The only time the PSAT is more than a practice test is when students are attempting to qualify for National Merit scholarships.  Junior year is the only time PSAT results can qualify a student for the National Merit program.

National Merit scholarships specifically refer to the awards from the National Merit Corporation and its sponsors.  These scholarships tend to be small ($2500).  However, the real money comes from the individual colleges and universities eager to attract top students with offers of full scholarships in many cases.  One’s status as a National Merit finalist may be worth more than the actual scholarship from the National Merit program.

What does it take to be a finalist?

National Merit recognizes Commended Scholars and Semi-finalists based on junior year PSAT scores. The top 3% of students in each state receive recognition, but because the qualifying score is based on a percentage, the cut–off score is different in each state and changes from year to year. In Texas, the qualifying selection index to become a semi-finalist has been between 215 and 219 in recent years.

(Top 3%!  We are talking about the best of the best when it comes to test taking achievement.)

How should students prepare?

First, take the PSAT sophomore year and use these scores to determine if National Merit recognition is reasonable.  Students who score within 20-30 points of their state’s cut-off score will want to prepare.

Then, start early with basic preparation.  All students, but especially those hoping to earn National Merit recognition, should begin building test skills early.  With eighteen years’ experience helping students prepare for the PSAT / SAT, I recommend the following:

  1. SAT Question of the Day from College Board (register here)  Working a question a day, or a few per week, will help students become familiar with test format and content.  PSAT questions are just like SAT questions, so these are perfect practice.
  1. Build a college-bound vocabulary.  50% of a student’s reading score is based on knowledge of vocabulary, which is one thing he or she can’t cram before the test.  This is why I started My Vocabulary Success Coach (details here.)
  1. Continue to learn and retain knowledge from school – reading comprehension, vocabulary, critical thinking, algebra, geometry, data analysis, problem solving, writing, grammar, and usage are all part of the test.

Next, begin a serious study program in August before junior year begins.  Students seeking National Merit recognition need some type of preparation.  Some can take the do-it-yourself approach, but many will want to consider a prep program.  Because the PSAT is just a shorter version of the SAT (without the written essay), you can look for SAT prep options and don’t need a program specific to the PSAT.   (You know I’ve designed an SAT prep program; info on my Houston-area and online classes can be found here.)

Finally, take the PSAT in October and wait for results.  PSAT scores will be back in December / January, but National Merit Semi-finalists won’t be announced until September of a student’s senior year.