You’ve Taken the PSAT, Now What?


Thanksgiving marks not only the start of the Christmas season but also the beginning of the college process in earnest for many Juniors. Before December brings Santa down your chimney, it will bring PSAT results back to your high schools. The College Board will be sending your score reports back to your schools in the first couple weeks of December, which means you should have your scores in your hand just in time to put them under the Christmas tree. In this post, we’ll break down what the PSAT tells you about the SAT and if it impacts your future SAT score. (You should also check out “What Is The PSAT?” to learn more about what the test is and how it’s used. )

First and foremost, what the College Board tells us about the PSAT is that it’s designed to predict the performance of sophomores and juniors on the SAT. But for us, the question always is what specific correlation is there between a student’s performance on the PSAT and on the SAT? In other words, how well does it actually predict or show how you’ll do on the SAT?

Let’s first look at what’s the same and different about the tests. In many ways the PSAT and the SAT are very similar. They test the same three content areas of Critical Reading, Math, and Writing using the same set of question types. However there are few key differences:

1. The PSAT is considerably shorter than the SAT. The SAT has 10 Sections: 3 Critical Reading, 3 Math, 2 Writing, 1 Essay, and 1 Experimental Section. This adds up to 3 hours and 45 minutes of testing. The PSAT on the other hand has 5 Sections: 2 Critical Reading, 2 Math, and 1 Writing. This adds up to 2 hours and 10 minutes of testing.

2. The PSAT is not a factor in college admissions. Well, not officially. Since the PSAT is used to qualify for being a National Merit Scholar, if you get a very good score and are chosen to be a National Merit Scholar, it would definitely be advantageous to mention in your college applications.

3. The PSAT is offered to sophomores, juniors, and sometimes even freshman in mid-October. Students should take the SAT for the first time in the spring of their junior years.

It seems logical to say that given the overwhelming similarity in content of the questions and the format of the test that a student’s performance on the PSAT would be in some way be predictive of a student’s performance on the SAT. In fact, the College Board has published data which seems to support exactly that correlation (if you’re really curious you can check out the research report here.)

The salient point from the data is that of the 586 thousand juniors that took the PSAT and then took an SAT in the spring, a plurality of them showed score improvements in each of the three content areas.

  • 60% of these students had a higher Critical Reading score on the SAT.
  • 58% of these students had a higher Math score on the SAT.
  • 62% of these students had a higher Writing score on the SAT.

While we are not exactly sure what factors contribute to the change in score, there are some conjectures that can be made. First, for juniors taking the PSAT and then taking the SAT in the spring, there are 5 to 8 months between these testings. That is a significant amount of time in which a student’s academic course work and outside reading can influence his or her performance. Second, more importantly, there is an assumption we can make that a junior that is thinking far enough ahead to take the SAT in the spring will also have enough forethought to study and prepare for it (which may include taking a prep course).

So the moral of the story is that even though the PSAT has a very little effect on college admissions, it is a good idea to prepare for it and then carry that preparation over into SAT preparation.

The general timeline a junior in high school should follow is:

  1. School starts in September.
  2. Study for the PSAT.
  3. Take the PSAT in October.
  4. Study for your first SAT, to be taken in the spring (start in January for the March or May test).
  5. Scores for the SAT are released three weeks after the test. Decide whether you want to take it a second time during your Junior year.
  6. Ask teachers for college recommendations before the end of the school year and email them a reminder during the summer.
  7. Study for the SAT during your summer vacation. If you are even remotely thinking about applying to a college early decision or early action, October will be the latest you should take another SAT to send to those schools.
  8. Start your college essays in the summer
  9. Take the SAT in October of your senior year.
  10. If necessary, think about taking it in November.

Remember preparation is the key. Don’t expect your scores to change much if you don’t study. Good luck and good studying!

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