Each year, over 1.4 million high school students take the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, also known as the PSAT. This test helps you prepare for the SAT while determining your eligibility for a National Merit Scholarship.
The PSAT offers you the chance to improve your test–taking skills with no negative consequences; your results will have no bearing on college admissions or your high school transcript. And if you do well, you could earn more than bragging rights – you could win money for college.
Not Just Another Test: Understanding the PSAT
Most students take the PSAT at their high school in the fall of their sophomore or junior year. Inquire with a teacher or guidance counselor as to when the test will be offered and how to sign up.
Like the SAT, the PSAT is composed of three sections: Math, Critical Reading and Writing (this section includes questions about grammar and word choice – you do not have to write an essay). It does not test your knowledge of specific facts like who won the Battle of Gettysburg or how many countries make up the United Nations. It does, however, call upon skills that you've developed throughout your education, such as analyzing a passage of literature or using a math formula to solve a problem.
Many students do not prepare for the PSAT. However, if you choose to do so, you will gain a significant advantage over your peers.
Show Me the (Potential) Money
Winning a National Merit Scholarship is no easy task. Each year, approximately 50,000 students (out of 1.4 million) qualify for recognition based on their high PSAT scores. Around 34,000 of these students receive Letters of Commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. While these letters don't include a scholarship check, they look good to admissions offices and can be listed on your college application.
The remaining 16,000 students or so – those whose scores put them in the top 99th percentile in their state – become National Merit Semifinalists. Of these, around half win scholarships after submitting their high school records, as well as recommendations from teachers and a personal essay. Some students win a $2500 scholarship from the National Merit Corporation, while others may win larger awards from colleges hoping to attract top scorers.
To Take the PSAT or Not Take, That is the Question
Even if you do not ultimately qualify for a scholarship, taking the PSAT has several benefits.
Although there are significant differences between the two tests (the SAT is longer and more difficult, for one), the PSAT is great practice for the SAT. Both require you to use your critical thinking skills to answer multiple–choice questions within a fixed amount of time. The more comfortable you are with this format, the better your SAT scores will be.
The PSAT can also give you a general idea of how well you'll do on the SAT. This will help you figure out which colleges to begin considering, as well as which areas of knowledge to brush up on. If you do poorly on the Writing section of the PSAT, for example, you'll know it's time to dust off the vocabulary cards or grammar textbook in preparation for the SAT.