This is the time of year that parents come back from vacation to the reality of standardized tests.  Many have just received their child’s PSAT scores.  Here’s one Rockhurst parent’s email to us: “My son, a junior, just got his PSAT scores and is pretty heartbroken about his 210.  Great score, but most likely a point or two below what the cut-off will be.”  Cut-off?  Heartbroken?  I know, it takes some explanation.

Some parents start dealing with these tests as early 7th grade.  Participation in the Duke TIP program (in which students are asked to take an SAT before ever having covered the subjects that it touches on, furthering the myth that it is some version of an IQ test) seems to be a high water mark among some competitive parents, but I’ve always maintained that the advantage in participation is not in getting into a great college (I had students go to Dartmouth and Princeton last year who never even knew about the program) but in the really innovative and interesting programs that you can participate in (and subsequently add to your resume) as a result of being in TIP.

Wait a minute, the SAT isn’t a test of how smart you are?

As heartbreaking as this may be for those who did well on their entrance exams years ago, and carved out a life of success for themselves based on these scores, these exams have nothing to do with academics.  It doesn’t even have anything to do with test taking.  It has everything to do with understanding how this particular test is constructed and attacking it accordingly.  Sure, there are plenty of “A” students who do well on this test, but there are also plenty of “A” students who test fine in school who don’t do so well on this test.  What does this mean?  Well, either it means that they’ve fooled teachers and parents for years, and are really not intelligent, or that this test is not about intelligence.  All the SAT (or the ACT) provides is another method colleges can use to eliminate candidates in an ever-competitive pool of high school students.

When do I get started?

For 98% of the country, the race really starts junior year.  No matter how high a student scores as a sophomore on a PSAT, he/she cannot qualify for the National Merit Scholarship competition until junior Year.  During the Fall of junior year, students compete against every single other junior in the country to earn a “selection index”.  This selection index is simply the sum of all three of your 2 digit scores (example, a student scores a 62 Reading, 60 Math, and 71 Writing, that’s a 193 index).  This not only tilts towards a student’s verbal skills, is not an entirely accurate predictor of SAT performance.  The conventional wisdom is simply to “add a zero” to the 2 digit PSAT scores, but while this helps give a general idea of scores, it is far from accurate for two reasons:  1) The PSAT is 1 hour and 15 minutes shorter than the real exam, has easier questions than the real SAT, and brings none of the real life actual pressures that that test brings, 2) The scores are set as curved against every single other Junior in the country taking the test that day, making an enormous curve that never occurs on any one of the individual 6 SAT national dates.  This explains how a student can miss one question on a PSAT and lose as much as 5 points – the curve is very steep.

While being a National Merit Scholar brings some cachet to any college application, it also (more importantly) brings cash – be it as far away as USC (a half-tuition scholarship for any Finalist who designates USC as their first choice school) or as close as KU ($10,000/year for the same conditions).  Will prepping for the PSAT help?  If you are a serious contender for a top-tier school, yes.  The reason is that the test is not the only determinant of Semi-Finalist or Finalist status.  If the grades and resume aren’t there (and believe me, they are there for the tens of thousands of other students vying for the title) your time is better spent improving the resume you do have and doing well in the classes you are taking.

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