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When the PSATs Matter and When They Don’t

Most high schoolers will take the PSAT for the first time in October of sophomore year. For many students, it might seem like there is a lack of information surrounding this test.  What is the PSAT? Does my score count? Should I study? 

As the name suggests, the PSAT is just a “preliminary SAT.”  The PSAT you take as a sophomore is called the PSAT10. As a junior, you’ll take the PSAT/NMSQT.  While these tests differ slightly in their nomenclature, their structure and scoring are exactly the same.  

The PSAT10

Colleges will not see your PSAT10 scores, and sophomores should treat the test largely as a trial run.  Your score will show you your strengths and weaknesses, insight that will be helpful once you begin seriously prepping for the SAT or ACT as a junior.  And, while colleges will never see your PSAT10 score, scoring highly might put you on the radar for certain scholarship opportunities, so you should definitely try your best.  

The PSAT/NMSQT

The PSAT you take junior year, the PSAT/NMSQT, might matter, depending on the student. The top 50,000 scorers nationwide have a shot at qualifying for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship Program.   From that 50,000, the top 1% of scorers in each state will move on to the “semifinalist” round. All other students retain “commended” status. Many students at elite colleges possess either distinction. 

Semi-finalist students undergo a rigorous interview process. Approximately one-third of semifinalists become finalists, who qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, a $2,500 scholarship for college.  While the scholarship amount might not look impressive, making it to the Finalist round is an extraordinary achievement and is treated as such by college admissions offices. 

What does that mean for you?

Well, for most students— literally 99%— the PSAT/NMSQT is a trial run that will have no bearing on college admissions at all.  Still, students should take the PSAT seriously. It’s a good wake-up call about your foundational reading, grammar, and math abilities.  And getting this feedback early means you can holistically address your weaknesses instead of waiting until it’s too late. Read more about interpreting your score here.

Students who have a shot at NMSQT should prepare the summer before the junior year by utilizing concept review on our skill-building app SmartyPrep and completing practice tests beforehand.   We work with many students who have a shot at qualifying each summer (between sophomore and junior year). Learn more about working with a tutor here. 

But, how do I know if I have a shot?

While the qualifying scores vary a bit each year, comparing your PSAT10 to past years’ data is your best bet.  Last year, students needed to score a 212 to be in the top 50,000 scorers. To become semifinalists, Maryland students needed a 222. You can take a look at last year’s Maryland semifinalists here.

In short, the PSATs are no reason to fret.  The worst case scenario is that you realize your score needs significant improvement early on, leaving plenty of time to start test prep and work on your foundational skills.  The best case scenario is qualifying for a prestigious scholarship!

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