By Sarah Protzman Howlett
Another school year means yet another round of standardized tests for our teenagers. Sophomores will take their first shot at the PSAT, the PreACT (formerly called the PLAN test), or both. These are preliminary tests for the SAT and ACT, respectively. They allow students to practice taking a college-entrance exam, and help predict a student’s future score on the ACT and SAT. Colleges don’t see these scores, but there is still value. For starters, a top-ranking PSAT score can mean recognition by the prestigious National Merit Scholarship program (NMS). But even for students who won’t score in NMS range, find out why experts think these preliminary tests are worth taking seriously.
PSAT Prep vs. PreACT Prep
Students typically take the PSAT twice: in the fall of sophomore year as a practice test and again in the fall of junior year, when it provides a second opportunity to practice for the SAT, but also a chance to compete in the prestigious National Merit Scholarship competition. Only scores from junior year are considered for the NMS.
Less than one percent of all juniors taking the PSAT will be eligible for the NMS, typically those scoring in the 99th percentile, and even fewer will see any scholarship money. But just being selected for the program gets a student on the radar of the nation’s top colleges and universities. “Colleges often buy names of students who did well on the PSAT,” explains Theresa McCue, Director of College Counseling at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights. “That’s a very meaningful piece of what happens.”
The PreACT differs from the PSAT in that it is a truly just a practice for the ACT. There is no way to earn scholarship money with a high score. But it can be helpful in other ways. Specifically, if your teenager’s PreACT scores are higher than their PSAT scores, they will likely do better on the ACT. These days, most colleges accept either the ACT or the SAT.
To Practice Or Not To Practice
So is it worth the time and money—not to mention the pressure—to tutor for what are, effectively, practice tests? Or the slim chance your student may land an NMS scholarship? How effective is PSAT or PreACT prep, really?
“I’ve never heard of anyone tutoring for the [PreACT],” says Eileen Blattner, Chair of the Guidance Department at Shaker Heights High School. “But, for a select group of students, prepping for the PSAT in order to hit the numbers needed for the NMS Program could be worth it—particularly for those students whose scores from sophomore year are treading in National Merit territory.”
Most tutoring companies offer classes for the PSAT, but not the PreACT.
However, these days, college admissions experts say it’s not just the students with National Merit Scholarship potential that can gain from tutoring. “It builds a foundation for the more important tests to come, in other words the SAT or ACT” notes Martina McIsaac of Huntington Learning Centers. And the confidence boost from doing well on a practice test —as opposed to the potential stress from a poor PSAT score. What’s more, PSAT prep doesn’t have to be hard on your pocketbook.
“There are also ways to prep for the PSAT that don’t involve a tutor,” notes McCue. For example, some schools offer PSAT practice tutoring sessions throughout the summer and many local libraries offer free sessions—and then there are books galore. “We’ve seen kids prepare on their own with a book and an hour or two on Sundays,” McCue says. “You don’t have to spend a ton of money.”