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Countdown to College: How important is the PSAT?

By Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

On Oct. 16, millions of high school juniors will be sharpening their No. 2 pencils and filling in bubbles on the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test).

The PSAT is a 2-hour, 10-minute exam that prepares students for the SAT. The PSAT has three sections: Critical Reading, Math and Writing.

The PSAT and SAT have similar score ranges: PSAT: 20-80 for each section, and the SAT: 200-800. These scores are combined to create the National Merit Scholarship selection index.

National Merit awards approximately 8,200 scholarships annually. Score cutoffs vary from state to state. Historically, semifinalists have scored in the top 1 percent of students in their state, and commended scholars are typically in the top 1 to 4 percent.

What is tested?

Critical Reading: 13 questions on sentence completion and 35 passage-based reading questions; two 25-minute sections.

Writing: 14 questions on identifying sentence errors, 20 questions on improving sentences, 5 questions on improving paragraphs; one 30-minute section.

Math: 28 multiple-choice questions, 10 grid-in questions; two 25-minute sections.

Benefits of the PSAT

The PSAT has no downside for students. Colleges will not see the results unless the student earns top scores. By carefully reviewing their test results, students can learn a lot about their strengths and weaknesses.

Understanding your need areas as a junior allows enough time to address the gaps and improve test scores for when they really count. It’s a great idea to familiarize yourself with the test structure, the section directions and the format of the questions that you’ll see on the SAT.

Test-taking tips

• Take the practice test in The Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT booklet. Pick one up in the guidance office.

• Keep a comfortable pace and don’t get stuck on a single question. Students can earn an above-average score by answering half of the questions correctly and omitting answers for the rest of the questions.

• Don’t guess unless you can eliminate at least one response. A half-point is deducted for every incorrect answer.

• Bubble correctly. Check your answer sheet regularly to make sure you are in the right place.

• Bring a calculator.

While there is no need to panic over the PSAT, a solid score can translate into scholarships, reduce stress and increase confidence.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com

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