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For many students, the PSAT is the least of their concerns. With so many major milestones occurring throughout their high school careers – getting a drivers’ license, the SAT and ACT, tryouts for school sports and plays, AP classes etc. – there’s not much extra brain space to worry about what basically counts as a pre-test, right? Or is the PSAT more important than students think?
What is the PSAT?
When we talk about the PSAT, we’re actually talking about two separate (extremely similar) tests created by the College Board: the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (or PSAT/NMSQT) and the PSAT 10. Both have a score range of 320-1520 and contain three sections* on Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. The tests are the same in terms of subject matter and difficulty but have two main differences:
- Grade taken: The PSAT/NMSQT can be taken students’ sophomore and/or junior year during the fall. The PSAT 10 is taken by sophomores in the spring.
- Scholarship qualifying potential: The PSAT/NMSQT acts as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program and gives students an opportunity for their scores to be shared with additional scholarship programs. The PSAT 10 does not qualify students for any scholarships.
The PSAT/NMSQT is the most relevant in students’ college plans, so we will primarily focus on that test.
Note: The College Board also offers the PSAT 8/9, which is intended for students in eighth and ninth grades to help familiarize them with the style of later exams. This exam has no direct impact on students’ college endeavors.
A bit of history
The origins of the PSAT (which was created much later than the SAT) are tied closely with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), which was founded in 1955 and is a privately funded, not-for-profit organization that gives scholarships to high-achieving students through its National Merit Scholarship Program. The Program initially used a test called the Scholarship Qualifying Test to identify students for recognition and awards, but when the PSAT was developed by the College Board in 1959, the Program began using the PSAT as the screening test.
Currently, the PSAT, in addition to being a reduced version of the SAT, remains the qualifying test to identify a large group of students who achieve top scores and may go on to be recognized as National Merit Scholarship Finalists and receive $2,500 each in aid. (Fun fact: past Finalists include Mae Jemison and Elena Kagan.)
Knowing that, let’s look closer at the two functions of the PSAT/NMSQT.
Function 1: Serve as a preparatory test for the SAT
Similar to the SAT, the PSAT/NMSQT tests on subjects that students are learning in school and gives students practice working through the questions in a testing environment. Although the PSAT/NMSQT is slightly shorter than the SAT (2 hours and 45 minutes vs 3 hours), students get hands-on experience in how the SAT will proceed and what to expect. Students’ Score Reports can also help them identify which subjects they should spend more time reviewing before taking the SAT. Additionally, the Score Report recommends AP classes that may fit the students’ strengths.
Function 2: Qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship Program
The PSAT/NMSQT is unique in that it is the only way the National Merit Scholarship Program screens students for scholarships. There are critics of this practice, but for now, this method remains the norm. It is important to note that although students’ PSAT/NMSQT scores are considered for scholarships, the scores are never sent to colleges as part of the application process.
Is the PSAT/NMSQT mandatory?
The PSAT/NMSQT is not mandatory (on a national level) nor required for admission to college. Some high schools and counties require or strongly encourage students to take the PSAT/NMSQT at least once, and some schools provide the test during school hours.
If schools do not have the resources to provide the PSAT/NMSQT to all students for free, they can apply for fee waivers for the test’s $18 fee on behalf of their juniors who need them.
How many times should students take the PSAT/NMSQT?
We recommend that students take the PSAT/NMSQT as many times as is financially and mentally feasible. Taking the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of both the sophomore and junior year will provide good experience for the SAT and a sophomore “practice” test before the junior year score is submitted to the National Merit Scholarship Program. Scores for the PSAT/NMSQT are reported online in December after the test is taken.
Students who are looking for the most practice for the SAT could take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of their sophomore year, the PSAT 10 the following spring, and the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of their junior year. This schedule provides students enough of a feel for the real thing that they need not waste taking (and paying for) the real SAT until they are fully prepared.
Is the PSAT/NMSQT easier or harder than the SAT? How should students study for it?
The College Board states that the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT “measure the same knowledge and skills and ask the same types of questions,” so the difficulty level shouldn’t be very different. The SAT does include a few more high-difficulty questions than the PSAT/NMSQT, since the SAT is mostly taken by juniors and seniors. Both tests are challenging, and students may feel rushed to answer all of the questions if they have not taken self-timed practice tests.
Since the SAT and PSAT/NMSQT are reasoning tests instead of knowledge recall tests, students should focus on working through sample problems and taking practice tests instead of studying content. Because the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT are so similar, taking an SAT prep class is a great way to get the highest PSAT/NMSQT score possible.
How do students sign up for the PSAT/NMSQT if their high school doesn’t require or provide it?
Although students can register for the SAT online, they must register for the PSAT/NMSQT through their school. High school guidance counselors have the most information about how to register.
Bottom line: should students be thinking about and preparing for the PSAT/NMSQT?
For most students, particularly those who will need financial assistance for college, preparing for the PSAT/NMSQT is a good idea. Practice problems found on the College Board website, an SAT prep class, reading new and challenging articles, and reviewing old math skills are all great ways to prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT.
Although the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT are pre-tests for the SAT, taking them seriously will give students vital information to use in preparation for the SAT and answer questions like:
- Which sections* seemed the most challenging and need more review?
- Did I finish any sections early, meaning they may have felt more familiar?
- Was my reading speed sufficient to try each of the Reading questions?
- Did any unfamiliar topics come up in the Writing and Language questions?
- What math skills need to be brushed up on from the Math questions?
The best time to start preparing for the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT is right now! Register for an SAT prep class with The Answer Class to identify which sections of the test need a little extra review.
*The SAT refers to its three parts as “tests,” but “sections” is used in this blog for clarity.