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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 10/14/2010

The PSAT/National Merit test: What you should know

By Valerie Strauss

If you have an 11th grader, there’s a good chance he or she took the PSAT/NMSQT yesterday, or will take it on Saturday. Plenty of 10th graders take it now too.

Here’s what you should know:

The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is a program cosponsored by the College Board and National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

The test takes two hours and 10 minutes to complete and consists of:
--two 25-minute critical reading sections
--two 25-minute math sections
--one 30-minte writing skills section

Stated reasons for existing: To provide practice for the SAT college admissions exam, and to give juniors a chance to enter the National Merit scholarship programs. Kids who take it can also get access to college and career planning tools offered by the College Board. The test costs $13, though some schools charge more to cover administrative costs, and the fee is sometimes waived.

The scholarship website says that of the 1.5 million entrants, about 50,000 with the highest PSAT/NHMSQT Selection Index scores -- in critical reading, math and writing skills -- qualify for National Merit scholarships.

Then about 34,000--or more than two-thirds--of these will receive letters of commendation, while the rest become semifinalists for the actual scholarship.

About 8,500 are named finalists, eligible for a scholarship of varying amounts. Each state has its own cutoff score, which means that a kid in West Virginia could win a scholarship with a lower score than a kid in New York with a higher score.

Lots of college admissions counselors think this is unfair and that a national scholarship program that purports to take the very top high school students should use the same criteria for everyone. But the folks at the Corporation say that they are only trying to maintain state equity, ensuring that kids from each state share in the benefits.

Of course, any reader of this blog knows that I don’t countenance any program that bases results on standardized test scores. As Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, wrote on The Answer Sheet in February, all standardized test scores “directly correlate with family income.”

The College Board says that the best way to prepare for the PSAT is to take challeging academic courses and to read widely.

But that doesn’t stop some families from forking over big bucks for tutoring, hoping there will be a scholarship payoff. Princeton Review, for example, offers online, small group and private tutoring. A small-group class can cost more than $1,200.

Some parents want their kids to take the PSAT because they think it is good practice for the SAT, and/or that it can lead to scholarships.

Others think it is a waste of time and money. That makes sense to me, but you decide.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 14, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, SAT and ACT, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  National Merit, National Merit scholarships, PSAT, PSAT prep, Princeton Review, SAT prep, college admissions, college scholarships, scholarships, test prep  
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Comments

My family is currently living internationally and it is my understanding that the index cutoff score for such students is even higher. Do you have any information on this? Seems extremely unfair.

Posted by: mpmiles | October 15, 2010 6:43 AM | Report abuse

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