“The PSAT, Test Prep and Next Steps in Testing”

The arrival of PSAT results has long marked the unofficial start of college planning for most high school juniors. Until now, the prospect of going to college seemed an abstract notion—a distant point of the horizon for most teenagers. College was a likely destination, but one that could be addressed later—all in good time. For those busy living in the moment, that part of “tomorrow” could wait.

All of that changed, however, with the recent delivery of the PSAT results. Much like an “invitation to the dance,” the scores—and, soon, the avalanche of recruitment materials from college suitors that is sure to follow—beckon students into the realm of new possibilities. With each day, the future—and the realities of the college-going process—become more real.

If you are one of these students, it is important to stop for a moment to gain some perspective on what these scores mean and to map out a strategy for addressing testing in the future.

Behind the PSAT
The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is cosponsored by the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Intended to provide firsthand practice for the SAT and it also gives you a chance to enter NMSC scholarship programs. While the results will not be part of the academic record you submit in the college admission process, they do project future SAT outcomes and, as such, give you a solid jumping-off point with regard to college list development.

The PSAT as an SAT Forecast
The “evidence-based reading and writing” and  math subsections of the PSAT are each scored on a scale of 20-80 with 80 being the highest possible score. To project your results into an SAT score (200-800 scale for each of the subsections), simply multiply each PSAT subscore by 10. The highest possible SAT result is 1600. Keep in mind your PSAT result is only a projection. Subsequent SAT results could range above or below.

With regard to your PSAT result, if you like what you see, congratulations! You’re off to a good start. But, if your numbers don’t measure up to your expectations, relax—your life isn’t over.

However you feel about your scores, don’t let them change you. Big scores are no more a guarantee of admission and scholarships than modest scores are an arbitrary limitation of opportunity. Besides, with dedicated effort in a test prep program, you can change the scores (more on that below). Use what you learn from the results to help yourself. Stay focused on your priorities. Do what you do as well as you can. And look for colleges that value you for what you have to offer.

Use the PSAT Results for College List Building

While I am not a fan of standardized testing as an evaluative tool in the admission process, your results can help you arrive at a short list of schools at which you should be able to compete for admission. Here is what you can do: Multiply your PSAT results by 10 to approximate your SAT result. Then, add 60 points in anticipation of the typical improvement shown over the course of 2-3 test administrations. Therefore, with or without test prep, a PSAT score of 124 (that translates into an SAT score of 1240) could become an SAT score of 1300 down the road.

With this information in hand, look at the range of SAT scores for enrolled students reported by the schools that interest you. Focus on the places where your projected result would put you in the top half of the scores reported. If you are looking at highly selective schools, your scores should be in the top 25% of those reported—just to give you hope for positive outcomes. Do the same for your ACT results if you took that test. This approach to identifying schools isn’t full proof, but it will help you find the right competitive “playing fields” for you given your credentials.

More Tests to Come
Generally speaking, it is a good idea to take the SAT at least twice (but no more than three times), once later in your Junior year and once in your Senior year. The same is true of the ACT if that is your test of choice. If you are considering engineering programs, specialty schools or highly selective colleges that require SAT Subject Tests, it is best—when possible—to time these tests to coincide with the completion of related coursework. Consult the testing schedules at CollegeBoard.com and ACTStudent.org for dates and then map out your testing strategy accordingly.

Make a Difference with Test Prep
Very few students are entirely happy with their PSAT or, for that matter, their first SAT results. Those striving for perfection want to tweak their already high scores upwards while many others would simply like to see some measure of improvement. Wherever you are on the continuum, know that meaningful engagement in test prep can help improve your testing profile.

With that in mind, I would urge you to take a look at Revolution Prep. If you have been following my work, you know that I refrain from promoting particular brands as they relate to the college-going process. However, I have found Revolution Prep to be more than worthy of your consideration. The underlying premise of Revolution Prep is that students perform better on the test when they are able to make contextually sound decisions. The more they engage in the program, the more confident they become as problem-solvers as their mastery of related subject matters grows!

Regardless of the direction you take with test prep, know that, as is true with so many performance areas, results will be commensurate with the degree of effort you put forth.

Additional Testing Tips
Now that you have “gotten your feet wet” with the PSAT, keep the following in mind as you proceed with additional testing.

  • You have testing options. Try the SAT and the ACT to discover the style of test that fits you best. Then, focus on preparing for that test. Every college in the country accepts ACT and SAT results.
  • Plan your involvement with test prep so that you will finish the course within two weeks of the targeted SAT/ACT administration.
  • Limit yourself to three sittings for the test you choose (ACT/SAT). There is a point of diminishing return!
  • Remember you have “Score Choice” at your disposal, which means you can choose the scores you would like to forward to colleges. If you are nervous about how your scores will be viewed at certain colleges, wait until you have taken the SAT/ACT several times to determine which scores you’d like to send.
  • Speaking of options, nearly 1,000 colleges universities now welcome applications without test results. Go to FairTest.org to see the complete list of “test optional” schools.

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