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PSAT/SAT/ACT and National Merit

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #83, 2008.

Should you take the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT? How do you prepare, and why should you care about these National Merit tests?
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Jeannette Webb

The “PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test” is a long title for a little practice test that has up grown over the years into a significant recognition program. Not only is it the gateway for National Merit scholarships and other merit programs, but an outstanding score puts you on the radar screen of many good colleges.

Contrary to popular belief, most National Merit Scholarships are not that substantial, being only $2,500 (either a one-time award or spread over four years). They only become financially significant when a college matches the award or offers big packages to National Merit Finalists/Scholars in the hopes of building an outstanding student body. One example is the University of Oklahoma in our home state, which recruits National Merit Finalists from all over the U.S. and offers close to a full ride if you list them as your top school with the National Merit Corporation.

If your student makes a certain score on the PSAT (the cut-off varies from state to state), he will be notified in September of the senior year if he is a Commended Scholar or a National Merit Semifinalist. Semifinalists continue in the program, sending in additional tests scores, transcripts, a short letter of recommendation, and an essay. Most Semifinalists advance to Finalist standing, and over half of the Finalists receive National Merit Scholarship awards.

But first, you need a good score on the PSAT.

What Is on the Test?

The PSAT is approximately 21/2 hours long and covers Critical Reading, Writing, and Math.

The Math portion of the PSAT covers topics from your basic Algebra I course. These specific topics are: numbers and operations, algebra and basic functions, geometry, data analysis, statistics, and probability. The SAT will expound on these same topics, including information from Algebra II. So plan on finishing up Algebra I by the spring of your sophomore year to allow concepts to gel before the test. If you can have Algebra II under your belt by this time as well, that can only make you more prepared and comfortable with the math.

The Critical Reading sections of the PSAT include two types of questions: sentence completion and passage-based reading. Sentence completion questions require the student to pick the best vocabulary word(s) to complete the sentence. The best preparation for this section comes from a lifetime of reading and learning vocabulary words. This is usually the least of a homeschooler’s worries. The passage-based reading questions are your basic reading comprehension test: read a short piece of writing and answer questions about its meaning and perhaps the meaning of specific words in the context of the passage. This is fairly straight forward once a student has taken and analyzed a few practice tests.

The Writing section has three types of questions. The first requires students to improve sentences by choosing which answer makes the sentence grammatically correct. The second type has students identify grammatical errors in sentences by selecting which section of the sentence is incorrect. In the paragraph improvement section, students are asked to improve the readability of the paragraph by choosing different transitions or conclusions, correcting run-on sentences, combining sentence fragments, etc. To prepare for this, students should be comfortable with writing and editing. One should have an intuitive sense of grammar to be able to recognize and correct mistakes, but in these tests students are never required to name that split infinitive.


The junior year is filled with important standardized tests. The PSAT will be taken in October and will be followed shortly by the SAT or the ACT. There are also SAT Subject tests and AP tests.

One of the time management decisions you will have to make is whether to take the SAT or the ACT or both. I recommend taking only the SAT.

To really maximize your time it is probably easiest to prepare for the PSAT by preparing for the SAT. Remember, the PSAT is the “practice” test for the SAT, so categories are the same and the questions are similar. By studying for the SAT you’ve killed two birds with one stone.

There are also other reasons I prefer the SAT to the ACT. First, the SAT is considered by many admissions officers as a more desirable measure of a student’s intellectual ability and hence, of their ability to succeed in college. Secondly, the SAT is accepted at any university coast to coast, where the ACT seems to be more of a midwestern thing.

Exceptions to the Rule

While I do generally recommend the SAT, there are some exceptions.

If your state, like Missouri, awards state scholarships based on ACT scores, and you plan to attend school in that state, go ahead and take the ACT. Otherwise, you could miss out on thousands of state scholarship dollars.

Some kids just score better on the ACT and feel it is a better representation of their abilities. To find out, visit www.kaptest.com/satactpractice and spend 90 minutes taking the SAT/ACT Combo Sample Test from Kaplan to help you determine which test makes you look best.

If you score significantly better on the ACT, by all means take it, as many universities are accepting it as well. You need to do the research early to see what test your university of choice wants. If you take the ACT, do the optional writing section as well, as it is often now required by colleges.

One downside of taking only the SAT is that some universities require additional SAT Subject Tests in science if you only take the SAT. My kids felt that it was worth taking the SAT Subject tests in a few science areas as they could prepare more easily for specific areas rather than deal with the preparation for and fatigue of a second huge test.

If the ACT is your standardized test of choice, then you will just have to spend the extra time studying for both the PSAT and the ACT.

Test Prep Recommendations

As previously mentioned, I believe that the best use of time is to prepare for the SAT while preparing for the PSAT. You’ll get an early start on the SAT and be over-prepared for the PSAT.

Even though the PSAT is shorter and the questions are at a lower level, it is graded closer than the SAT. There is room for error on the SAT (you can miss a few questions and still get a perfect score), while the PSAT starts losing points with every mistake. There is also less time per question on the PSAT, so pacing is absolutely critical. This is why practicing is so important. Here are some places to start.

The College Board

CollegeBoard provides some test information, sample questions, and, for a fee, test prep books, practice exams, and other resources. Sign up for a free daily SAT question to be e-mailed to you. Also, as the test maker, The College Board provides the best practice tests to show what you need to work on. They sell a few old PSAT practice tests and also publish The Official SAT Study Guide, which includes eight tests.


Our family has found that Kaplan’s guides do an excellent job of showing students what to review, how to attack questions, and how to pace themselves during the test. They usually have practice tests that are very close to The College Board’s tests. They have independent PSAT and SAT guides.

These two are our favorites, but check out other resources, both online and at a bookstore and find what works best for your student.

Since the SAT (and therefore the PSAT) is a “Reasoning Test,” the best way to prepare is to get a few strategies from a good guide like Kaplan, then practice, practice, practice. Take 1-2 tests far in advance, just as soon as you have the requisite classes. Then, four months out, start taking practice tests in earnest. We recommend 8-10 practice tests taken once every few weeks to prepare. Take the time to carefully evaluate each test and find your weaknesses, or you will not get the maximum benefit out of the practice runs.

When Is the PSAT Offered?

If the local school allows it, students can take a practice run of the PSAT in their sophomore year. It is an unofficial score and colleges will never see it. My students were not ready mathematically, so we skipped that option. I was not willing to blow their confidence by taking it prematurely and failing. This is a judgment call by parents.

The actual PSAT that counts is taken in October of the junior year and must be taken at a local school. Hopefully, you have a good relationship with your local public school. If not, check out magnet schools, Christian schools, or college testing centers. Whatever venue you wind up with, double check the actual testing site. My very tall left-handed son was stuck in a tiny right-handed desk his first SAT try and the results were way below his ability. After that hard lesson, I became much more proactive in checking the testing site conditions (Is the room quiet? Will bells be going off? Will people be talking? Are the desks suitable?)

Unlike most standardized tests, you have one shot with the PSAT. No taking it over if you have a bad day. So, make it count!

Students with Disabilities

The College Board is committed to ensuring that students with disabilities receive appropriate accommodations on its tests. They provide a broad range of accommodations to students who provide documentation of a disability. Check out this website.

Why Does Testing Matter?

Like it or not, top colleges view standardized test scores as good indicators of academic potential, so you must test well to be competitive. For homeschoolers, test scores assume even greater importance since Mommy-assigned grades are rather suspect.

We must always remember that college is, first and foremost, an academic pursuit. Academics count as 2/3 of the weight of your candidacy. Given this scenario, it is wise to prepare yourself well academically and to prepare well for standardized tests. You can decide not to jump through the testing hoop, but that will severely limit your opportunities.

While the PSAT itself is eventually eclipsed by the SAT score in the eyes of college admissions officers, it is worth putting forth our best efforts because of the many other doors it can open.

Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years. In 2005, Jeannette received a Presidential Scholar Distinguished Teacher Award. Jeannette teaches “Homeschooling Through High School” seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping homeschool students matriculate to America’s top colleges. She can be reached through this website.

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