“So I got my PSAT score. Now what?”

This week, students across the country will receive their PSAT scores. But both students and parents are often unclear about what those scores mean, the importance (or lack of it!) of those scores, and what the next steps should be. So let’s delve in a bit to the PSAT and those results.

What makes for a good PSAT score?

If you’re a sophomore, then the PSAT can be a good indicator of your starting point on the SAT. Did you score a 920 or better? Then your chances of scoring at or above the national average on the SAT, especially with some preparation, are good. If you’re a junior, then a PSAT score of 1010 or above is considered a “good” score, a 1160 or above would be “great,” and a score of 1290 or above is considered “excellent.” But none of those scores guarantees success on the SAT.

The percentile conundrum

As I talk with students looking to start preparation for the SAT, I find that many of them look more at the percentile score they received on the PSAT than their actual scaled score. Percentile score indicates a student’s ranking among their peers. A student in the 90th percentile, for example, means that the student has scored higher than 90% of the other test takers in the sample. So when I ask a parent how their student did on the PSAT, I often hear, “She was in the 85th percentile,” rather than a score.

The biggest issue with this is that percentiles on the PSAT are not good apples-to-apples predictors of what a student might get on the SAT. Because students across the country–many of whom have no interest in doing well on the test–are taking the PSAT every year, the percentile scores are skewed, especially for those students getting average to high scores. So while it’s great that you scored in the 90th percentile or above, it doesn’t mean as much as it would on an actual SAT.

Does the PSAT matter?

The least complicated answer is “It might.” One of the reasons for the PSAT, other than to give students a chance to practice an SAT, is to give juniors the chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. The NMS isn’t a large scholarship; it pays around $2000 to winners. But the bigger payoff of being a NMS semi-finalist, finalist, or winner is the opportunity for scholarship money from colleges.

Schools generally like to tout how many NMS semi-finalists, finalists, and winners they have in their incoming freshman classes, and they are willing to give financial incentives to bring those students to their schools. Some schools, including the University of Alabama, offer full-ride scholarships simply by qualifying as a semi-finalist. You don’t even need to win! So for sophomores, your PSAT score this year can give you an idea of how much work you need to do to put yourself in that category.

The qualifying score for becoming a semi-finalist for the NMS varies state to state. In Idaho, students usually need to score in the low- to mid-1400s (out of 1520) to hit the cutoff score. This is a far easier standard than states such as California, where students need to get a nearly perfect score to qualify.

And if you don’t qualify for the NMS, don’t despair! I’ve had students in the past miss the PSAT cutoff by a hair, only to later get an elite score on the SAT or ACT. So while the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship can be important, the ultimate goal should be to hit a great score on the actual SAT or ACT.

But my PSAT wasn’t close to my goal! What do I do?

The good news is that, regardless of how you scored on the PSAT, you can absolutely improve! With help from an expert on the exam, you can learn how to master the SAT and put yourself in a position to be accepted at your goal schools. While you may not have gotten a score you’re happy with on the PSAT, just remember that it’s just a dry run! You can do better, and we can help!

So your next step should be to think about your goals for the SAT or ACT. The next official ACT is in February, and the next SAT is in March. The holiday break is a great time to begin preparing for your official test and to take the next steps in achieving your goals!

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