The PSAT offers a "dress rehearsal" for the SAT and a chance at a National Merit Scholarship. Here's a rundown on taking the PSAT, what your score means, and what to expect after you take it.
The PSAT Is Similar to the SAT
The PSAT assesses knowledge and skills that students have acquired to date in high school. While the PSAT is not an exact replica of the SAT, it serves as an excellent introduction to that test since questions are similar. The test is two hours and ten minutes long and includes three sections: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing Skills.
When to Take the PSAT
Most students take the PSAT in October of their junior year. You may take it earlier, but only the scores you receive on the October PSAT will be considered for the National Merit Scholarship program. If you take it earlier, it will just be practice.
Registration and Cost
Your high school selects one of two available test dates in October. You register for the PSAT at your high school, usually in the preceding spring. The College Board, which produces the test, charges a small registration fee. Your school may charge an additional fee to cover administrative costs (such as paying teachers to work on a Saturday). Fee waivers are available to low-income students. If you think you may qualify for a fee waiver, talk to your counselor or contact the College Board.
Preparing for the PSAT
Preparing for the PSAT should not be too stressful. Remember, your PSAT scores will not be included in your college applications. When you register for the PSAT, your high school will give you an information booklet that includes sample questions from each section of the test. Additional information and sample questions are available from the College Board website.
If you want to invest additional time (and money) preparing, several commercial PSAT test preparation books and courses are available. If you are worried about the PSAT, take it before your junior year so you'll know exactly what skills you will need to work on before you take it again.
Scoring the PSAT
Your PSAT scores are usually available after Thanksgiving. The score report includes three scores, one for each section of the test and each ranging from 20 to 80. Average scores for juniors who took the test in 2012 were about 48 in Critical Reading, 48 in Math, and 46 in Writing Skills, according to the College Board.
The PSAT is not scored the same as the SAT. But you can get an idea of how you would do on the SAT by adding a zero to the end of each of your PSAT scores. For instance, a 52 on the Critical Reading section would translate roughly to a 520 on the same section of the SAT.
Your score report will include feedback about the areas you need to work on to improve your scores. If you don't do as well as you hoped, remember that your PSAT scores are not part of your college admissions application. You have time to work on strengthening your preparation before taking the SAT.
Where Merit Scholarships Come In
If you are one of the 50,000 highest-scoring test takers of the PSAT, you will be considered for National Merit Scholarships. From this group of 50,000, about 16,000 students, representing the top scorers from every state, become semifinalists. If your state has fewer top scorers than other states, your chances of becoming a semifinalist are better.
Semifinalists must keep up their grades in high school, do well on the SAT, write a biographical letter, and submit letters of recommendation. After another elimination round, about 8,000 students receive National Merit Scholarships.
You've Got Mail
When you register for the PSAT you have the option of authorizing the College Board to release some information about you to colleges. Colleges use this information to mail students promotional information. For example, a college may request a list of students who have scores within a certain range or who live in a certain area. The College Board doesn't reveal your individual scores, just some of the personal and school information you provide when you register.
Releasing your information can be a great way to learn about colleges, but you may need a bigger mailbox. If you are an above-average student, you could receive hundreds of pieces of mail from colleges between the time you take the PSAT and your acceptance of an offer of admission!
While earning a National Merit Scholarship would be a substantial accomplishment, it shouldn't be the focus of your PSAT experience. Only a small portion of students earn these scholarships. The greatest benefit of the PSAT is the opportunity to prepare for the SAT, which can figure heavily in your chances for admission to many colleges. The PSAT is one of the first steps you will take on your road to college.