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PSAT prep: What you need to know

Many families think of the PSAT as “just a practice test” for the SAT, one of the two major exams students take to show their readiness for college.

But, the PSAT is more than just an SAT prep test. Some high schools use PSAT scores to help determine whether students are ready for Advance Placement (AP) classes. And maybe even more important, the PSAT is the qualifying test that determines which top-scoring juniors are named National Merit Scholars, which can open doors for a wide range of college scholarships.

Your student’s high school probably will offer the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) to sophomores and juniors this fall. Students can only take the PSAT once a year, usually in October or November. They apply through and take the test at their own high school. The 2017-18 tests cost schools $16 for each student. Some schools cover all or part of the cost for their students — ask your student’s guidance counselor about costs.

Taking the PSAT as a freshman

The more familiar your student is with the PSAT material and format, the better they may do on the exam. Taking the test freshman year might be a good idea for students who are academically advanced and want some additional test prep. Alternately, taking the test early can be smart strategy for students who aren’t good test-takers and need as much practice as possible.

Keep in mind, though, that your freshman may not be familiar with some of the material included on the test. Also, no matter how well they do on the test, your freshman’s scores can’t be sent to colleges yet and won’t qualify them for National Merit attention. They’ll have to take the PSAT again their junior year.

Taking the PSAT as a sophomore

This is the key year for students to take the PSAT as a practice exam. Again, their scores won’t officially count until their junior year.

Taking the test this year can help students see what subjects they should improve on for their junior-year test. This is also a chance for students to get used to the PSAT format, and to build test-taking stamina — the PSAT testing period is about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Students who have a good chance of qualifying for National Merit distinction next fall may want to consider taking a test-preparation class or working with a tutor during the spring or summer of their sophomore year. Most classes can be taken in person or online. Group classes are around $800 compared to more than $2,500 for a tutor. Your student’s high school may be able to recommend tutors and test-prep centers.

Taking the PSAT as a junior: This is when it counts

In October or November of your student’s junior year, they’ll take the PSAT that really carries some weight. This year’s test score helps determine which students will be named National Merit scholars.

However, if your student is not concerned with qualifying as a National Merit scholar, their junior-year PSAT score is not necessarily crucial. Instead, the PSAT can fulfill its core intention: To help your student prepare to take the SAT (or ACT) later in the year or the fall of their senior year.


Dana Fulton
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Dana Fulton

Social Media Content Manager at Wells Fargo
Creative professional with years of sales and marketing experience, specializing in segment-specific strategy and customer-centric communications. Skills include problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and clarifying the complex.
Dana Fulton
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