The Preliminary SAT (PSAT), also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), serves two purposes. It is a practice version of the SAT. It is also a test that can help students qualify for scholarships and other honors. The test is co-sponsored by both the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).
Assessment of Academic Skills
The PSAT/NMSQT measures the skills a student has developed in math, reading and writing. It can help students identify academic skills that need improvement. Typically, students take the test as sophomores and juniors, although some take it earlier.
The test is given every October on two different test dates. (In 2014, the test is offered on October 15 and 18). To find out which date their school is offering the test, students should check out PSAT/NMSQT High School Search. They should also ask their high school counselor about registering for the test and getting a copy of the PSAT/NMSQT Official Student Guide. Reviewing the guide will help the student to become familiar with the types of questions, to access practice questions as well as tips for preparing for the test.
The PSAT/NMSQT takes 2 hours and 10 minutes to complete. It is made up of 5 sections: two 25-minute critical reading sections, two 25-minute math sections and one 30-minute writing-skills section. According to the College Board, "the critical reading sections include multiple-choice sentence completions and critical-reading questions. The math sections include both multiple-choice questions and problem-solving. For the writing skills section, students answer multiple-choice questions related to identifying sentence errors, improving sentences and improving paragraphs."
Preparing for the PSAT
According to the College Board, "the best way to prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT is to take challenging courses, read widely, write frequently and develop problem-solving skills both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities. These are the same habits that prepare students for the SAT and AP exams as well as college and career."
Qualifying for Scholarships
If the student is a junior, his or her PSAT/NMSQT score might qualify the student for merit- or need-based scholarships and recognition through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Even though only juniors can qualify for scholarships and academic recognition, taking the PSAT/NMSQT before the junior year is also helpful. Students who do so will have more time to use the personalized feedback on their skill strengths and weaknesses after taking the test to boost their academic skills and to start planning for college.
All juniors who take the PSAT/NMSQT are automatically entered in the National Merit Scholarship competition, the largest merit-based scholarship competition in the country.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) sends a Score Report Plus that shows the student’s Selection Index score (critical reading + mathematics + writing skills). The Selection Index scores of students who meet additional entry requirements (completing a separate application, having a consistently very high academic record, writing an essay, being endorsed by a school official, and taking the SAT and earning a score that confirms the student’s PSAT/NMSQT performance) are used to designate high scorers to receive recognition as Semifinalists. The NMSC identifies approximately 1.5 million Semifinalists each year.
Students who qualify as Semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship program and meet academic and other standards will advance to the Finalist level to compete for one of more than 55,000 annual recognitions in the National Merit program and National Achievement program.
Scholars are notified, on a rolling basis, beginning in late February and ending in June, of their status.
Types of Scholarships
The National Merit Scholarship Program offers three types of Merit Scholarship awards to Finalists:
- National Merit $2,500 Scholarships
- Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards
- College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards
The National Achievement Scholarship Program awards Special Scholarships to outstanding students who are not Finalists but meet a corporate sponsor’s selection criteria. In 2015, two types of scholarships are offered:
- National Achievement $2,500 Scholarships
- Corporate-sponsored Achievement Scholarships