each year approximately 1.5 million juniors take the PSAT and enter the National Merit Scholarship Program competition. The top 50,000 students as ranked by their overall selection indices are recognized as either Commended Students (34,000) or as Semifinalists (16,000). A selection index of 200-205 is typically required to achieve Commended Student status. The 16,000 Semifinalists continue in the competition and are determined proportionately by state. The score cutoffs for Semifinalist status vary year to year, but in 2012, the cutoffs were 219 in Maryland and 217 in Virginia. Nearly 95% of Semifinalists are then named National Merit Finalists (15,000), provided that they meet certain academic requirements, attain a qualifying SAT score, and complete an application in order to become a Finalist. From the pool of finalists, approximately 8,200 students are awarded scholarships from National Merit Scholarship Corporation or sponsoring colleges or corporations.
The $2,500 award that many National Merit scholars receive will certainly help with paying for college, but with the cost of tuition these days, that amount is a small relief when considering the big picture. $2,500 and the ability to say you’re a National Merit Scholar are probably enough to motivate many students to prepare for the PSAT; however, what many people do not consider are the later financial ramifications of achieving National Merit status.
Why You May Want to Prep for the PSAT
In order to attract the brightest minds to their schools, many colleges offer National Merit scholars huge incentives to attend their institutions. An increasing number are even offering FULL RIDES. That’s right. National Merit scholar status could equal a full ride to college. If that’s not a compelling reason to prepare for the PSAT, I don’t know what is.
As you likely noticed from the outline of how the National Merit competition works, the odds are stacked against you. Only 1% of juniors will achieve National Merit status. If, realistically, you know your student doesn’t stand a strong chance of being in the top 1%, then the PSAT is better used as a tool for figuring out a plan for preparing for the SAT, not as a test to spend hours and hours preparing for at the sacrifice of academics in hopes of getting great sums of financial aid.
To reiterate the financial picture – the combination of a National Merit Scholarship, corporate scholarships, college scholarships, and college grants can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. But the PSAT tests critical reasoning skills that are gained over a lifetime and the blunt truth is that, for the average student, the amount of time he would have to spend preparing for the SAT in hopes of being in the 99th percentile is staggering. Therefore, for the average student we do not typically recommend preparing specifically for the PSAT. We do, however, recommend beginning informal preparation for the SAT as soon as possible. There’s a lot riding on SAT scores and it’s never too early to be doing something to prepare.