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Don’t Skip the PSAT on Your Way to a Top-Tier College

While high school upperclassmen are focused on the SAT, underclassmen should be concentrating on the Preliminary Standardized Aptitude Test (PSAT). The “P” in “PSAT” may give the impression that the PSAT is merely a preliminary SAT, that is, a practice exam. But the PSAT is more important than that for several reasons, as described below. Most notably, the PSAT can qualify you for a full or partial scholarship to a highly selective public college or university in your state.

  • The PSAT is essential to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. This is a prestigious award that requires that a student score well on the PSAT as the first step in the process. Less than 1% of the students who take the PSAT go on to become National Merit Scholars, so this honor is a positive distinction on any college application, including the Ivy League and other elite institutions. To become a finalist, other factors like the student’s academic record and letters of recommendation from educators must also be considered, but it all starts with the PSAT.
  • Prep classes and study guides are helpful, but a good way to anticipate the high-stress experience of the SAT is to take the PSAT. To underscore this point, the College Board, the organization that produces and administers the PSAT and SAT, has found that students who take the PSAT score an average of 145 points better on the SAT than students who do not take it.
  • The PSAT provides an opportunity to assess your chances of admission to elite institutions early enough in your high school career to be able to adjust your plans for the remainder of high school. Ivy League competition is so fierce that every available aptitude metric is considered. Unfortunately, many students overestimate their viability in the competitive cauldron of admission to ultra-selective schools. You don’t want to discover late in the admissions process that your SAT scores are too low for your target schools. The PSAT will help you to avoid this predicament by showing you two or more years in advance how you rank against your future competitors.

There are significant differences between the PSAT and the SAT.  Colleges evaluate submitted SAT (or ACT) scores but don’t weigh PSAT scores among their decision criteria. Although top test-takers qualify for National Merit Scholarship award recognition, which is a strong attribute for an applicant, top colleges won’t be impressed unless high SAT scores are also submitted.

The formats of the PSAT and SAT differ. The PSAT is substantially shorter. The PSAT writing section doesn’t include an essay. It contains only error recognition and grammar questions in multiple-choice form. In math, the PSAT does not include higher-level questions because underclassmen may not yet have been exposed to advanced math subjects. The fact that the PSAT contains no difficult, high-level math questions makes it less predictive of math skills than the SAT.

The College Board has recently changed the scoring methodology for the PSAT. These changes, and their significance to you, will be a future topic on this blog.

Your SAT score is not “final” until you run out of opportunities to retake it. The test measures knowledge and skills. Both can be coached, and students can raise an early, unsatisfactory SAT score by 200 points or more through hard work, especially with the help of the feedback that they receive from the College Board regarding their wrong answers on previous tests and outside tutoring.

IvySelect is a college admissions consulting firm for students who aspire to attend top-tier, highly selective and very selective institutions. We recommend that students take the PSAT to get used to the test, not later than sophomore year. We also advise some students to consider the advantages of taking the SAT for the first time perhaps as early as the spring semester of sophomore year or the fall of junior year.

In summary, the PSAT is a valid way to assess how an underclassman performs in standardized testing compared to others with whom he or she will be competing for acceptance at top-tier schools. The results are indispensable as indicators of those areas that need to be improved. For those who score highly on the test and become National Merit Scholars, this can contribute an edge in the admissions decisions of elite institutions or can help to secure scholarship awards for in-state colleges and universities.