The PSAT: What’s the deal?

Apparently, it’s not enough that there are two major standardized tests for college admission – the SAT and the ACT.  A test called the PSAT is also out there. What on earth is it good for? Do you need to take it? Do colleges see it? And most importantly, why should I spend a perfectly lovely fall day in October sitting in a classroom bubbling in answers with my number 2 pencil?

Essentially, the PSAT (official name Preliminary SAT and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is your first exposure to the grand world of college admissions testing. Ostensibly it is a way to get a practice run of the real thing and a way to qualify for a variety of national and state scholarships. (Pro tip: if you don’t know what “ostensibly” means — look it up — you will likely see it on a standardized exam sometime soon.)

The good news is that the PSAT is very low pressure for most students. When you  first take it sophomore year, there is nothing riding on it. It’s just some information to have in your pocket and a taste of what is coming down the line. When you take it again junior year, the top scorers will have a shot at being recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Program, a nice resume item when applying to any college and an opportunity for scholarships at some institutions. But for those who aren’t in the top 99% of scorers, the PSAT has no direct consequences for college admissions.

So does that mean the PSAT doesn’t matter unless your score is in the top 99%?

While you may not be judged by your PSAT score in your college application, it’s still important. The PSAT’s a test that has the same format, style, and content as the SAT, only slightly shorter (by 15 minutes) and slightly less difficult. So the PSAT is a great opportunity to get comfortable with the SAT.

It’s very helpful to both try during the test and do a little preparation ahead of time. The PSAT score is designed to predict what you would get on the SAT, so putting your best foot forward on the PSAT gives you a head start when deciding if the SAT or the ACT is a better fit. Students receive an actual copy of their test and answer choices near the end of December, so heading into the test with a game plan may help students prepare efficiently for the SAT. Also, you might as well start this potentially intimidating process with the best score you can for your confidence and morale.

How is the PSAT scored?

The PSAT, like the SAT, has four multiple choice sections: Reading, Writing, Math without a Calculator, and Math with a Calculator. You are evaluated by two scores, verbal and math, each out of 760 for a total of 1520. You also get two scores out of 38, one for reading and one for writing. (These are known as “sub scores.”) Then those two numbers are added and multiplied by 10 for the verbal score.

For example, a 32 on reading and a 31 on writing gives 32+31=63 → 63×10→ a verbal score of 630. The SAT has a similar system but the highest score for the verbal and math sections is 800 each for a potential total of 1600. The PSAT is out of fewer points because it doesn’t have the most difficult questions that make the difference between a 760 and an 800 on the SAT.

How high does your score have to be to be recognized by NMSC?

The National Merit Scholarship competition is judged using something called the “Selection Index.” The Selection Index is different from the score. It will be on your score report in December and can also be found by lopping the final zero off both the verbal and math scores, doubling the verbal number and adding it to the math.

So for a student who got a score of 710 verbal, 700 math, the selection index would be (71×2)+70=212. The first level of recognition in the scholarship competition is to be “Commended.” This designation, achieved by about 3% of test takers, is determined by a national Selection Index cutoff, which is 212 for the class of 2019. The next level of recognition is “Semi-finalist,” and the Selection Index number varies for each state and for each year (the number is chosen such that the percent of semi-finalists in that state reflects the percent of high school graduates coming from that state, so the number is higher in more competitive states.) In Connecticut and New York the Selection Index cutoff for juniors in the class of 2018 was 221, and the number for the class of 2019 will likely be the same. To get to 221, a student can get approximately 6 to 8 problems wrong between all the sections. For example, on the Fall 2016 PSAT, students could meet 221 with two wrong on reading, two wrong on writing, and four wrong on math. Or two wrong on reading, four wrong on writing, and two wrong on math. Because the verbal score is doubled in the Selection Index, it is easier to reach the cutoff with a strong verbal score than a strong math score.

So I’m a Semi-finalist — what next?

Over 90% of Semifinalists become Finalists by completing an application process and submitting a confirming SAT score. A confirming SAT score is one for which the Selection Index, calculated the same way as for the PSAT, meets a given number, which is the same for the whole country. That number is generally near the Selection Index to be commended on the PSAT.

Any SAT score taken between fall of sophomore year and December of senior year can be used as a confirming SAT score. Multiple test dates cannot be combined to use a superscore. The in-school SAT that is required in the spring in Connecticut will satisfy this requirement. Once the requirement to move from Semi-finalist to Finalist is met, about half of students who become Finalists will go on to the designation of National Merit Scholar, which means that they will receive scholarships from NMSC, colleges, or corporations. Over $50 million in scholarships is awarded every year, and some colleges give additional tuition breaks to National Merit Scholars. There are even some scholarships given by companies that have their own eligibility requirements and don’t require students to be Finalists. On your application to become a Finalist you will be asked what is your first choice college. If you don’t have a clear first choice you may want to leave this blank because listing a college may limit the scholarship offers you receive from other institutions.

The PSAT is an initiation into an intense period — the final years of high school when you are attempting to put your best foot forward for college admissions. But by giving you an early diagnostic score, the PSAT gives you the chance to pace yourself, and create a study plan, for the more consequential tests to come.


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