Most people think the “P” in PSAT stands for practice when it actually denotes the test as the Preliminary SAT. The difference is semantic, but that ambiguous letter tends to distract us from the more meaningful acronym attached to this semi-optional exam: NMSQT. What does that mean and why does it matter?
The full name of the test–PSAT/NMSQT®–serves as notice that high school students enter the National Merit Program by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. In fact, this is the only way to do so, as neither the SAT nor ACT influence the intial stages of National Merit Scholarship recognition. So while the PSAT has no bearing whatsoever on college admissions, the test matters a lot to a small fraction of students…
How do you qualify for National Merit Scholarship recognition?
Approximately 1.6 million students enter the National Merit Program by taking the PSAT, yet only about 50,000 receive any form of recognition. To qualify, you must meet the following criteria:
1. Be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.
2. Be enrolled as a high school student (homeschooled counts), progressing normally toward graduation.
3. Take the PSAT in the specified year of high school, which is 11th grade in almost all cases.
4. Meet the PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index scores, which will be calculated this year by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores.
What happens if you qualify?
Meeting the Selection Index for qualification, which varies from state to state and year to year, does not guarantee actual scholarship. More than two-thirds or qualifying students are Commended, which means they merely receive Letters of Commendation. The highest scoring entrants in each state become Semifinalists. These students must advance through an academic competition to become Finalists. The most accomplished Finalists are designated Merit Scholars:
- 34,000 Commended Students
- 16,000 Semifinalists
- 15,000 Finalists
- 1,200 Special Scholarship recipients
- 7,500 Merit Scholarship® winners
How much scholarship money is available?
For such a prestigious and demanding scholarship, the National Merit Scholarship doesn’t exactly pay out; winners receive single payments of $2500.
The good news, however, is that high PSAT scores can qualify even Commended Students for a slew of other scholarships. NMSC has amassed an impressive list of both Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship and College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards and continues to add more. In fact, the organization just announced a new scholarship in conjunction with United Negro College Fund called the UNCF Achievement Capstone Program. In aggregate, the 8,700 awards going to National Merit Scholarship and Special Scholarship recipients have a combined value of about $44 million.
There are various compelling and not-so-compelling reasons to take the PSAT, but any teen sitting for the test should take it seriously. High quality practice testing always delivers high experiential value. Students who take the PSAT/NMSQT also receive free feedback on their aptitude for 20+ AP courses and a Khan Academy study plan. But really strong testers have even more to gain: the PSAT/NMSQT offers a lot of opportunity and, for some fortunate students, recognition and scholarship. So make that PSAT this October count!