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College Admissions: What Your PSAT Scores Really Mean

Monday, December 03, 2012

 

The latest PSAT scores are arriving soon--here is the real scoop on what they do and do not mean for your college admissions search.

PSAT scores will arrive for anxious high school students this week. These scores mark the time when sophomores and juniors can begin to target colleges that are in range. Realistically, there are only 5

months left for juniors to visit colleges before campuses empty out in the first week of May. In the fall, early action dates begin a few weeks after school opens, and many colleges are filling 30-70% of their seats in that round. So, starting your visits in junior year is critical. If your school is slow about handing out scores, you may want to go online and get them. Then, how do you interpret your PSAT scores and use them to launch your college search?

Estimating SAT scores

If you add a zero to end of each PSAT score, that would be your SAT score. Your percentiles indicate how well you did vs. other students in your grade taking the PSAT. You are not measured against 11th graders, if you are in 10th grade. If you scored in the 85th percentile, you did better than 84 out of 100 students in your grade nationally. Because of additional math coursework, you will most likely see your math score increase from your sophomore to junior PSAT. If you elect to do test prep, you will probably see a bigger increase. Most students who prep will go up 60-180 total points (across all 3 sections) from the junior PSAT to the SAT. Many families believe their child will jump 300 points or more with test prep. That kind of an increase is rare, and choosing colleges according to that hope will get you into trouble.

Low scores should NOT be ignored

For students who are getting A’s or B’s in school, PSAT scores below 40 can often be an indicator of an undiagnosed learning disability (LD) or anxiety during testing. Talk to a neuro-psychologist or college counselor about options for educational testing.  If you are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADD, ADHD or other learning differences, you may qualify for extended time on test day. It is best to do evaluations by 10th grade since the standards for extended SAT time have been getting more stringent. Those with scores in the 40s-50s who are aiming for a competitive college should begin test prep early and be very diligent about studying each week on their own. Students should also consider taking the ACT. It can often be a better test for students who are high achievers in school or who don’t do well with vocabulary.

What colleges care about

Colleges DO NOT see your PSAT scores. PSAT scores are intended as practice for the SAT and allow you to determine areas where you may need help. The only situation in which they may affect your admission is if you are a National Merit Semi-Finalist or Winner. Only juniors are considered for this award, and the cutoff varies, but you usually have to have a total score of 210 or better. If you are a finalist, it is viewed as a very prestigious honor by colleges and there may be scholarship money to follow.

Test Prep is a MUST

Most students should begin SAT prep in the fall or winter of their junior year, and spend 10-12 weeks studying before they take the test. However, some students with lower scores or those aiming for highly competitive colleges, may want to begin prep as early as sophomore year. The type of study program you select depends on your budget and needs. Some high school based programs are free, but many are relatively weak. It depends on the curriculum and instructor. The major test prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review do a very good job of screening teachers and training them, but the group courses will not usually help you with content review (geometry, algebra, grammar). They typically focus on test taking strategy. A well-trained and qualified private SAT tutor will teach strategy and address individual needs to learn the relevant math, vocabulary and writing skills—but the cost is a bit higher. For families who cannot afford courses or tutors, there are terrific SAT prep books on the market, and some highly motivated students can achieve top scores with disciplined self-study.

SAT Alternatives

If you have tried the SAT and ACT, done test prep, and still can’t achieve competitive scores—then it is time to consider “Test Optional” colleges. Today, there are more than 800 in the U.S., and they include prestigious liberal arts colleges like Middlebury, Bowdoin and Bates. Catholic colleges are also jumping on the bandwagon, including Providence College, St. Michael’s and De Paul. What you won’t find on the list are the primary campuses of state universities or the Ivy League.

*Not all high schools offer the PSAT for sophomores

Cristiana Quinn, M.Ed. is the founder of College Admission Advisors, LLC which provides strategic, college counseling and athletic recruiting services for students. www.collegeadvisorsonline.com.

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