Leadership Insights

What Role Does the PSAT Play in the National Merit Scholarship?

By The Room 241 Team November 5, 2012

For numerous years, the PSAT was simply a practice test for the future, more important SAT exam. However, this test is now used as an important qualification component of the National Merit Scholarship program.

PSAT Renamed

The test has been renamed the PSAT/NMSQT® to identify the PSAT National Merit Scholarship relationship. Formerly, known as the “practice” test for the SAT taken by high school juniors and seniors, the PSAT National Merit Scholarship collaboration has increased its importance for high school juniors.

Although the exam has increased importance as a standardized test college entrance and scholarship component, the PSAT has retained its basic features.

  • PSAT National Merit Scholarship qualification test is still offered by the College Board
  • Exam remains a shortened version of the SAT
  • PSAT includes the three parts of the SAT, including measuring verbal, math and writing skills
  • Test scale ranges from 20 to 80 for each section
  • Maximum student score is 240, representing the top 80 level score on each part
  • Major difference is that the writing section does not include an essay, as does the longer SAT exam

The official renaming of the exam, includes a different definition of the “P.” Formerly, identified as the “Practice” SAT, the test is now technically called the “Preliminary” SAT. The high correlation between student scores on the PSAT and their results were they to take the longer SAT at the same time, remains steadfast.

PSAT/NMSQT significance

The PSAT National Merit Scholarship QT is now the “screening mechanism” for the qualification of students for the highly respected scholarship program. Along with its value as a relevant practice exam, the test fulfills a dual role now, both as the practice SAT test and as an important scholarship qualifier.

Given to high school juniors in mid-October each year, the exam is excellent preparation for the standardized test college entrance exam, the SAT. Statistics show that the PSAT/NMSQT® gives students an accurate measurement of their strengths and weaknesses.

Even those students who do not complete any formal test preparation courses will score higher on the SAT if it is taken a few months after the first PSAT exam. The test’s value was not lost on the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The PSAT/NMSQT® is also used by the National Achievement Scholarship, for African Americans, and the National Hispanic Recognition programs to recognize worthy scholarship students.

National Merit Scholarship Program

Prior to the PSAT National Merit Scholarship collaboration, the scholarship organization gave its own separate test. The consistently reliable results of the PSAT as a predictor of a student’s potential SAT score helped convince the National Merit Scholarship Program that a partnership with PSAT was effective.

The scholarship corporation now advises the high school juniors who score in the top two percent, around 50,000 students, on the PSAT National Merit Scholarship QT that they scored well. The qualifiers can then choose to have the scholarship corporation notify two colleges each of their outstanding performance.

Becoming a semifinalist

Typical qualifier cutoff scores on the PSAT/NMSQT® are usually around 200 out of the maximum 240. Colleges receive this notification, if the student wishes, but institutions do not receive actual PSAT/NMSQT® scores. During September of the next year, when the qualifiers are seniors, around 16,000 are selected as semifinalists.

Typically, semifinalists score in the top one percent of students in a state-by-state analysis, which includes different cutoff levels. The highest qualifying scores recently came from Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, with the lowest cutoff scores recorded in Wyoming and Mississippi.

Becoming a finalist

Based on their PSAT National Merit Scholarship QT score, semifinalists are then invited to submit documentation that hopefully leads to earning finalist status. The invitation requests the following information.

  • An essay;
  • Their high school transcript;
  • The student’s SAT scores; and
  • A recommendation from their school addressing their educators’ belief that the student should be considered a finalist.

Around 90 percent of the semifinalists become finalists. Usually, about one-half of the finalists receive scholarship monies from the National Merit Corporation, from a participating organization for which one of their parents is employed, or from one of about 200 colleges and universities wanting to enroll National Merit Scholars.

The PSAT/NMSQT® plays a major role in the National Merit Scholarship qualification process and eventual awards. There remain some detractors who believe too much weight is placed on a two-hour multiple choice exam. Some of the most elite schools, such as the entire Ivy League, refuse to award scholarship money based solely on this criteria.

However, as a standardized test college entrance qualifier, the PSAT National Merit Scholarship partnership plays a valuable role in the future education of thousands of students each year. The PSAT is now much more than a mere practice test for the future SATs.

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