A few million high school juniors and sophomores took the PSAT last week. It gave them an early glimpse at the SAT along with some low-stakes first-hand experience with college admission testing in general. While PSAT scores will not factor into eventual admission decisions, taking the PSAT is considered a significant step along the path to college.
The test (and the preceding administrative tedium) undoubtedly felt long, especially to first-time test-takers. At least some parts of it probably felt uncomfortable. While grappling with test content, students were also deciphering instructions, navigating the test’s unfamiliar format and structure, meticulously transcribing answers into small ovals, managing the clock and the calculator, and trying to tune out distractions. Naturally, the test felt unnatural.
Indeed, the primary purpose of taking the PSAT was to work out inevitable test-taking aches and pains. Even though standardized tests may not be pleasant, they are – for better or worse – predictable. Early exposure and subsequent practice breeds familiarity. Gradually, as experience grows, test-takers will develop not only a better grasp of the test’s content but also valuable test-taking skills like pacing, endurance, time-management, and decision-making.
But what exactly was the benefit of devoting half a school day (or Saturday morning) to a test that “doesn’t count?” And what are the smartest next steps students can take to leverage last week’s effort?
For juniors, the PSAT was a dress rehearsal for an SAT this spring. In addition, the PSAT is more correctly called the PSAT/NMSQT; for juniors only, it doubles as the National Merit Scholar Qualifying Test. For the class of 2017 in California, a Selection Index score of 221 was required for students to achieve Semifinalist status. (A Selection Index score of 209 was the national cutoff for students to achieve Commended Student status.) See all states’ Semifinalist cut-off scores and learn more about the process here.
PSAT scores are scheduled to be available on December 5 for school counselors and December 12 for students. By then (if not sooner), students will need to turn serious attention to the SAT (or ACT) in the spring. The PSAT, as the name connotes, has always had a strong relationship to the SAT. And with the changes to the tests last year, that relationship became even more direct.
College Board now describes the two as being vertically aligned and built upon a single empirical backbone, so as students advance, the scope and difficulty of the tests increase accordingly. The tests are tailored for students at different academic stages of development, but they share one continuous scale (160–800). Because the PSAT puts more emphasis on earlier concepts, it is limited to a lower band of the full scale (160-760). The SAT reaches slightly higher concepts, and its range (200-800) reflects that. The aligned scale more accurately predicts a student’s SAT score “now,” indicating a likely SAT score if it had been taken instead of the PSAT on that day. This makes it easier to track a student’s progress over time.
That’s a long way of saying that a score of 550 on the PSAT predicts that a student would have scored a 550 on the SAT had the student instead taken the latter at that time. So other than not facing the (optional) essay that will appear on the SAT and not having scores count or sent to colleges, students who took the PSAT last week — in a sense — took the SAT.
Most students will take the SAT in March or May, or the ACT in February or April. Students who plan to also take Subject Tests should do so in May or June.
By the time they take the SAT, well-prepared students will have turned the tables. Stakes will be higher, but confidence levels can be too. At Compass, I witness this transformation regularly. Around this time last year, one of our 11th graders said after taking the PSAT he felt defeated by the test. However, after his third and final SAT earlier this month, he described finally feeling in complete control of the test. Another year of school, maturation, a sensible amount of preparation at the right times along the way, and a sustained attitude of matter-of-fact resilience all worked in his favor. He no longer felt beaten. Instead he trusted his review of the content, anticipated how the test would unfold, recognized consistent patterns, properly employed a process of elimination when necessary, and remained disciplined when assessing risk-reward situations. Cutting his teeth on the PSAT helped him begin that process.
By the start of summer before their senior year, students will have a good sense of three things: cumulative GPA, a first set of official test scores, and a preliminary list of potential colleges. It’ll be time to reconcile all of those factors and decide what will be needed to bring goals and scores into alignment. Some students may determine they can be done with testing. Others will use the summer to gear up for one final attempt during senior year. For the SAT, that could be August or October; for the ACT, September or October.
For sophomores, everything above is worth absorbing in advance of next year, but taking the PSAT this year was mostly about establishing a reference point. Students now have a basic sense of what the SAT (and to a large extent, the ACT) will someday feel like. This first score will be a baseline against which students can compare next year’s PSAT score. The score report may also reveal some academic areas that require attention this summer. But for now, it’s time for students to focus on the third semester of high school. At Compass, we feel that SAT or ACT prep in the 10th grade is inappropriate and reflects imbalanced priorities.
Official College Admission Tests
I generally don’t support the decision to take an official college admission test during (or before) the first semester of junior year. There are exceptions; last year I knew of exactly one. She demonstrated her extraordinary test-taking ability on full-length proctored exams and throughout summer preparation. She took the SAT once, in October of junior year, earned a perfect score, and was done with her college admission testing…yes, a week before her classmates took the PSAT. As I said, there are extraordinary exceptions.
For everyone else, the fall of junior year can be spent focusing on grades, which are the most important piece of your high school academic record. Keeping priorities straight is as important as ever.
Students who feel tempted to take a “real” test now should do so off the record. Full length practice SATs and ACTs are readily available, and opportunities to experience them in a simulated, proctored environment are frequently offered. They are free, and results are kept private.
Better yet, practice tests are actionable. Unlike officially administered tests, practice tests are truly diagnostic in that students receive scores with little delay, and they get to review the questions they missed. The PSAT, too, is a good diagnostic tool when it comes to reviewing questions, but the two-month lag in receiving scores is a costly period of time for juniors targeting the March SAT date.
Might The ACT Be A Better Test For Me?
Juniors who are thinking about taking the official ACT this spring should absolutely complete a practice test as soon as possible. Contact us now and we’ll arrange a fall date for you. Results from a proctored diagnostic ACT can be compared to PSAT scores using this tool to determine if either the SAT or ACT should be favored over the other in your case.
For sophomores, ACT is debuting a 10th grade-level ACT version of the PSAT. Some high schools are planning to offer the PreACT this year. Schools are given discretion on when it is administered so dates will vary. If it’s offered at your school, it’s a worthwhile opportunity. If not, sophomores can contact us in the spring to take a practice ACT, or do so over the summer or even next fall.
With the PSAT hurdle cleared and with several weeks before scores are released during finals and holiday seasons, now is the time to map out next steps. Calendar your test dates, research nearby testing locations, create College Board and/or ACT accounts to manage your testing process, register for tests as early as you can, shore up any accommodations approvals you may require, take a practice test, and explore test preparation options that suit your needs.
Compass provides customized one-on-one test preparation and strategic guidance for all college admissions tests, in-home in California and online around the world. We’re happy to discuss your individual needs and help you determine the smartest next steps for you.