Does the PSAT Matter? Should You Put Effort Into PSAT Preparation?

Although the PSAT Isn't Used for College Admissions , It Does Matter.

Students Taking Exam
Students Taking Exam. Fuse / Getty Images

Early in junior year (sophomore year for some students), the PSAT gives high school students a taste of standardized testing for college admissions. But does this exam matter? Should you take it seriously? Is it something for which you should prepare so that you do well? What is the relationship between the PSAT and your college aspirations?

Do Colleges Care About the PSAT?

The short answer is "no." The PSAT is not part of the calculation that colleges use when they make their college admissions decisions, and your PSAT score won't affect your admission chances one way or another. Your acceptance or rejection is much more dependent on the SAT or ACT unless the school has test-optional admissions. An abysmal score on the PSAT will not have any direct effect on your chances of getting into a college.

That said, the PSAT does have many indirect relationships with the college admissions process, so it is, in fact, an exam you should take at least somewhat seriously.

Why the PSAT Does Matter

You definitely want to keep PSAT scores in perspective. A low score will not be seen by colleges, so even if you don't perform well you haven't hurt your chances of getting into a top college or university. That said, a strong score on the PSAT can have significant advantages.

The PSAT and Scholarships

  • Keep in mind that the full name of the PSAT: it is both the Practice SAT (PSAT) and the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). Your scores on the PSAT are used for awarding many scholarships including about 7,500 National Merit Scholarships.
  • If you are a National Merit finalist (or sometimes even a semi-finalist or commended student), many corporations use this honor to award their own private scholarships.
  • Hundreds of colleges guarantee additional merit scholarships to National Merit finalists.
  • Many colleges, in an effort to attract the best students and boost their reputations, offer significant institutional grants (sometimes even free tuition) to National Merit finalists. National Merit finalists are aggressively recruited by colleges.
  • To reiterate the financial picture—the combination of a National Merit Scholarship, corporate scholarships, college scholarships, and college grants can add up to tens of thousands of dollars for strong students.

Preparation for the SAT

  • The content of the PSAT is quite similar to the SAT, so the exam will give you a good indication of your level of preparedness for the SAT. If you do poorly on the PSAT, this is a sign that you need to do some meaningful preparation before taking the SAT. Whether you take an SAT prep course or self-study, improving your SAT score is a sure way to strengthen your college application.
  • The College Board, the company that creates the PSAT and SAT, has teamed up with Khan Academy to provide students with free, focused preparation for the SAT. Your performance on different types of PSAT questions allows the College Board and Khan Academy to structure a study plan focused on your particular strengths and weaknesses.

College Recruitment

  • In the winter after you take the PSAT, colleges will probably begin sending unsolicited mail to you. While much of this mail may end up in the recycling bin, it’s useful for seeing how different colleges try to distinguish themselves. The college brochures also give you useful information for figuring out which types of schools are of most interest to you, and which schools are most interested in you.
  • Along the same lines, when you take the PSAT, you will create an account with the College Board. The information in that account—including your academic interests, extracurricular activities, and, of course, test scores—allows the College Board to provide your information to colleges who think you would be a good match for their academic programs and campus community.

A Final Word About the PSAT

In general, if you're a strong student, you should definitely take the PSAT seriously so that you are a contender for awards including National Merit Scholarships. Even if you aren't an exceptional student, the PSAT has value as both a practice test for the SAT, and as a tool for focusing your study for the SAT. There's no need to stress over the SAT—it won't directly influence college admissions decisions—but it is worth taking the test seriously.