For generations, the SAT has been the test that’s gotten the most attention from high school students and their parents. And with good reason — most colleges still heavily weigh SAT scores in their decision process, and many scholarships are based on a student’s performance on the exam.
While SATs are certainly important, another test doesn’t get quite as much attention, but should. The PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Achievement Test is more than just a “practice” for the major exam. It’s actually a valuable tool for planning for college, and offers students a number of important benefits.
About the PSAT
Before we get into the benefits of the PSAT, it might be helpful to explain a little bit about what students can expect on the test.
Much like the SAT, the PSAT is a standardized test broken into three sections: Reading, writing and language, and math. The test contains 139 questions, and takes 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete. While the scores you receive on the PSAT (which can range from 350-1520) aren’t reported to colleges, you will receive a detailed score report highlighting how you did on each section, as well as the subsections within each subject.
While in the past, the majority of PSAT test takers were high school sophomores, the most current PSATs have several versions designed for specific grade levels from eighth grade through high school juniors. The idea is that by matching PSAT tests to specific grades, students can begin the college preparation process sooner, and focus their efforts on the areas where they need to improve before taking the SAT.
Benefits of the PSAT
Clearly, preparing for the SAT is the most obvious benefit of taking the PSAT. Not only do you identify those subject areas where you might need to do a little more review, you get a feel for the structure of the test, the type of questions you can expect, and some of the strategies you can use to earn your best score.
The PSATs do even more than that, though. By taking the test, you can:
1. Support Your Application to Private High Schools
Many students take the PSATs as a requirement for admission to prestigious high schools. Students who want to attend prep school, Jewish high school, or other private, advanced academies often need to submit evidence of academic achievement and aptitude, and the PSAT is the ideal way to do that.
2. Earn Scholarships
Your score on the PSAT can help qualify you for a scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Earning a high score does not automatically mean that you get money for school, but it does qualify you for the scholarship program. About 16,000 students each year become semi-finalists, and based on their PSAT and SAT scores, grades, essay, and recommendations, they could win a $2,500 scholarship that is renewable all four years of college.
3. Identify the Right College
Again, while your specific PSAT scores aren’t sent to colleges, you can opt to have your basic information (name, address, intended major) sent to colleges when you take the test. When you do, expect to be inundated with mail from colleges both near and far — but that pile of mail could help you locate the perfect school that you never even knew about.
4. Reduce Anxiety
Even the most prepared student can feel anxiety come SAT time. It’s a big deal, and your performance does help determine where you go to college. Taking the PSAT, though, can help reduce some of that anxiety. If you do well on the test, you can go into the SAT confident that you know your stuff and you can nail the exam.
If your PSAT scores aren’t as high as you hoped, you can use your scores as a starting point to prepare — and do better next time. Not to mention, when schools begin recruiting you, and you start to envision your future, that excitement can outweigh any anxiety you might feel about applying to school.
So while it might be easy to underestimate the importance of the PSAT, don’t write is off as just “practice,” and put forth less than all of your effort. By treating the PSAT with the same seriousness you would the SAT, you can get your college search off on the right foot — and maybe even start off with some extra cash for school.