On Wednesday, October 12th or Saturday, October 15th, schools around the country administer the PSAT, which for many students is a first experience with standardized testing for college admission. Over the years, though, families have increasingly started to ask if their students should take the exam. It’s a sensible question. The PSAT is not sent to colleges. Yes, PSAT is used to qualify for National Merit, but the cutoff score in MA is so high that it’s nearly impossible to reach. And for students taking the ACT, the differently-styled PSAT might not be useful practice.
For any student pursuing the SAT, the PSAT retains significant value. First, the test-taking experience itself is valuable. All the College Board data shows that students naturally score better on the test the more times they take it. Often, students aren’t initially prepared for the pacing or the environment of the exam – even if it doesn’t “count,” it’s a lot more nerve-racking in a classroom with other students and a proctor than it is at the desk in your room with the music playing. A first try with any new experience is usually imperfect, so it’s ideal to have that first try in a low-stakes environment like the PSAT.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, the PSAT is a useful diagnostic tool. Students have access to all of their test questions through their College Board accounts, so they can review each of the questions they missed. The subscores like “Standard English Conventions” or “Heart of Algebra” may be a bit campy, but they define clear bodies of material that a student can study on their own through Khan Academy, practice with a commercial book, and/or strengthen through working with a tutor. The diagnostics the subscores provide may even give insight into a student’s school performance. One student recently said to me, after receiving a lower “Standard English Conventions” subscore, that his English teacher had also said that he needed to work on his punctuation and grammar in his writing, and thus the teacher agreed with the SAT’s assessment.
Finally, a PSAT score is a useful baseline, and it can help guide and define score goals. PSAT scores are released the second week of December. Although the test is scored out of 1520, and not 1600 like the SAT, the College Board claims that your PSAT score indicates exactly what score you would have gotten on the SAT had you taken the SAT that day instead. So, after creating a score goal using your PSAT, you can see how your scores line up with those at colleges where you wish to apply, how much work you’ll need to put in to reach these goals, or perhaps whether the goals are even reasonable. A tutor can be a great deal of help here, in forming these goals.
For students taking the ACT, it’s simple – you don’t have to take the PSAT. There is a correlate in the PreACT, but most schools do not offer it. And, its predictive value has been spotty, anyway.
The PSAT gives you stronger footing on which to take the SAT, from all perspectives. As such, even though you probably won’t get that National Merit, SAT students benefit from taking it.