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Question: As a parent of a junior in high school, I don’t know much about the PSAT. Does it matter?
Answer: Your student has probably taken the PSAT (Preliminary SAT) in October and will get his results back in mid-December. These scores will not be seen by colleges and are only used for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Of the 1.5 million entrants, some 50,000 with the highest PSAT Selection Index scores (critical reading, mathematics and writing skills scores) qualify for recognition in the National Merit Scholarship Program. In September, these high scorers are notified through their schools that they have qualified as either a commended student or a semifinalist. Approximately the top third goes on to be National Merit semifinalists, while the remaining two-thirds become commended scholars. Even when your student receives his or her score in December, he still does not know if he will be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship. The score is determined by the cutoff score that represents the top scores of the students from your state. Last year, Washington state’s cutoff was 217, which meant that a student had to score 217 or higher when the scores from the three areas — critical reading, math and writing — are combined. These scores do fluctuate by a few points over the years, so you cannot base this year off of last year’s numbers other than to use it as a ballpark. Unfortunately, our state has some of the highest cutoffs in the country. If you see an asterisk (*) next to your scores, it signifies that your student is not eligible for the scholarship.
For most students, the PSAT is a great way to judge how your student will fare with standardized testing. One of the best features of this testing is the follow-up that you receive on your test results by going to this Web site created by the College Board: www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/psat/quickstart. Here you can compare how your score compares to other students who took the test in our state, as well as nationally. You can see how many questions you actually missed and whether they were easy, medium or hard. Most importantly, it gives you a range of how you will do on the actual SAT, based on these scores. If your student did not do as well as you both had hoped or expected, you might want to discuss with a professional how to determine what type of test preparation makes the most sense. You might also want to discuss the differences between the SAT and the ACT, and whether your student might do better with one test over another. This also becomes a great opportunity to sit down with your student and discuss the upcoming college entrance tests and when your student might be most prepared to take them. By going on the College Board Web site, you are able to determine the upcoming dates for the remainder of the school year and registration deadlines.
I really like for students to review the actual answers with the test book that is returned to them so they can go back and rework the mistakes that they made. It is a great opportunity for students to assess whether or not they have prepared enough.
It is important to keep the results from this test in perspective, as they will not count, which I cannot reiterate enough. Except for the top handful of students who will move on to either commended or finalist status based on achieving high scores, this test should only be seen as a practice for what is to come.
Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an independent college consulting practice: www.thecollegesource.org. She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.