Many people remain unsure if the PSAT is important and fail to seek expert guidance, or simply assume it doesn’t matter.
You’re ahead of the game in seeking out the truth.
So let’s get straight to it: YES! The PSAT is important for high school students.
The following article will help you leverage this misunderstood, underutilized resource by unpacking:
- What the PSAT/NMSQT program is (myth-busting hint: the “P” in PSAT does NOT stand for “practice”!)
- Ways to turn your PSAT score into thousands of dollars
- Benefits of the PSAT beyond cash for college
- When the PSAT matters most and how high school students in each grade can advantageously use it
- How to get professional guidance to achieve your best possible score
You can start with this free PSAT Workshop for strategies, structure, subjects, and leveraging your score into scholarship money.
Whether you watch the video or read this article - or both - don’t let the PSAT become a colossal missed opportunity for you!
What Is The PSAT/NMSQT?
Most people assume PSAT is a “practice” SAT, but it’s not.
It is great practice - but it’s more than that. It’s the fundamental first step in your college admissions process.
PSAT/NMSQT stands for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.
Some other PSAT essential quick facts:
- Offered once a year, so don’t forget to register for it
- Administered at high schools by high school staff
- Two main subject sections:
- Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
- Mostly multiple choice (maybe some “grid-in” math questions; aka, where you supply the answer rather than choose one)
- Total score out of 1520 (not 1600 like the SAT)
- Graded on a curve against your peers on a state-by-state basis
When Do You Take The PSAT?
Generally, the test is offered on a Wednesday in October and it’s designed primarily for students in their junior year of high school. However, high school students of ALL ages and grade levels can sign up for it.
But if you’re seeking to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program, only your junior year score counts toward it.
SPecial Note for Homeschooling Families:
Unlike the SAT, which any student can sign up for via the College Board website and take on any of the seven national SAT dates, the PSAT is administered via the high schools themselves.
Homeschooling families must petition local public schools to have their students take the exam at a school they do not attend. Contact the school administrator to sign up for a spot. You may be required to pay a nominal fee.
What Is The National Merit Scholarship Program?
When you take the PSAT in October of your junior year, the National Merit Scholarship Program offers this recognition to US students with the best scores out of the roughly 1.2 million entrants yearly:
- Commendation (34,000 students nationwide)
- Semi-Finalist (16,000 students nationwide)
- Finalist (15,000 students nationwide)
Commendations and semi-finalists are usually the top 98th percentile in your state.
While this might feel impossible or intimidating, remember three things:
- Standardized tests aren’t really about how smart you are or how well you’ll do in college (though that’s what test-makers say). Like baseball or basketball, you must know the rules to win. Increase your chances by studying and preparing with tools like The Insiders Guide To The ACT & SAT.
- Even if you aren’t a finalist, there are other financial awards available from corporate sponsors or the colleges for high scores.
- Your PSAT scores are not shared with any colleges so there is nothing to be lost by trying. On the other hand, if you earn a commendation you can note that on your college applications to help gain admission to your top school choices.
In order to actually win any of the thousands of National Merit Scholarship dollars, semi-finalists need to follow up the PSAT score with a similar score on either the SAT or the ACT and submit an application with an essay.
Get inspired with the list of schools (on page 19) offering National Merit Scholarships or check out these examples:
- Full tuition for 4 years
- $4,000 per semester for books, supplies, and other expenses
- $1,500 per semester for on-campus housing
- One-time study abroad stipend up to $6,000
- Admission into Collegium V Honors program
- Tuition for up to 5 years or 10 semesters
- On-campus housing for 4 years
- $3,500 per year undergraduate bonus
- A one-time $2,000 for summer research or international study
- $500 per year for books for 4 years
The University of Alabama also offers $28,000 a year to National Merit semi-finalists.
On a curved exam like the PSAT, the fact that most students underestimate the exam works to the informed test taker’s advantage. A bit of prep and being clear about your objectives can make all the difference.
The PSAT can also qualify you for the College Board National Recognition Programs
Here they are:
- National African American Recognition Program
- National Hispanic Recognition Program
- National Indigenous Recognition Program
- National Rural and Small Town Recognition Program
To qualify, you’ll need to score in the top 10% in your state.
Good AP scores also help.
Examples of these additional scholarships:
- Boston University’s National Recognition scholarship program puts you in the running to compete for $25000 at Boston University.
- Northern Arizona University offers National Hispanic Scholars a full tuition scholarship.
More Benefits Of Taking The PSAT Seriously
Understanding how to make the most of the PSAT can mean:
- Less stress and effort later.
Get ahead of the game for the SAT and ACT. PSAT tips and tricks apply to them too.
- Saving time.
Know whether the ACT or SAT is a better fit for you and focus your efforts there.
- Determining where you are in your learning journey.
Your PSAT score is not a judgment of your intelligence or capabilities, but it can be a wake-up call about good areas to work on.
If possible, take an SAT or ACT immediately after your PSAT while your testing knowledge is still fresh.
If you’re curious about what your PSAT score might say about how well you’ll do on the SAT, this PSAT to SAT Conversion chart can give you an idea.
For comparing SAT scores to ACT scores, use this worksheet from ACT, Inc.
Are PSAT Scores Important For Freshmen or Eighth-Graders?
Think of this simply as a fact-finding mission. Don't put pressure on yourself because only you will see the scores.
Familiarize yourself with the PSAT's section order and timing. If possible, carve out an hour or two to tackle a few PSAT 8/9 practice questions.
Antsy for even more guidance? Here are my top 3 tips to help freshmen and sophomores prepare for the ACT & SAT.
Are PSAT Scores Important For Sophomores?
The seriousness increases, but the scores still don’t count. Depending on your school, sophomore year may be your first opportunity to try the PSAT.
If your school offers it, definitely take it.
Though the stakes don’t matter yet, the best thing you can do is treat the test like it’s important. The more you practice facing an exam as though something is on the line, the better you will perform when the pressure is real in your junior year.
Learn some of the sneaky test makers’ traps with this free Insider's Guide to the ACT & SAT. It has 35 secret strategies for devising a PSAT game that will give you an edge and ensure your very best work on test day.
Are PSAT Scores Important For Juniors?
Yep. This is the PSAT that can impact your scholarship awards. Whether it will or not depends on your testing ability and score goals.
But please don’t let that burden you.
Yes, there are thousands of dollars that all students can earn from their ACT & SAT, but the range of PSAT scores leading to financial gain is comparatively restrictive.
It’s ok if you don’t qualify for recognition-based awards.
There are many ways to turn test scores into cash for college - even if you’re not a testing superstar.
In fact, the Higher Scores ACT prep and SAT prep courses both include a free bonus workshop that’s helped students of all ability levels earn four-, five-. and six figures in merit aid and scholarships.
Recommendations For All Juniors:
- Get your free copy of the Insider's Guide to the ACT & SAT.
- Immediately after taking the PSAT, watch this ACT vs SAT video and consider which exam may fit you best.
- Once you've decided which test to take, decide on the best time to test using the guidance below.
Below are PSAT prep recommendations based on your typical testing performance, to help you maximize your PSAT returns without amping up stress or creating work for students who likely won't see returns from those efforts.
IMPORTANT: This is not a judgment of you.
We all only have so many hours in the day. Don’t waste precious time that could be better spent elsewhere (including prepping for the ACT or prepping for the SAT, which can get you even further than the PSAT).
If you generally score lower than the 80th percentile on standardized exams…
- Invest 1 hour in familiarizing yourself with the structure and timing of the PSAT/NMSQT.
- Invest 2-4 hours across 2 sittings to complete practice questions or, ideally, 1 timed practice section of each type.
- Review your results and missed questions.
If you generally score higher than the 80th percentile on standardized exams…
- For professionally guided prep (recommended), consider registering for either my ACT Complete Package course or SAT Complete Package course - both include a free bonus PSAT Quick Prep course. With access to the program for 12 months, you can take advantage of the PSAT prep immediately and then prepare for the larger exam whenever it suits you. Win-win!
- For self-guided prep:
- invest 1 hour in familiarizing yourself with the structure and timing of the PSAT/NMSQT.
- Invest 6-8 hours across 3-4 sittings to complete practice questions and, ideally, 1 timed practice section of each type.
- Review missed questions and problematic academic concepts you encountered. Then take 1 full-length, timed PSAT. Review this test in full before test day.
Additional PSAT Info
Fun fact: Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was a National Merit Finalist. So were Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
In the news: The SATs and PSATs are moving to a digital format in the next few years, but don’t worry about it yet. The PSAT will be in its new digital format starting in the fall of 2023.
For more details, check out the new digital PSAT and SAT info.
Other questions? Reach out to the Higher Scores Team here.