By Kelsey Salamone
When I was a junior in high school, it wasn’t rare to see my fellow classmates walking around with bright blue PSAT prep books cradled in their arms. During the months of September and October, they were like drones, frantically taking practice tests and militaristically reviewing PSAT strategies.
“If I could just improve my Math score by 10 points,” I often heard someone say, while I looked on in confusion. For me, the PSAT was never that important. But then again, I had taken an SAT prep course over the summer and was preparing for an October exam. The PSAT was not a threat to me; I had bigger demons to slay. But for others, preparing for the test was a top priority during the fall, and that’s the problem with the PSAT these days— its importance has been vastly inflated.
I do understand why many students worry about the test. Unlike other preparatory tests, such as the PLAN, which is optional and only serves to foreshadow your ACT scores, the PSAT determines your eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program. If you meet the cutoff score for your state, you can become a National Merit Scholar Semifinalist and advance to compete for scholarships. This year for Ohio, you had to score at least a 212.
But, even if you are one of the lucky students to score at or above the cutoff—and at my high school there were only six this year—becoming a Semifinalist doesn’t guarantee you any scholarship money, merely another passionless factoid to list on your college applications. And that is why the current mass anxiety about the PSAT is foolish— the result of the test simply isn’t important enough to merit specific preparation and worry. Only a few will ever achieve this Semifinalist level, only a few of them will even receive scholarships, and for the rest of high school juniors, taking the PSAT will have been a waste of time.
The SAT and the PSAT are also essentially the same—the PSAT is a preparatory test for the SAT, after all. So I’ve never understood why students would sacrifice time and money to take PSAT practice tests when they could instead focus their energy on regular SAT prep. Sure, the SAT is different in that it’s longer and includes an essay, but preparing for the bigger test will kill two birds with one stone. When it comes time to take the PSAT, you’ll naturally excel without ever practicing the shorter format, and you’ll be further prepared for when you take the SAT later that year.
And, I should know that skipping PSAT prep in order to study for the SAT works. Last October, I arrived to school on the day of the PSAT, with little prior experience and a stub of a #2 pencil in my hand and was recently named a National Merit Commended Student, one of five kids at my high school who missed the elusive 212 but somehow achieved enough to create another application factoid.
This is not to say that students shouldn’t do any SAT/PSAT prep at all, but that an overdose on two books in a year is foolish. And that’s why I recommend focusing on SAT and ACT prep, not PSAT and PLAN prep, when you’re preparing for college. Sure, you can prepare for the PSAT and PLAN if you have the time, but it won’t do much good in the long run. Whereas acing the two big exams could make a huge difference when you’re applying for scholarships the next year.
Kelsey Salamone is a graduate of Westlake High School and majoring in Film & Television at Boston University.