Your student just took the PSAT. Now what?

10 Nov 2016
Ron Michalak

On October 19, tens of thousands of Minnesota high school students along with millions of others from around the nation took thePSAT.  For most students, it was an introduction to college-level standardized testing done in a low-stakes environment as performance on that test does not factor into college admissions decisions.

For most students as well, it was an uncomfortable exercise, fraught with anxiety, challenging content, time constraints, distractions and a significant investment of time and energy.  Yet at the end of the day, it was an invaluable exercise for everyone who took it.  Taking a real standardized test gives the student a unique and helpful opportunity to get increasingly comfortable and confident with the whole exercise of taking an ACT or an SAT, which, along with regular practice and preparation, can help the student achieve a desirable score.

Similar to the practice tests Breakaway offers every weekend, a real ACT or SAT gives the student an excellent opportunity to practice working through tough content in a stressful environment, effectively managing his or her time and maintaining focus and concentration for the entirety of the nearly three-hour exam.

Now that it’s over, what can a high school junior or sophomore make of their experience?

For high school juniors, the test is primarily an exercise to identify this year’s National Merit Scholars, which is comprised of a small pool of just 16,000 top scorers on the test.  An additional 34,000 students make up the Commended Scholar list.  This past year, students who scored a 219 or better (out of 228 possible points) were named National Merit Scholars, while students who scored a 209 were named Commended Scholars.  For students scoring outside of that range or for sophomores taking the test, last week’s PSAT was, for all intents and purposes, a practice SAT.

With the debut of the new PSAT and SAT in the past year, the tests are much better aligned with stronger predictive values between them.  For starters, the two tests are nearly identical.  The PSAT has several fewer questions: five questions in reading and ten in math and is 15 minutes shorter.  Otherwise, the PSAT is an SAT.  Same sections, same content, same structure, though the questions the PSAT excludes comprise the most challenging problems seen on the SAT.  And that difference is reflected in the scale for each test.  A perfect score on the SAT is a 1600, while on the PSAT it is 1520.  The lower perfect score reflects slightly easier content, but is scaled to predict SAT scores.  Thus, a score of 550 on the PSAT in reading/writing would be an accurate predictor of a score of 550 on the SAT reading/writing. This allows for better and more accurate performance tracking over time.

Results from last week’s PSAT are scheduled to be available on December 5 for schools and on December 12 for students.  With results in hand, students can then compare their PSAT results to their ACT results, if they’ve taken one, and determine if they have a scoring advantage on either test.  Below, I’ve included a concordance table to facilitate that comparison.


As we turn the corner into 2017, we can begin thinking about testing options for the second part of the year.  Students who attend public schools in Minnesota will have four more opportunities to take the ACT: February 11, April 8 and June 10, as well as a mandatory in-school administration sometime in March or April.  Students who attend private schools will not have access to the extra in-school test.

Looking ahead, now would be a good time to begin thinking about when your student should take another formal ACT or SAT and when to get started on doing any test preparation.  For students who’ve already taken the test and have done some prep, starting prep about six weeks prior to a test date is recommended.  For students who have not yet taken a real ACT or SAT, we recommend starting prep about 8-10 weeks in advance of a target test date.

Our goal for all the juniors we work with is to help them get a score they are happy with by the time they finish junior year.  Ideally, as rising seniors, they can spend their summers focused on application essays and college visits, and not worry so much about testing.  That said, about one-third of the students we work with during the summer are rising seniors looking to add a point or two to their score and ideally position themselves better for admission to desired colleges and/or improve their chances of earning merit scholarships.

With the onset of summer, rising seniors will have a good sense of their GPA, will have at least a couple sets of ACT or SAT scores and have an evolving list of target colleges and universities.  Summer can be used to do the work needed to bring scores and goals into alignment and, as necessary, gear up for one final round of testing.  For next year’s seniors, the SAT will offer two options to test before applications are due.  Along with its October test, the College Board will debut an August SAT test, while the ACT will continue to offer its September and October tests.

If your student is a sophomore, of course, everything noted above will have much more relevance a year from now.  In themeantime, the student’s PSAT score, when available, can be used to benchmark performance from one year to the next, and provide the student with invaluable real test-taking experience.  Sophomore students should continue to bear down on academics and extracurriculars, and strive to have the best year possible.

If you have any questions about your student’s performance on any standardized test, or are interested in learning more about our proven one-on-one instruction for the ACT, SAT, PSAT, subject tests and/or AP tests, please feel free to contact me at your convenience.  I can be reached at 612-216-5133.