The PSAT (Preliminary SAT) is a two-part exam that is very similar to the SAT. The parts are Evidence Reading and Writing and Math. Not to be taken lightly, the PSAT is generally the first indicator that colleges and universities use for scholarship and placement purposes.
When do I take the test? Most students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year in high school. In addition, some students choose to take it during their sophomore year, which is strongly encouraged as a dry run for the Junior year. However, only scores on the PSAT during your student’s junior year are used to determine National Merit Scholars who qualify for merit-based scholarships distributed throughout the United States.
How do I register? You must sign up for the PSAT at your high school. The PSAT is administered during October of every school year. There is a fee associated with taking the PSAT, but there are fee waiver opportunities for certain students and some schools pay for their students to take the test.
What is the test’s structure? The PSAT consists of one 60-minute Reading section, one 35-minute Writing and Language section, followed by two math sections: one 25-minute without calculator and one 45-minute with calculator. Each section will have a score that will range from 160 to 760. The overall scores will be on a scale from 320 to 1520. The new PSAT will not pair up exactly with the SAT, as the scales are not the same. The SAT will have a scale from 400 to 1600. This indicates a higher level of difficulty on some of the questions.
Should I prepare for the PSAT even though my score does not go to colleges? For most students, the answer is yes! An exceptional performance on the PSAT can lead to recognition and scholarships. The PSAT/NMSQT is the test used to qualify students for National Merit Scholarships. Furthermore, preparing for the PSAT can help identify areas of relative strengths and weaknesses far enough in advance so that a student can take proactive steps to earn higher SAT scores. Also, preparing for the PSAT is essential preparation for the future SAT, which launched March 2016. Taking the SAT early gives students a significant competitive advantage over their peers. Finally, we have found that the best way to maximize test scores is to use a step-up process. By preparing for the PSAT, one takes the first step toward achieving the highest possible SAT scores.
How high must my PSAT scores be to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship? The actual score varies from year to year and from state to state. A good estimate based on the old PSAT for Arizona kids used to be in the range of 215 or above. This would have been the equivalent of being in the top 4% for Arizona. Of the approximately 1.5 million students who take the PSAT annually, about 50,000 (approximately 4%) receive National Merit Scholarship recognition. Of those, approximately 34,000 receive letters of commendation. The other 16,000 become semifinalists. Not surprisingly, most semifinalists become finalists. In fact, about 15,000 students are rewarded. As many as 11,000 students receive financial awards, worth a total of $50 million for undergraduate study. All students who receive such recognition can list this outstanding accomplishment on their college applications. For more information on the National Merit Scholarship process please see our handout here.