Why The PSAT Is More Important (For Scholarships) Than The SAT

While high school seniors are hard at work studying for the SAT, many would be shocked to know they could’ve avoided this unwanted stress. Little do they know that the most important test (for scholarships, anyway) has already long passed.

One letter can be deceiving.

The “P” in the “PSAT” test taken by high school sophomores each October can leave many students thinking that it’s just that—a preliminary SAT. A practice test.

But the PSAT can, in some cases, be the most important test a high school student will ever take – may even be more important than the SAT itself.

The PSAT names the highest achieving students in the nation to qualify as National Merit Semifinalists (who can go on to become Finalists). This title and honor can, at many colleges, result in larger amounts of scholarship than any amount of scholarship received from the SAT itself.

Yet attaining the coveted title of “National Merit Finalist” — and the hefty scholarship awards that easily come along with it — isn’t as daunting of a task as it seems.

Unlike the SAT, in which students often constantly strive to bring up their scores by just a few more points, the PSAT requires that students merely reach the designated threshold to be named a Semifinalist. Thresholds are determined by state and are determined after the test occurs; however, by looking at previous state cutoffs, it’s fairly easy to predict what threshold a student will need to meet. For the Class of 2014, the highest cutoff was 224 (equivalent to approximately a 2240 SAT score) and the lowest was 203 (equivalent to approximately a 2030 SAT score).

With the PSAT, there is no drive to aim for the perfect 240 as many students do for the SAT (perfect 2400), hoping it raises their chance for admission or scholarship; rather, they must only aim for the threshold — a more manageable task, albeit a very difficult one still (especially since the PSAT is a one-time-only test compared to the SAT).

To make matters better, the PSAT itself is a shortened and simplified version of the SAT. Students first have the opportunity to get a feel for the test’s format by taking a practice PSAT their sophomore year in October. After receiving this baseline score, students can then manageably study or perhaps even take a prep class before they take the PSAT again their junior year — the one shot they have at attaining a qualifying score.

For the students named Semifinalists at the beginning of their senior year, they can complete an application to become a Finalist; most Semifinalists become Finalists if they complete the application and requirements. By becoming a National Merit Finalist, the world of scholarships opens drastically.

Suddenly, it doesn’t matter if you got a 2200 or 2300 on your SAT. All that matters is you’re a National Merit Finalist, and you get a higher tier scholarship at your state school than the kid who received a near perfect score on his SAT but wasn’t a National Merit Finalist.

For example, the University of Oklahoma, which is ranked number one for its number of National Merit Finalists enrolled, offers a near full-ride of scholarship to National Merit Finalists. This scholarship, valued at $101,000 for out-of-state students, is more than three times the amount of the next highest scholarship: a $31,200 scholarship for students who achieve a 34 ACT score (approximately a 2250 SAT).

Translate the approximate 2250 SAT score into a PSAT score and it’d be about a 225. And, with the highest cutoff being a 224 to qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist, that means that it’s much easier to attain an equivalently lower score on the PSAT and attain a near-full-ride than it is to achieve a higher score on the SAT and only attain a third of that scholarship money.

Say you received a 2200 on your SAT after studying relentlessly. That’s a $20,000 scholarship from the University of Oklahoma. But say you received that equivalent, a 220, on your PSAT. Depending on your state, that’s likely a $101,000 scholarship from the University of Oklahoma as a National Merit Finalist. Yet the University of Oklahoma isn’t the only school to offer a hefty scholarship package to its National Merit Finalists. If a school offers scholarship for being a National Merit Finalist, it often is the highest scholarship their school offers—by quite a bit.

So instead of stressing out over the looming SAT, maybe high school students need to realize that their ticket for a near full-ride scholarship lies in just one simple preliminary test—the practice SAT. And maybe we need to realize that one letter does make a difference — often the difference between a $101,000 and $31,200 scholarship.

What You Need To Know About The National Merit Scholarship

3 Types

  1. One-time $2500 Scholarship
  2. College Sponsored Scholarship packages that can be as high as $8,000 to $10,000 a year, renewable for up to 4 years (for the 2000-2001 school year, FSU offers $8,000 a year and UF offers $4,000 a year.) All national merit recipients in Florida are, also, eligible for A Bright Futures Scholarship. The highest category of Bright Futures pays 100% of tuition and books, but also requires that the student do 75 hours of community service with a non-profit organization.
  3. Corporate Sponsored scholarships- some are for one year and some are renewable.

How Do You Qualify?

  • By Taking the PSAT/NMSQT in October of the 11th Grade
  • By achieving semifinalists status by being in the top 1% of all students in your state that year (In Florida this year that requires a PSAT score of around 213).
  • By proving your PSAT scores with a score of 1300 or better on the SAT taken the following fall.
  • And by having a 3.5 GPA in high school work and good recommendation letters from a teacher other than the parents.

How Difficult Is It To Qualify?

  • Over the past few years, about 25% of home schoolers in Florida who have taken their SAT in the 11th or 12th grade have scored close to or above 1300. With a very little work, these students could have received a National Merit Scholarship, BUT NONE OF THEM TOOK THE PSAT, SO NONE OF THEM QUALIFIED FOR A NATIONAL MERIT SCHOLARSHIP.
  • In order to be ready for the PSAT by 11th Grade, a student needs to finish ALgebra I and Geometry before the test.
  • The more test preparation the better. With test preparation, my son raised his SAT score by 190 points in about one year of review, working 2 hours a day and taking one practice test each week for about 5 months.

What Is The PSAT?

  • A 2 hour and 10 minute standardized test with 4 (25 minute sections) and 1 (30 minute section)
  • 2 verbal sections (25 minutes each)
  • 2 math sections (25 minutes each)
  • 1 writing section (30 minutes each)
  • Given in the fall of the 11th grade, but you may practice it in the 10th grade.

The “PSAT” Is The Prelimary SAT, Which Is About Half The Length Of The SAT And Does Not Include The Written Essay.

What Is The National Merit Scholarship Program?

In brief, NMSP is a national competition which identifies high-potential students primarily on the basis of their PSAT scores and awards them scholarships either directly or indirectly through corporate sponsorship or through the colleges they choose to attend.

When Do I Have To Take The PSAT In Order To Be In The Competition?

The PSAT that is taken in October of your junior year is the one that is used. If you miss your school’s PSAT date, then have your GC quickly contact NMSC and a SAT score taken shortly thereafter will be used. It is possible to take the PSAT as a sophomore or even as a freshman, but these scores will not qualify for the NMSP competition.

How Many People Take The PSAT?

As of 2011 the total number of junior testers exceeded 1.5 million. This represented almost 50% of number expected to go on to graduate in 2013.

When Do I Find Out My Scores?

Scores are received by high schools by about Thanksgiving week each year. High schools have their own schedules about notifying students of their scores. Some do so almost immediately and some wait until January. Neither the College Board (who administers the PSAT) nor the NMSC contact students directly about their scores.

I Received A Letter From The NMSC Telling Me I Am A “Top-Scorer”. What Is That?

A top-scorer is among the 50,000 (top 3.3%) highest scorers among all junior testers. The qualifying score for this is set on a nation-wide basis and is usually around 200-202. Top-scorers are notified in April of their junior year.

How Do I Make NMSF And When Do I Find Out?

NNSF’s are selected from the pool of top-scorers. Each state has a qualifying “cut-off” score. So, if your junior year PSAT score is “at or above” your state’s cut-off score (boarding schools have other cut-offs based on regional groupings), then you’ll make NMSF. You’ll find out around mid-September of your senior year. However, many schools will tell you in late August.

Is The Cut-Off Determined By The Top 1% Of Scorers In The State?

Only approximately and on average. The cut-offs are determined by allocations based on a state’s number of graduating seniors, not by number of PSAT testers. (Note that a group consisting of 1% of scorers is also a group consisting of 0.5% of high school graduates.)

What Is The Highest PSAT Cut-Off Score Of Any State? The Lowest?

The highest cut-off score has been a 223. The lowest has been around 200 in some years. (Boarding school cut-offs are equal to that of the highest state in their region.)

2011 Cutoff Scores

AL 211; AK 212; AZ 213; AR 205; CA 221; CO 215; CT 220; DE 217; DC 223; FL 214; GA 218; HI 216; 211; IL 216; IN 214; IA 210; KS 214; KY 212; LA 209; ME 212; MD 221; MA 223; MI 210; MN 215; MS 205; MO 213; MT 209; NE 209; NV 209; NH 216; NJ 223; NM 210; NY 219; NC 217; ND 204; OH 214; OK 209; OR 216; PA 215; RI 213; SC 211; SD 206; TN 214; TX 219; UT 208; VT 217; VA 220; WA 220; WV 204; WI 209; WY 204; International 223; New England Boarding Schools 223; Commended Scholar 202

Why Isn’t There A National NMSF Cut-Off? Why Do This State-By-State?

That is a question that should be directed at the NMSC. Suffice to say it has been done this way for many decades.

What Happens To The Other Top-Scorers?

The 34,000 top-scorers who do not qualify as NMSF are recognized as “Commended Scholars” but do not advance beyond this level. Some colleges will grant merit aid to Commended Scholars.

What Are The Qualifications To Go From NMSF To NMF?

After you’ve been named NMSF, you’ll have some paperwork to fill out (now done online). You’ll have an essay to write as well. YOUR SCHOOL will have to fill out a recommendation and include a copy of your grades/transcript. If you have good grades (usually no more than 1 or 2 C semester grades), you haven’t been a discipline problem, you have a confirming SAT over the minimum (1960+), you’ve sent your SAT to NMCorp, you write a decent essay, then you’ll make NMF.

When Are Students Named NMF?

Students who have been named finalists will be notified in February of their senior year.

When Are Rejected Students Notified?

Rejection letters are sent out the first week in January of senior year.

How Many Students Go From NMSF To NMF?

16,000 students are named NMSF. 15,000 are named NMF. So, usually the 1000 who don’t make NMF have CAUSED the problem by….not getting the SAT score, having bad grades, writing a rude essay, being a discipline problem at school, not doing the NMSF paperwork, not sending SAT score in.

Does My SAT Score Need To “Match” My PSAT Score.

NO. It only has to exceed the minimum required SAT score….which is usually around 1960. However, to be safe, try to have at least a 2000.

Keep in mind that the “confirming” SAT score is calculated by excluding the essay contribution to your “normal” SAT score. In other words to get the confirming score (1) find the writing multiple choice subscore on you SAT score report (this will be a two digit number likely 60-80 for most NMSF’s), (2) multiply it by 10 and (3) add it to your math and critical reading scores. As a formula the confirming calculation looks like this: CR + M + (W(mc)*10) = confirming score.

Which SAT Score Is Used?

One that is taken between sophomore year and December of senior year. Score must be sent to NMSC…code 0085.

Can My SAT Be Superscored?


Which NMF Students Are Named NM Scholars?

Any student who receives an “official” NM scholarship is named a NMS. That scholarship can be from 3 sources:

a) a one time $2500 award from NMSC given to 2500 students

b) a corporate award, usually awarded to the children of employees who sponsor NM scholarships.

c) a NMF scholarship from a college that sponsors official NM scholarships.

Does It Matter If My School Has A LOT Of NMSFs? Will That Hurt My Chances Of Making NMF?

NO. Sometimes, a school will get the odd idea that they can’t recommend all their NMSFs. Those schools are wrong and they should be corrected.

Will The NMSC Use An ACT Score Instead Of A SAT Score To Go From NMSF To NMF?

NO. It must be a SAT score taken some time during sophomore year through December of senior year. If you have only an ACT score and find you have qualifed for NMSF, you will have the October, November, and December sittings of the SAT in which you can take the SAT in order to qualify for NMF.

Do I Have To Name A “First Choice School” Before Spring Of Senior Year?

Usually, you do NOT have to name a first choice school before spring of senior year. However, check with each of your schools to see if any have a deadline in order to be considered for a NMF scholarship. Some schools want to be named by January or February of senior year.

What Can I Do To Improve My Chances Of Making NMSF?

Use a College Board SAT practice book and practice during the summer. Sign up for the October SAT. It’s given about a week before the PSAT. If you’re a rising sophomore, see if your school will let sophomores take the PSAT. Also for sophomores, sign up for a spring SAT and get the detailed score report/answer sheet so that you can go over wrong answers. Some schools even permit freshman to sit the PSAT.

My School Doesn’t Offer The PSAT To All Junior Students. What Should I Do?

In late August contact your school’s GC and find out what you need to do so that you can take the PSAT. You may have to pay a small fee.

Even Though I Have A Qualifying Score, My School (1) Has Not Contacted Me Or (2) Doesn’t Know Anything About The National Merit Or (3) Says I Am Not On Their “List”. What Should I Do?

Often high schools have many concerns, especially as the school year starts, that do not prioritize the interests of their higher-performing students. In particular if your school does not often have NMSF qualifiers they might not be aware of the significance of the notice they received. If there is no one familiar with the NMSP notice can get lost in the office shuffle. It is also possible you might have provided incorrect information about yourself when you took the PSAT last October.

First be aware that only scores taken as a high school junior (or, more precisely, in the second-to-last year of high school) qualify for the NMSP. Sophomore and freshman scores do not count. Assuming you have already talked with your guidance counselor or school administration about your score, you should contact the NMSC directly about your status by calling their office on or after the press embargo date in mid-September. They will be happy to help you. National Merit Scholarship Corporation

If you do confirm you qualify you will have to fill out an on-line form to advance to the NMF level. Your school will also have to provide information on your behalf, too, and you might have to supervise the process to make sure their part is completed in a timely fashion.

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Additional Information

National Hispanic Recognition Program:

See this thread for FAQs, Regional cutoffs, scholarships, etc.:
National Hispanic Recognition Program

National Achievement Scholarship Program For African-American Students

National Merit Scholarship Corporation – NASP

Historic Cutoffs

National Merit Semifinalist Qualify Scores — Class of 2012

Advice For NMSF Qualifiers

Carleton College: Admissions: Tips for National Merit Scholars

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