What PSAT scores mean and what you should do about them

Shortly before Winter Break your junior, sophomore or freshman may have received their score report for the PSAT test, which was delivered via the school counselor from the College Board.  You may be wondering what it all means.  Here’s a little summary with some thoughts on next steps, depending on your student’s score.  This resource from a private college consulting company also has some great links your family may find valuable.

First, a reminder about what the PSAT is. The PSAT is two things: It is a practice test for the SAT, which is one of the two major college admissions tests (the other is the ACT). The PSAT is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.  The National Merit organization recognizes top students based on the scores they receive when taking the PSAT test in Grade 11. You can get more information on the PSAT here.

Since the PSAT is a practice test, scores will not be reported to colleges.  So for the vast majority of students PSAT scores are only significant to the extent they help a student determine what they need to study to prepare for the SAT, which will be reported and which will form an important part of college admissions.

There is an exception for the juniors who do really well on the PSAT (the top few percent of junior test-takers in each state). They will receive a commendation for their scores which they can report to colleges, and those in the top one per cent will have a chance to seek recognition as a National Merit Scholar, which can be a source for scholarships and which can help in the college admission process.  While students don’t learn whether their scores qualify them for commendation until just before their senior year, they can get a good idea of whether their score will put them in contention by looking at the qualifying scores from prior years.  Your counselor may have that information or you could google it.  Remember each state has its own qualifying score and they can vary (Idaho’s is roughly in the middle and Washington’s is on the higher end).  If you have a score within the qualifying range for your state and you have a good academic record, you’ll have a very good chance of qualifying as a national merit scholar senior year.

Here is a page from the college board which discusses these and a few other uses for PSAT scores.

Okay, with all this in mind, let’s talk about a few different scenarios, and how you might want to respond:

I am a junior and I did great on the PSAT.  Congratulations!  Your score may put you in the running for a national merit scholarship, which could lead to significant scholarships and could make you a candidate for admission to a very selective college.  You should research and seriously consider the schools that provide good scholarships to students who receive national merit recognition (since they could be great financial option for you!).  If you’ve decided you’d like to apply for admission to very competitive college, remember that having great grades and being a merit scholar is no guarantee of admission, so you should think about the ways you can distinguish yourself, show leadership and develop your strengths through the rest of your high school career.   And remember for most schools you’ll need to take the SAT or ACT to get in, and you’ll need to score well on those, so make sure to take the time to prepare.

I am a junior and I did not set the world on fire with my PSAT results.  No worries.  No college will ever know about your results.  But you should take this score as a wake up call and invest your time and energy into preparing for the SAT in the Spring.  The test results will give you a handle on where you should focus your efforts.  Khan Academy provides free study tools that are tied to your PSAT results and that will help you focus your studying on the places where you need the most work.  Your school counselors can provide you with test prep resources. You should also consider taking the ACT, since some students find that test better suited to their learning style.  You should take a practice ACT test to see if that would be worth your effort.  You can find one here.

I am a sophomore or freshman and did great on the PSAT. Congratulations!  Your score doesn’t count for anything this year, but it makes it likely that you’ll do well on the test in your junior year too!  You should keep your grades up, and keep challenging yourself and pursuing leadership opportunities and your passions, so that you’ll have great opportunities after high school.

I am a sophomore who did well on the PSAT but not quite as well as I hoped.   You’re still in good shape.  If you put in the time to prepare you may still find yourself in contention for a National Merit Scholarship.  Many students improve pretty substantially from sophomore to junior year, especially on the mathematics portion of the test (which is geared for juniors).  You can also improve your score by reading a lot and working on your writing over the next year, and by familiarizing yourself with the test.  If you  want to give the test your best shot next fall, Palouse Pathways hopes to offer small group study sessions next August/September.  The students who participated in the sessions this year found them helpful; and even if you don’t qualify for a merit scholarship it will give you a leg up when you take the SAT spring of your junior year (which will get here much sooner than you think!).

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