Test Prep

Should HS Juniors Create College Lists Based on PSAT Scores?


If you're a high school junior, you probably received your PSAT scores back last month and you've pored over the results. It's a good time to take a careful look at where you scored well and where you can improve -- but whether these scores should be used in the process of creating your college list is a question that may not have a quick "yes" or "no" answer.

Remember: Scoring high on the PSAT when you are a junior is important if you're trying to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program. Even if you don't end up winning money from the program, you may still end up with a Letter of Commendation, which you should definitely include in your college essays and applications, and which can earn you “special scholarships sponsored by corporations and businesses."

As you've probably heard, it's a good idea to take the PSAT not only for the scholarship opportunity, but to get a preview of what your SAT scores might look like.

Once you've received your PSAT score report, you might be feeling anxious to put together a list of target colleges based on your PSAT results. But before you dive into your college research, take a deep breath and remember that colleges are after much more than just your standardized test scores.

Use the Scores As One Factor

Your PSAT score should only be used “as one data point in the creation of the list," advises Charlotte M. Klaar, PhD, director at Klaar College Consulting in Charlotte, N.C. "The unweighted GPA, potential college major and lots of other factors go into the making of the list. In addition, the PSAT may not accurately reflect the final SAT score since the student will, most probably, undergo test preparation prior to taking the real test."

If you really want to start a college list once you get your PSAT results, just make sure to include all the other factors mentioned above. This can be your preliminary list of schools to consider and visit.

Klaar adds that if your “PSAT results are used properly, the SAT results should be substantially better." Basically, this means that you should take the time to understand your PSAT score report to determine what areas you should focus on while studying for the SAT. After reviewing the score report from your College Board account, you can connect your scores to the Khan Academy website to get personalized practice materials for free.

Happy with your PSAT scores? Great! But that doesn't mean you can get away with zero test prep for the SAT. If you decide to barely study for the SAT because your PSAT results were strong, there is a good chance that you may actually not do as well as you had assumed you would on your SAT – and that may force you to cross off some of the target schools from your original college list.

If you still aren't sure about using your PSAT results to create a college list, consider these additional factors:

- The PSAT is designed to be a little less challenging than the SAT. The material covered by PSAT questions will be material that you've learned in school before junior year. On the other hand, the SAT covers material that you may learn during your junior year.

- A growing number of schools are test-optional, meaning that you are not required to send in your SAT or ACT scores. Sounds good, right? Take a look at the schools that are test-optional to see if any of them pique your interest. If so, then realize that basing a list off of your PSAT scores may not be the best fit for your college dreams.

- It might turn out that the ACT reflects your academic skills more accurately. Although Klaar agrees that every junior should take the PSAT, she says that every junior should also take a mock ACT and then determine which test is more suitable. If your practice ACT results are stronger and you think the ACT is a better match for your abilities, then there's no point in making a list of schools based off your PSAT scores.

Creating that list of colleges is an exciting and important step, but know that there are many more things to factor in besides your PSAT scores or any other standardized test scores. Remember to consider the location, the scholarship and financial aid options, the student body size and the strengths of the department(s) where you hope to major. And when possible, don't forget to visit the campus before you make your final decision!