Most students and families are familiar with the ACT and SAT exams, and their important roles in the college admissions process. But what about the PSAT?
If the PSAT is optional for your child, you may even be wondering if taking the test is worth the time and effort. Would your child be better served by focusing on other schoolwork, or even simply sleeping in instead?
“We like to discuss the PSAT with parents and families in the fall of junior year because this test is designed to expose students to the structures and rigors of college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT and provide them with valuable practice,” says Carla Pedersen , Regional Director with Chicago-based Academic Approach, a test-prep and academic tutoring company. “We recognize there is ambiguity surrounding the PSAT and parents often wonder what the PSAT means and how seriously their student needs to take it.”
A big takeaway for parents is that the PSAT has a lot of value for students, even if many consider it just a practice test. While PSAT scores are not reported to colleges and universities, from a diagnostic perspective — and as a forward planning tool — the PSAT is a must-do for your teen.
PSAT provides great practice and data
For many students, the PSAT is their first opportunity to sit for a nearly full-length standardized test and learn what the experience feels like, Pedersen says. “It’s a lower-stakes environment, but a great opportunity to gain exposure,” she explains, adding that students are often surprised by the energy required to sit for prolonged, focused periods of time. The PSAT takes 165 minutes to complete, while the ACT takes 175 minutes, and the SAT takes 180 minutes to complete.
If your child is a high school junior, they will take the PSAT in October. Although students may not receive their results until closer to December, there’s a reward for that wait.
Instead of just a numeric score, students will receive in-depth data that they can use to make informed decisions. These detailed score reports can sometimes be purchased for certain SAT exams but are automatically provided for all students who take the PSAT. In addition to item-by-item analysis, the reports provide significant information about student strengths and areas of improvement—even indicating potential concentration in their schoolwork, Pedersen says.
“Your child receives their entire test booklet and their answers on the PSAT,” Pedersen says. “For that reason, the PSAT is more than just a test — it is a unique and useful tool for students. The amount of information it provides can set in motion individual goal setting.”
With this information, students can plan their next steps, including the classes they select for the rest of their junior year and their senior year and the areas they may want to concentrate on with a dedicated instructor or tutor. “We encourage students to lean into that knowledge,” Pedersen says.
PSAT predicts future performance
There’s another reason to take the PSAT seriously. The version of the test administered during fall of 10th grade is referred to officially as the PSAT/NMSQT because it’s a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, a highly competitive academic competition entered by some 1.5 million high school students in the US each year. Finalists receive recognition and a one-time financial scholarship for college.
Given this fact, does it make sense to spend time and effort preparing for the PSAT?
“The short answer is yes,” says Pedersen. “But the purpose of preparation varies and that’s part of the bigger picture. If you’re preparing for the PSAT, you’re also preparing for the SAT or the ACT in terms of skills.” Because your PSAT score is designed to be predictive of your SAT score — the one you share with your selected colleges and universities and include in your college application — the format and the content of the PSAT and SAT are the same, so the skills required to excel on both tests do overlap.
“For some, the PSAT is an entry point, a low-stakes official test to take while working on learning the content and building skills,” Pedersen says, adding that some students are being tested on concepts they have yet to learn in school, while others are being asked to recall foundational math concepts that they may have forgotten.
The bottom line for every student is to use the PSAT as a jumping-off point and use the resulting information to help guide where you want to go, Pedersen says. Consider the PSAT as a means of gaining information.
“If you’re planning for the ACT or SAT, there are many dates to sit for these tests throughout the spring of junior year and throughout senior year. To make decisions about when you take the ACT or SAT, you need information,” she explains. “With your PSAT score, you’re empowered to know what work you need to do (including what content to learn, review, or refine) and create a plan for how you will go about that work.”
If your child is pleasantly surprised with their PSAT score, that’s a good place to start to build even more skills for the eventual SAT — or pivot to the ACT instead. Similarly, if your child isn’t happy with their PSAT score, they have data to support their next move. Either way, a test-prep instructor can help your child interpret their score and reach their goals.
“It’s great because the test does that work for you. You can use that information to work with us and leverage an instructor to work on the content you’d like to strengthen,” Pedersen says.
Learn more about the value of academic tutoring and test prep with Academic Approach. Visit academicapproach.com.