Most people have at least heard of the PSAT, but many don't
really know exactly what it is. Is it just a practice SAT? Do
colleges look at PSAT scores? Why does the PSAT even
matter, if at all? How is the PSAT related to the SAT? The
purpose of this article is to shed some light on what the PSAT
is, how it differs from the SAT, and why it's important to take it
just as seriously as the SAT.
Length. The SAT consists of ten sections and is almost four hours
long (3 hr 45 min); the PSAT has five sections and is slightly
over two hours long (2 hr 10 min).
Content. Both exams test the same subject areas: writing, critical
reading, and math, but the PSAT writing section does not
include an essay portion, and the PSAT math section does not
cover Algebra 2 concepts.
Scoring. The maximum achievable score on the SAT is 2400, and
each subject area is worth 800 points. The max score on the
PSAT is 240, with each subject area worth 80 points.
Test Dates. The SAT is offered seven times a year; the PSAT is
offered once a year, usually in the third week of October. There
may, however, be more than one test date within that week.
Significance. Both exams are important stepping stones along the
college admissions path. Most people are already very familiar
with the direct role that the SAT plays in the college application
process, but fewer clearly understand the significance of the
PSAT. Many push the PSAT to the side, thinking, "it's just a
practice SAT" or "it doesn't really count for college" -- huge
The National Merit Scholarship
The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship
Qualification Test (NMSQT). As the name suggests, students
who perform well on the PSAT may qualify for the National
Merit Scholarship. Awarded to 2500 students across the United
States each year, the National Merit Scholarship is a great
honor that can also expand a student's educational
opportunities. Even just being named a National Merit Scholar
Finalist or Semifinalist can be advantageous to a student. Many
schools actively reach out to these students through special
programs and scholarships not only because it's an indicator of
a student's academic prowess, but also because those schools
stand to benefit in rankings if students choose to attend.
Even though only juniors can qualify for the National Merit
Scholarship, students can take the PSAT as sophomores as
well. Taking it as a sophomore (or even earlier, if mom insists),
affords two advantages:
Since the SAT and PSAT are so similar, it's reasonable to say that
a student's performance on the PSAT indicates how well they
will do on the SAT. Taking the PSAT early will help students
and parents pinpoint weaknesses, gauge how much
preparation is needed, and decide when to start preparing for
the SAT. And since both tests are written by the same people, if
a student finds that he or she just doesn't respond well to the
College Board's questions, then there's still plenty of time to
begin looking into the ACT instead.
It's important to keep in mind that students only have one chance
to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Unlike the SAT, if a
student performs poorly on the PSAT -- that's it. There is no
second chance. It's a good idea for students to take the test as
sophomores to see how close their scores are to the cutoff and,
again, decide on a test prep plan of action.
Two Tests, One Stone
The SAT and PSAT are both extremely important tests in slightly
different ways. Fortunately for students and parents, the two
are very similar. A student who is prepared for the PSAT will
also be prepared for the SAT. Prepare early; practice
consistently; and slay both Goliaths of standardized testing with
ease. Even if a student plans to take the ACT, test preparation
has many principles that apply to any test, at any age, at any
It's easy to overlook the PSAT in the hurricane of information
surrounding the college admissions process, so be sure to
keep an eye out for this small but extremely important test and
nail it down before it blows by and disappears into the storm.