What is the point of PSAT tests? My daughter is on the edge of her seat waiting for hers to arrive but I don't know what the importance is or what we do with them once we have them. Can you help me understand why these matter?
While "The Dean" is not a fan of the over-testing that the college admissions process has spawned, there are good reasons to take the PSAT ... at least in the current college admissions climate. These include:
1. Evaluating Admissions Odds
When high school students begin to create a college list, PSAT scores can provide one way to help assess their chances of acceptance. Although "real" SAT scores are often higher than the PSAT results, PSAT figures usually give students and parents at least a rough estimate of what to expect. PSAT scores that don't land among upper percentiles may dash Ivy or elite-college dreams. But conversely, there are sometimes pleasant surprises that suggest that colleges once viewed as "Reaches" could actually be closer to "Realistic." Your daughter may be "on the edge of her seat" if she's hoping to attend a college where the median SAT scores are high. She probably realizes that, if her PSATs are well below these norms, she probably won't be able to raise her scores sufficiently to put her in the ballpark at her top choices.
Of course, because so many colleges that required the SAT or ACT in the past are now test-optional due to test cancellations spawned by COVID-19, it's possible that, when your daughter applies to college (next year if she's a current junior or in two years if she's a sophomore), her target schools may still not require scores. So if her PSAT results are subpar at the colleges that interest her right now, she may find that these will no longer be a deal-breaker.
2. Planning Tests and Study Schedules
PSAT scores are a great way for students to see where there's work to be done ... and while there's still time to do it. For instance, if your daughter ends up with a high Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score but a lower Math score, she can focus her study efforts on the Math section. PSAT results can also help students to determine how soon to schedule the actual SAT. Those whose PSAT scores were well below expectations may want to build in extra study time to get up to snuff. And in some cases, PSAT scores may help students to determine which test to take and which to avoid. For instance, if your daughter does well on the Math section of her PSAT but less well on Reading, she may opt for the ACT and skip the SAT altogether. Sure, verbal skills are important on the ACT, too, but the ACT has a Science section, which the SAT does not, and students with strength in math often have strength in science as well. Thus, a so-so PSAT Reading score might spur some students to bypass the SAT altogether and prepare for the ACT instead.
3. Landing on Mailing Lists
When your daughter signed up for the PSAT, she was offered the option of participating in the "Student Search." Colleges buy student data and contact information from The College Board to create mailing lists. However, the colleges do NOT receive a student's specific scores. Instead, they receive other information that could include intended major, geographic location gender, race, ethnicity, etc. They may get test result bands ("Math scores above 600") but never exact figures. This way, the college folks can zero in on the demographics they're seeking to expand ... e.g., they may be seeking males from the Southeast or female engineers.
So if your daughter said "Yes" to the Search, she should steel herself for an onslaught of propaganda — email and snail mail from colleges that are eager for her application. Sometimes these missives will open a student's eyes to appropriate but unfamiliar schools. Often, however, the mail comes from institutions that don't fit a student's needs at all or that are so hyper-selective that the student has little prayer of acceptance. It can certainly be flattering for a teenager to be wooed by the likes of Princeton and Yale, but these places tend to entice teens to apply who will never get beyond the Ivy gates. Yet, as overwhelming as the propaganda parade can be, most students seem to like it. "The Dean" has had many queries asking how to get onto mailings lists but nary a single one about how to get off of them!
If your daughter didn't sign up for the Student Search when she took her PSATs, it's not too late. She can register online at any time at this link.
Some scholarship organizations — most notably the National Merit Scholarship Program — use junior-year PSAT scores to identify possible recipients. In the past, any student who did not take the PSAT in 11th grade was not eligible to participate in the National Merit competition. (Currently, however, due to COVID-related testing restrictions, National Merit has provided alternate routes to consideration, although these may be temporary.) Similarly, there are other scholarships and types of "recognition" that are based on PSAT scores as well. You can read about these here.
Note, however, that the biggest scholarships typically come from the colleges themselves and thus have no connection to PSAT scores — which admission officials rarely see. And there are many other private scholarships not listed above that never see PSAT results either.
Bottom Line: The PSAT is usually worth taking, but it should be viewed largely as a test that can provide helpful preliminary information and not as a high-stakes endeavor. So if your daughter is pleased with her PSAT scores, that's great. But, if she's not, encourage her to use them to improve further testing and as guidance as she compiles a college list, but not as any sort of harbinger of the happiness and success that lie ahead.
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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