How important are PSAT scores?
I think students and parents need to find reasons to stress less, not more, about the college admissions process. The PSAT is a good example of this need.
The stress students and parents feel regarding PSAT scores (which are being returned to students about now), is often totally out of proportion with the actual relevance of the scores.
The PSAT is just a practice test. That's all. It was created to let students take a non-threatening trial version of the SAT before they take the real thing. It can't hurt you. It can't damage your future. No student in the history of college admissions has ever been rejected by a college because she scored poorly on the PSAT.
Even good PSAT scores don't actually get you into college. If you did well on the PSAT, it's good news because you will likely do well on the SAT when you take it--and that exam absolutely can help you get into college. Doing well on the PSAT is like doing well on a practice test a teacher gives you before the big final exam; it's a good sign but you'll still need to score well when it counts.
In fact, the only way colleges use PSAT scores is to purchase names for direct marketing mailings. If you took the test, you and your mailbox will see what I mean later this spring.
So if you didn't do well on the PSAT, don't launch into a full scale panic attack. As my friend Paul Kanarek from The Princeton Review always says at the dozens of PSAT scores back sessions he does at high schools every year, "You are not allowed to panic over your PSAT scores."
For anyone who's not happy with your PSAT scores, use your results as your early warning signal that you might want to do some work before you take the real SAT. That's what test preparation is for (a service whose cost ranges from thousands of dollars in private tutoring to $15 for a good book).
Now, I can hear some people saying, "But it's NOT just a practice test! What about National Merit scholarships?"
Yes, a small number of students (about 8,000 of the 1.5 million test takers) are awarded scholarships every year, and the PSAT scores are the first of many rounds of qualification you must endure. If you're notified that your PSAT scores qualify you for future consideration, that's good news (being in a line for future potential scholarship money is always good news).
But for everyone else, again, don't panic. You're in good company with the other 1.5 million test takers who will still have plenty of the over 2,000 4-year colleges from which to choose.
My point here isn't that students should blow off the PSAT. My point is that students and parents would be well served to remind themselves that if you lose sleep over your PSAT scores, you're placing far, far more emphasis on the exam than any college will. That would be like playing one bad game of pick-up basketball with your friends and worrying that you won't make varsity because of it. It just doesn't make sense.
Less stress, not more.