Before the SAT – a major milestone in the college application process – many students will take another standardized test: the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT. Like the SAT, the PSAT is produced by the not-for-profit College Board, but students usually take it at their school during their sophomore or junior year.
Because it is a practice test and college admissions offices don't see the scores, explaining its value to high schoolers can be a tough sell. Students should be aware, however, that potential scholarship money is awaiting some of the test's top performers. And for those planning to take the SAT, this practice round can prove a vital training exercise for gaining exposure to the test environment and getting feedback on what improvements to make, experts say.
The PSAT should be seen as the beginning of a student's college journey, not "some random test in 10th and 11th grade,” says Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, which provides free personalized test prep for both the PSAT and SAT.Here are four reasons why experts say PSAT scores matter for students.
Perhaps one of the most tangible benefits of the PSAT is the potential for students to earn scholarship money. The National Merit Scholarship Corp. uses PSAT scores to determine which test-takers will become semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship Program.
Semifinalists, who are competing against other students in their state, must then complete the National Merit Scholarship Program's Online Scholarship Application and meet other requirements to become finalists, including taking the ACT or SAT and earning scores that "confirm" their PSAT score, according to the OSA.
Winners are chosen from the list of finalists by a committee of college admissions officers and are awarded a $2,500 scholarship.
Semifinalists and finalists and are also eligible for college- and corporate-sponsored merit scholarships. They vary in value but can be substantial, and some are renewable.
Texas Tech University, for example, offers a full ride to both in-state and out-of-state National Merit finalists who declare the school as their first choice on the OSA, while Fordham University in New York covers full tuition for selected semi-finalists and finalists.
In order to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program, students must sit for the PSAT as a junior either in lieu of or in addition to testing as a sophomore. The PSAT 10 and the PSAT 8/9 do not qualify students for National Merit-related scholarships.
Students' PSAT scores are a snapshot of where they are academically and can give them an idea if they're on track to be college ready, says Ginger Fay, global director of partnerships of Georgia-based Applerouth Tutoring Services.
“If your score is modest, it signals to you that you’ve got some work to do to be ready for college, and you should do that work," she says. "It’s not meant to signal to you that you’re not college material."
The PSAT is scored similarly to the SAT, with a potential total score range of 320 to 1520. (SAT scores range from 400 to 1600.) The average score is about 920, and a score between 1210 and 1520 would put that student in the top 10% of test-takers, according to the College Board.
Taking the PSAT can help students start making improvements and get a sense of what kind of score to expect on the SAT, says Jolyn Brand, founder of Brand College Consulting.
“It’s a good barometer of where you are,” she says. "So if a kid is performing a lot lower than they expected or might be hoping, at least they can kind of reset their expectations and not apply to Harvard, and can start looking at schools that are reasonable given their SAT range."
Students can link their College Board and Khan Academy accounts to get automatic personalized recommendations based on their PSAT score and complete practice exams that target the specific areas they need improvement in. Because improvements between SAT retakes are often minimal, this practice could help students start with a higher baseline score when they sit for the official SAT, Brand says.
The PSAT takes two hours and 45 minutes – 15 minutes shorter than the SAT – and consists of three tests covering reading, writing and language, and math. The content is almost identical to what students will see on the SAT, although the SAT also contains an essay and the PSAT does not. For many students, the PSAT is their first experience with this type of test and is also a good opportunity to get used to the pressure of completing sections within a specific time frame.
“The timing is so essential,” says Sara Williams, a school counselor at Briggs High School in Columbus, Ohio. “That’s another great part of any practice test. That’s the biggest thing I hear in feedback from students – it gives them that true testing environment feeling.”
For students who suffer from test anxiety or just generally struggle in new environments, the PSAT offers a relatively risk-free opportunity to test those waters.
“The more prep they have, the less surprised they’ll be and the less nervous they’ll feel about what to expect," Brand says.
A high score on the PSAT can provide an additional advantage: confidence.
"If you’re doing well on a practice or the PSAT, hopefully that helps some of the anxiety and it helps your confidence boost so that when you’re taking it the first time for real, you’re sure you’re already going to score in this range because you’ve taken a couple tests," Brand says.
Just as sports teams play exhibition games prior to the regular season or musical casts run dress rehearsals, the PSAT allows students to work out the kinks ahead of time.
Ultimately, a good score on the PSAT does not guarantee a strong score on the SAT, nor does it mean students don't need to study for the SAT, experts say. Likewise, a low score doesn't always forecast poor performance ahead. But students shouldn't underestimate the PSAT's significance, experts say.
“It’s like the ringing of the gong. The race is starting," Fay says. "If you recognize that, you’ll be on track getting everything done when you could or should for on-time applications and enrollment.”
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.