Standardized tests constitute a large part of the high school experience. The three largest such tests are the ACT, SAT, and PSAT/NMSQT. The PSAT is unique in that your score does not necessarily matter to colleges; however, it could be your ticket in. That sounds pretty contradictory, doesn’t it? But the PSAT’s full name is the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test for a reason, and it serves more purposes than you might think.
If you score highly enough on the test, college mail will start pouring in for you. Of course, this doesn’t mean schools will automatically accept you; but the PSAT allows you to opt in to receiving more college mail based on your score; this means that you learn about many more schools than you would probably ever have heard of otherwise. This process introduces you to universities of many different types, public and private, large and small, all over the country.
In addition to advancing your college search, the PSAT can help you land some serious scholarships. This is because a high enough score in your state (cut-offs range from about 202-222) will qualify you as a National Merit or Achievement Semifinalist. Many schools offer some scholarships for this status; the University of Alabama, Auburn University, University of Florida, and University of Oklahoma even offer large scholarships up to tuition! If you qualify as a Semifinalist, you must write an essay, take the SAT, and send in other information to advance to Finalist status.
If you do, you may receive scholarships generally amounting to $1000 or $2000 a year, or even, looking again to the examples I know best, close to full ride scholarships; UA and Auburn, top tier schools, both offer tuition, housing, a summer travel stipend, a yearly stipend, and a free laptop to Finalists. The University of Florida also reportedly offers a sizable National Achievement scholarship. The University of Oklahoma also offers the laptop and summer travel stipend along with a total award of $87,000 for out-of-state residents or $45,000 for in-state residents. In this way, the PSAT could secure you a huge college scholarship. To find out what you need to qualify, search for your state’s National Merit or Achievement cutoffs. National Achievement scholarships are only for black students, though they may qualify for both.
Finally, the PSAT is first and foremost a practice test. When I took it in October 2009, it was scheduled the week before my ACT date. All of the study time I put into the PSAT paid off doubly; I ended up not having time to study for the ACT, but the work I’d done for the PSAT helped me on both tests. The PSAT will prepare you for the ACT and SAT math sections and give a solid gauge of which areas you need to improve. The scoring is easily converted to the SAT system by multiplying your PSAT score by ten (just adding a zero). Also, if you take the PSAT, the College Board gives you access to your detailed score report online, which further helps in testing preparation.
The PSAT is vastly beneficial in that it allows colleges to contact you, it gives you a chance to qualify for National Merit/Achievement status, and it prepares you for other standardized test. To qualify for National Merit, you must take the test in the fall of you junior year; however, you should try to take it earlier as well to get a feel for the process.