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Mar 142014

Summer is on the way and, before you know it, it will be time for high school juniors to take the PSAT.

The PSAT (in 11th grade), SAT (12th grade) and ACT (12th grade) are three of the most important standardized tests college-bound high school students will take. Of these, you may be surprised to learn that the PSAT is perhaps the most important. Why? Because a qualifying score on the PSAT sets your students apart as a National Merit Semi-Finalist. And National Merit Semi-Finalists are eagerly recruited by colleges and universities. In fact, many schools will try to lure National Merit Scholars with offers of big scholarship money.

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation sets a different qualifying level for each state, based on data about all test-takers in all states. For the class of 2012 — students who took the PSAT in the fall of 2013 — Florida’s number was 214 (out of 240), up from 210 for the class of 2011. By way of comparison, the number for Massachusetts was 223 and for Oklahoma it was 210. So it’s easier to qualify in some states than in others. (This tells you something about the quality of education from state to state, and readiness of students to take the PSAT, but that’s another post.)

There are many ways to prepare for this critical test, but by far the most painless is to tackle the SAT Question of the Day starting in 8th or 9th grade. Why? Well, for starters, the PSAT is in fact the Preliminary SAT. You may have noticed that the PSAT is scored out of 240. The SAT is scored out of 2400. Most students will score pretty much the same on the SAT as they did on the PSAT, i.e., a score of 218 on the PSAT will translate to a score of 2180 on the SAT. The tests are nearly identical, with the exception that there is some higher level math on the SAT. Working through the SAT question of the day is a good (and free!) way to get used to the material and questions that will appear on the PSAT.

But the best reason to tackle the SAT Question of the Day is because it’s just one question a day. And everyone has the time to work through one question a day. Some questions will be easy, with no effort required. Others will require students to review the solution (provided in detail on the answer page) to gain a better understanding of the material. Either way, it’s a short activity with a lot of impact. A student who begins prepping with the SAT Question of the Day in 9th grade will have completed 730 questions by test day in 11th grade. For some students, this will be all the prep they’ll need. I recommend having your student take the PSAT in 10th grade so you can get an idea of what areas may need additional study. The test results include detailed information about the questions missed, making it easy to create a personalized study guide.

Note: The SAT exam is being redesigned. The new version will be administered starting in spring of 2016. If your child is in grade 9 this year, s/he will be taking the new SAT. Students currently in 10th grade or higher will still take the existing SAT. According to the College Board, “The full specifications of the exam along with extensive sample items for each section will be available on April 16, 2014.“ For a summary of the changes, keep an eye on the College Board Website.

Free Resources:
National Merit Scholarship Corporation
SAT Question of the Day
ACT Question of the DayFavorite Study Guides:
The Official SAT Study Guide with DVD
11 Practice Tests for the SAT and PSAT, 2014 Edition
Kaplan PSAT/NMSQT 2014 Strategies, Practice, and Review