The PSAT: What is it? What isn’t it?


Confused students and parents nationwide are asking these questions this time of year.  When a possibly important test is known only as an acronym, that’s usually enough to engender fear and a propensity to propagate misinformation.  If you’re not sure what the PSAT is, read on!

First, the acronym PSAT used to mean “Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test,” but now, like the SAT, the letters don’t actually stand for anything!  All you need to know is that the “P” really means practice, so the PSAT is really just a practice SAT for the majority of students.

The PSAT is administered only once a year in October.  Students may take the test on either a Wednesday or a Saturday (the date is chosen by your student’s high school).  The PSAT is usually administered to sophomore and juniors, but occasionally a freshman may opt to take it.  The test format is very similar to the SAT, but there are fewer questions and no essay.  However, the PSAT is the closest thing out there to the real SAT and it’s a great way to practice under formal test conditions.

For most students the PSAT should be a largely stress free endeavor.  It’s just a practice test, and colleges won’t use your scores as part of the admissions process. You can skip the PSAT altogether and still apply to colleges, so opting out isn’t a huge problem.  Students don’t really need to prepare for it, other than looking over the student guide they received from their counselors when registering for the test.   Don’t worry; just go in and do your best.  The final score report will be helpful when it arrives in planning your future preparation for the SAT.  If a student’s score is lower than he/she hoped, that’s incentive to put in the time before taking the real thing.

But for a few juniors, the PSAT means something.  The junior year PSAT also serves as the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship competition.  National Merit recognition is very difficult to achieve – only about 3% of test takers earn National Merit Commended status.  Actually winning a National Merit Scholarship is even more challenging, with fewer than 1% of test takers receiving them.  For students who earned high scores (over 650 on each of the three sections) on their sophomore year PSAT, preparing for the junior year PSAT may be worthwhile.  As noted above, if you’re not in this group, don’t spend time preparing for the PSAT.

A final advantage of taking the PSAT is receiving emails from schools who admit students in your score range.  When you take the test, you can choose to provide your email address; I recommend a new account solely for your college related correspondence.  Schools who are interested in you can then contact you by email.  It’s a great way to get a lot of information from colleges that want students like you!

A final note – the term PSAT is often incorrectly used to describe any practice SAT, which could be given by a test prep company, school or tutor.  Remember that the PSAT is given only once a year in October, so any other mock SAT you take is just that, a practice SAT.

Go into the PSAT with a relaxed mindset and just do your best.  Remember for most students, the test doesn’t “count.”  Learn from the experience so you can go into the SAT prepared.  Good luck!

Jenn Cohen is the is the owner of Jenn Cohen Tutoring. She has 15 years of experience as an SAT/ACT tutor, specializing in ADHD students. 

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