It happens that the “P” in “PSAT” officially stands for “preliminary,” but it could just as well stand for “preview” or “preparation.” And you should take the PSAT! The PSAT offers students an opportunity to sharpen their skills in preparation for the actual SAT, which is understandably held at a level of importance high above the preliminary test.
But it’s not just a “preliminary” look at what’s ahead. Taking the PSAT has its own unique set of benefits for students beyond just serving as a trial run for the SAT.
The truth of the matter is that yes, the SAT is obviously important, but the often-overlooked PSAT is a fantastic stepping stone for any student planning on sitting the actual exam. It is vital for every student in the college application process to take the PSAT for many reasons, but four stand out (and happen to form a convenient acronym).
1. Take the PSAT for Practice
“Practice makes perfect.” Students have heard the expression thousands of times, from parents, friends, or characters on television shows. The phrase is used so often because it’s true. The only way to truly improve one’s skill at something is to go through the motions of the process enough times until it becomes second nature.
By the time a student is ready to take the SAT, they will have likely taken preparatory classes, gone over questions with a private tutor, sat around the lunch tables with their friends discussing the test, or even taken practice versions of the test. All these experiences are important, but until a student sits down at a desk with a timer in front of them, it’s impossible to get a sense for what it’s like to actually take the test.
It is critical that the student is able to apply their knowledge to the test in front of them, fill in the bubbles, sign the honesty statement in the required cursive, and manage their time wisely. This practical application of their SAT test-taking knowledge is perhaps the most effective way to prepare for the actual test.
The strategies surrounding test taking are an academic discipline on their own. Over the years, the scoring scale has changed from two sections, at 800 points a piece, to three; from 1600 to 2400. The change in scoring has led to a more tactical approach to the exam.
It is very important for students to carefully consider the way they approach the test. For example, non-answers are not counted against their score, but wrong answers are. It is repeated that leaving a question blank is better than guessing. Additionally, multiple choice scoring for the verbal portion has its own unique strategies, such as eliminating one answer at a time or looking at the roots of words for help. It may be easy to discuss these strategies in theory, but the PSAT is the only opportunity prior to test day to try them out in a practical setting.
One of the most important outcomes from taking the PSAT is qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship Program. According to 2014 figures, 3% of the 1.5 million students who sat the PSAT exam–around 50,000–qualified for the NMSP. These students scored the highest in critical reading, mathematics, and writing.
Of these 50,000 students, 34,000 received letters of commendation to include in their college applications. Of the commended students, 16,000 were selected as semi-finalists. From that number, 7,440 students were ultimately selected for National Merit Scholarships.
National Merit Scholars can look forward to receiving hefty scholarships–even a full ride in some cases–from some of the country’s most prestigious colleges. In this way, it can pay (literally) to take the PSAT.
While it is a tough hill to climb, the PSAT does give every single student that sits the test an opportunity to receive a prestigious scholarship, regardless of previous academic performance.
Ultimately, the reason it is so important to take the PSAT has little to do with the academic importance of the test. Rather, the PSAT prepares students for the physical act of taking the test, something which can stress out even the most-prepared student.
The typical SAT test is three hours and forty-five minutes long. Many junior year students have never sat still for this long, let alone took a test that will help decide their future. Sitting for the PSAT allows a student to become more comfortable with the setting and environment surrounding these types of exams–it’s less of a mystery and more of a routine. Students become accustomed to the silence, the shuffling of papers, and the proctor speaking in a clipped tone, informing them that their time is up for a certain section.
When a student goes into the SAT exam, no matter how vigorously they will deny it, they have undeniable anxiety. This anxiety can usually be reduced if the student goes in knowing what to expect. Those who have taken the PSAT and have an understanding of the situation they are entering will have, at the very least, a psychological advantage over their peers.