You might’ve heard of the SAT, also known as The Scholastic Aptitude Test. The SAT is a standardized test that high schoolers take and send to colleges for their consideration.
But what about the PSAT?
The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test is also a standardized test for college-bound high schoolers. Basically, it’s (1) a practice test for the SAT and (2) the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship.
In this article we’re going to explain what parents need to know about the PSAT: what is it, why it matters and how to turn PSAT scores into an SAT plan.
PSAT Scores for the class of 2020 are out. You can access your scores via the College Board here. Not sure what to do next? This article serves as your roadmap from PSAT scores to an SAT plan, so keep reading!
What is the PSAT?
The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT that high school juniors take on the second Wednesday in October of junior year. It’s also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: colleges look at SAT scores; they don’t look at PSAT scores.
Keep in mind: that the PSAT ranks pretty low on the should-I-freak-out-about-this scale. So if you’re staring at a PSAT score that isn’t so great, don’t worry. It’s just practice! The SAT is what matters.
The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT
Both developed by the College Board organization, the PSAT and SAT test generally the same content: math, reading and writing usually taught throughout freshman and sophomore years of high school. The PSAT and SAT also share the same format and pace; these things make up the “test-taking” element of standardized testing that is often a productive focus of test prep.
This is all to say that simply showing up to take the PSAT is productive. It’s effectively three hours of SAT prep— three hours closer to an SAT score your child can be proud to send off to their future alma mater. Hey, not bad!
The PSAT jumpstarts the SAT prep process; that’s probably the test’s single biggest benefit. The key is to keep this momentum going. We’ll explain how, shortly.
The PSAT is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship
You’ve probably seen the acronym NMSQT alongside the PSAT. It stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. (Throughout this article I use PSAT and PSAT/NMSQT interchangeably.)
To earn a qualifying score for the National Merit Scholarship students typically must score in the top 3 percent of all PSAT/NMSQT test-takers. If you think your child might be in the running, keep reading; we’re about to get into the specifics. If your child didn’t score in the top three percent, don’t worry. There are many more scholarships out there. Go ahead and skip to the next section.
What is the National Merit Scholarship?
Each year thousands of high school students are awarded the National Merit Scholarship, a prestigious merit-based scholarship of around $2,500 that uses PSAT scores as part of its criteria. To participate in the National Merit Scholarship program, students must take the PSAT during junior year and receive a qualifying score.
Here’s what the road to becoming a National Merit Scholar looks like:
Round 1: Pass the initial screen
To qualify for the chance to become s a semifinalist, students must get above a certain score on the PSAT. How will you know if your child got above that score? Check the Selection Index score on your child’s PSAT score report. If there is no asterisk next to their Selection Index score, they have qualified for the next round. About 3% of the 1.6 million PSAT test-takers pass the initial screen.
Round 2: Qualify for program recognition
Fast-forward to the spring of junior year: Students who qualified the initial screen will be notified through their school if they’ve qualified for recognition for the National Merit Scholarship. Students needn’t take any actions before this point. How likely is your child to move onto the next round? About one third of these students qualify for program recognition. However, those whom do not qualify for program recognition are designated Commended Students and receive letters of recommendation sent to their schools from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. That’s a resume booster!
Round 3: Qualify as a semifinalist
In September of senior year, almost a year after the PSAT, about 16,000 students who qualified for program recognition — 1 percent of all test-takers — will be notified through their school that they qualified as a semifinalist. Students needn’t take any action before this point. The National Merit Scholarship will send semifinalists the materials to apply to be a finalist for the National Merit Scholarship through their school.
Round 4: Qualify as a finalist
To qualify as a finalist for the class of 2020, students must do the following (via the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.)
1. [be enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled), progressing normally toward graduation or completion of high school by 2020, and planning to accept admission to college no later than the fall of 2020]
2. be enrolled in the last year of high school and planning to enroll full time in college the following fall, or be enrolled in the first year of college if grades 9 through 12 were completed in three years or less;
3. complete the National Merit Scholarship Application with all information requested, which includes writing an essay;
4. have a record of very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12 and in any college course work taken (the high school must provide a complete record of courses taken and grades earned by the student, as well as information about the school’s curriculum and grading system);
5. be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by the high school principal;
6. take the SAT® or ACT® and earn scores that confirm the PSAT/NMSQT performance that resulted in Semifinalist standing; and
7. provide any other documentation and information that NMSC requests.
Over 90% of semifinalists are awarded finalists, receiving a Certificate of Merit.
Round 5: Become a National Merit Scholar
About half of all semi-finalists will be awarded the National Merit Scholarship based on the merits of their application, and will be notified of this late senior year. If your child earns their way to this distinct group of National Merit Scholars — about .5% of all PSAT test-takers — congratulations. That is a truly prestigious honor, something to be extremely proud of, and a big, bold check mark on their college application.
For more info about the National Merit Scholarship, refer to this FAQ.
More about the PSAT
- High school students are usually registered for the PSAT automatically through their schools. Check with your child’s guidance counselor to see if their school administers the PSAT or by using this search tool.
- If your child is homeschooled, they must make arrangements with their local high school to take the PSAT.
- While the PSAT/NMSQT is administered to juniors, some sophomores also take the PSAT10. The PSAT10 is the same test as the PSAT/NMSQT, but it doesn’t count for the National Merit Scholarship.
- More questions about the PSAT? Check out the PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide.
What’s the SAT, anyway?
Wait wait. Back up. If the whole point of the PSAT is to practice for the SAT, then what’s the SAT and why does it matter?
If that’s what you’re asking, don’t worry. Here’s a basic rundown of the SAT to help put the PSAT in context.
The SAT is a three-hour standardized test widely used in college admissions that tests students based on their high school coursework through freshman and sophomore year. It’s one part of your child’s application, alongside grades, essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations and interviews.
College Admissions Factors:
- Grades/Academic Transcript
- SAT or ACT Scores
- Extracurricular Activities
- Recommendation Letters
The SAT matters for college admissions
Together, your child’s grades and SAT (or ACT) scores significantly impact their chances of getting into the colleges they’ll apply to. While the more subjective factors of the application — essays, extracurricular activities, interviews and recommendation letters — certainly help tell your child’s story to admissions committees, grades and test scores are the big drivers of admissions decisions.
Here’s the good news — and why we get excited about standardized testing here at Testive: the SAT and ACT help students get into college, and it only takes a few months to get a great score.
The differences between the PSAT and the SAT
As I mentioned before, the biggest difference between the SAT and PSAT is that colleges look at SAT scores, not PSAT scores. But the two tests differ in some other important ways, too.
First, juniors typically take the PSAT through their school. Unlike for the SAT, there’s no need to register for the PSAT on your own Second, the SAT is scored out of 1600 points, whereas the PSAT is scored out of 1520. The SAT contains 80 points worth of additional questions at a higher level of difficulty. For this reason, a PSAT score takes is a fairly accurate picture of what your SAT score might be.
|A product of the College Board|
|Tests math, reading and writing concepts typically learned throughout freshman and sophomore years of high school|
|The qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship||Part of the National Merit Scholarship criteria|
|Scores are not sent to colleges, nor are they part of college admissions decisions||Scores are sent to colleges, and are part of college admissions decisions|
|Students are registered through their high schools||Students must register on their own|
|Administered in October of junior year||Administered seven times throughout the year|
|Scored on a scale of 1520 points||Scored on a scale of 1600 points|
How to turn PSAT scores into an SAT plan
The moment PSAT scores come back should jumpstart the SAT prep process in two ways. First, if your child hasn’t started prepping for the SAT, the PSAT marks the beginning of the SAT prep timeline. Second, your child can use PSAT scores to figure out what types of SAT practice questions they need to focus on.
When to take the SAT (and prep for it, too)
When should your child take the SAT, and when should they start doing test prep? Your child can register for any of the seven SAT sittings every year. But you should follow these guidelines to make a test-taking schedule that leads to great scores:
- Don’t wait until the fall of senior year. With most regular college applications due on January 1st, waiting until the fall to take the SAT for the first time leaves students little or no time to take the test a second or third time if needed.
- Allot two to three months before the first test attempt for test prep. Like lifting weights at the gym, getting stronger on the SAT takes consistent work. And two to three months of SAT practice results in a strong performance on test day.
- Plan to take the SAT at least twice. Why? Your child could get a better score the second time (or an even better one the third.)
With these guidelines in mind, here is the most common test-taking timeline that allows juniors to (1) keep their momentum from the PSAT and (2) wrap up test prep before college application season gets in full gear.
- Start prepping in December of junior year
- Target the March SAT
- Take a couple weeks off until scores get back
- Take your state-required test in April (if there is one)*
- Take the May SAT as a back up
- Take the August SAT as a second back up
*Many states require that public school juniors take an SAT or ACT in the spring as a part of their statewide accountability exam. These test scores can also be used for admissions. Find out whether your state requires the SAT, ACT or neither.
What about the ACT?
We’ve been talking a lot about the SAT. But you’ve probably heard about this other test, the ACT.
The SAT and ACT are both college admissions tests. Every US college accepts both and they don’t care which one students submit. Naturally, you might be wondering which test your child should take to get the best score.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is just pick one and stick to it. As the SAT and ACT both broadly cover the same content, students are typically not predetermined to score higher on one or the other. However, since the SAT and ACT are formatted differently, practicing for one doesn’t completely transfer to practicing for the other. For that reason, there is a cost to switching from one test to the other. For students who’ve taken a PSAT, it makes sense to make the most of that three hours of SAT practice by continuing to prep for the SAT.
Use PSAT scores to make an SAT study curriculum
PSAT scores are a preview of how your child would perform on the SAT if they were to take it today.
Their highest-scoring sections show SAT test-taking strengths, and their lowest-scoring sections show their test-taking weaknesses. Here at Testive, we care about the lowest-scoring sections the most because we use them to build an SAT prep curriculum. By focusing practice on weak areas — the areas with the most points on left the board — students will significantly move the needle on their total score.
Identify weak areas on the PSAT score report and start working on them
Testive students take a full-length practice test and enter their scores to Testive Learning Software to receive a breakdown of their areas of weakness. To get a basic idea of where to focus, however, the PSAT score report will do just fine.
First take a look at the Test Scores portion of the PSAT score report. These three sections make up your child’s total PSAT score. The lowest score represents the section they should commit the bulk of their practice time to. This is especially true if your child receives a low score in a subject they typically excel in at school.
For a deeper look at why your child performed the way they did in each section, take a look at the Subscores. A simple way to get started prepping in the right areas? Create a Testive student account for free and answer questions in that area.
Keep in mind that taking the PSAT, SAT and ACT can be a weird, uncomfortable experience. We’re talking about three high-stakes hours answering hundreds of multiple choice questions early on a Saturday morning. Oftentimes, students don’t score so well in the subjects they enjoy the most, and that’s totally normal. Taking tests is a skill like any other: it can be learned with consistent practice. If your child received a low score in a subject they’re quite strong in otherwise, like Griffin, a former Testive student, it’s actually a fantastic opportunity for improvement.