college admissions advice

Do Colleges Look at PSAT Scores?

If you’re a 10th or 11th grader, you were probably shuffled into a large auditorium sometime in the not-too-distant past to take the PSAT, a practice version of the College Board’s SAT. If you’re anything like the majority of students I speak with every year, you’re probably a little confused about the relevance of the test or the reason for taking it. And when your results arrived just a week or two ago, you were probably a little perplexed by the numbers and what they mean for the future. Hopefully this article can help you make some sense of the whole experience, and give you a better idea of how it fits into the admissions process.

What Do My PSAT Scores Mean?

In and of themselves, your scores don’t mean a whole lot. Colleges will never ask you for your PSAT results, and you’ll never have to report them. Because of this, I love thinking of the PSAT as a really useful data point for my students; it’s a dry run at the SAT with no stakes. At the very least, you get to see how the SAT will feel when you take it for real, and truly savvy students can use their results to “predict” their SAT scores a year down the road. At College Coach, we advise students to give themselves a rough estimate of their junior SAT by taking the combined score of their sophomore PSAT, multiplying by 10, and adding 100 points. It’s not perfect, but it gets you in the ballpark.

You can also look at your subject breakdown to get a sense of your point of emphasis as you engage in test prep. If you have a 71 on the math and a 53 on the critical reading section, you’re probably going to want to spend more time on critical reading than math to bring your score up: there’s more room for growth there, and you can establish consistency across subjects. As with any data point, the results of the PSAT are only instructive if you use them.

What About the National Merit Scholarship?

This is the one sense in which the PSAT does matter: its alternate name is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or NMSQT. Strong results on the PSAT will put you in the running for a one-time $2,500 scholarship to a first-choice college later on down the road. That said, the value of the National Merit Scholarship is not as significant as many students and families expect, nor is it easy to attain. Some quick facts:

  • Only 3% of test-takers qualify for recognition from National Merit.
  • Only the top 1% (about 15,000 students) are named Finalists.
  • Many colleges offer institutional scholarships to Finalists, in accordance with their own policies.
  • Finalists compete for the one-time scholarship of $2,500, which is only available at the colleges on this list.

A lot of students ask me if being a National Merit Scholar is impressive in the admissions process. While I think it’s a great achievement, it never stood out in my experience because it was a form of redundant recognition. National Merit Scholars also had top grades and test scores, and I was much more interested in those attributes than external recognition from National Merit. In the end, it never made a difference in the admissions decision. That said, there are some schools that will offer special institutional scholarships (ASU, Fordham, Northeastern, Oberlin come to mind) for National Merit Finalists. At these schools, your title will make a difference, so be on the lookout for institutional policy.

Okay, So What’s Next?

Aside from the massive quantities of college mail you’re about to receive (colleges use your PSAT scores to “buy” your contact information and begin bombarding you with content), your next step is to build on your results. If you’re not happy with your score, know that there’s definitely room for improvement. Students who work hard and prepare for the SAT can increase their scores, but only if they put forth the effort! If you are happy with your score, keep on studying—and not just on tests! Scores are just one part of the picture in college admissions, and a strong transcript is almost universally considered more important than SAT scores alone. The race isn’t over once you’ve got those high board scores—you’ll want to run through the tape with your schoolwork, as well.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.