Photo by Jason Bolonski

The new PSAT is out, and it's making everyone crazy! Fortunately, we're here to help. In this article, Evan Forster and Ben Feuer of Forster-Thomas sit down with Megan Stubbendeck and Sean Quinn of ArborBridge Tutoring, masters of online standardized test prep, to answer all the lingering questions about the test in language so simple even an idiot could understand (hence, our title!)  If you're not super into the reading thing, you can also listen to this conversation in podcast format here.

LEGEND: EF = Evan Forster, MS = Megan Stubbendeck, BF = Ben Feuer, SQ = Sean Quinn

EF: What exactly is the PSAT?

MS: The PSAT is a practice test for the real SAT. For most kids, it's a chance to try out the SAT and see if it’s for you. For some of us, it also matters for national merit scholarship.

EF: So what about the National Merit Scholarship part?

MS: For the next couple of weeks, it’s all about National Merit. It’s a national competition to find the top PSAT performers in each state. So you might get a really high score in NY and be competitive and a sort of high score in Wyoming and be OK.

EF: Are you telling me that I’m in Wyoming, I don’t count?

MS: Actually, it’s almost the opposite!  But either way, The PSAT is just the first step. The kids who get the highest scores get a fancy letter in September saying congrats, you’re a semifinalist or a finalist, and you might get a scholarship depending on you submitting additional application materials.

EF: So depending upon how you score in the PSAT, you might get a chance to move forward in this money-getting process.

MS: Exactly. And it’s not just about the money. On your application, you get to specially designate to colleges that you were a national merit scholar. It makes you look really great and competitive!

EF: Oh, I gotta write that down!

SQ: And some colleges give scholarships specifically based on being a merit finalist. USC used to give half tuition off, and I think they still might.

MS: So for NSMQT or National Merit, cutoff scores are what matter. Only a handful of students who took the PSAT are going to get the letters saying, congrats you get to move on, and it's based on the cutoff. The cutoff, in turn, is based on your selection index, which is in your score report …

EF: So you know me. I have the brain of a fly, I’m all over the place. Explain that again?

MS: When a student gets a PSAT score report, you have two scores. Your total score, which is half math and half writing, and a second score, a few pages later. That is your selection index, which is 1/3rd math, 1/3rd reading and 1/3rd writing. It looks different than your total score, it’s a different scale, but it’s based on the same things.

EF: So what’s the drama about?

MS: For the really top scorers, top 2 percent of all students nationwide, they care about the selection index, the National Merit Competition.

EF: I am a top scorer, tell me who I am.

MS: You are probably looking at Ivy League colleges, a straight A student, taking AP courses. When you saw your percentiles on your PSAT score report, they were 98th or 99th percentile. Your selection index might be 215 or higher …

EF: If I’m in that top index of students, can I actually prep for the PSAT? Should I?

MS: You only get one shot at the test, in October, for national merit, in 11th grade.

SQ: If you are a high performing student and you think you might be eligible, it is important to do a little practice.  As a starting point, there are free resources on Khan Academy. You can take practice tests over the summer before the PSAT. There’s also practice for the new SAT up there.  Working with a tutor for a couple of hours before test day can be very helpful as well.

EF: What is national vs test user percentile and why do I care?

MS: When you open up your score report, right below your total score you’re going to see what’s called your nationwide percentile. It ranks you against other students, so if you’re in the 85th percentile, you performed better than 85 percent of students. This is where the numbers get a little wishy-washy, because they just changed all of this.  This nationwide percentile compares you to every single person in the 11th grade in the United States, including ones who didn’t take the PSAT. The College Board did this by taking a ‘representative sample’ of 11th graders and using them as a reference point. The test user percentile compares you only to people who actually took the PSAT.

EF: So we’re the guinea pig years for this new PSAT, they’re still figuring it out.

MS: There is still a lot of uncertainty, for sure.

EF: What might still be changing in the test?

MS: The College Board, who makes the SAT/PSAT, is making preliminary charts listing percentiles, which basically mean ‘we think this is how things should be scored, but we’re not sure yet’.  The percentiles might go up and down until May.  By May, they’ll have a couple hundred thousand kids taking the exam in March, then they’ll have thousands of kids taking the May SAT, and thousands of kids who take it in April on a special test day. Then they’ll be able to say either the percentiles are cool or they’re garbage.

EF: So I know I keep repeating myself, but I care about the percentiles why?

MS: For most kids, the 98 percent, you look at the percentiles to decide if you are a competitive SAT test taker.

EF: So I’m looking at percentiles and I’m saying I need help or I’m cool, or I might be better off with the ACT. Seems simple enough. I say, take the stress level down.

SQ: I agree. A lot of the anxiety here is unnecessary. What is important to know, though, is that the percentile may be off and may not be the best indicator in whether to take SAT or ACT this year.

BF: The percentiles are off? But if the PSAT isn’t currently a good predictor of how you’re going to do on the SAT, what’s the advantage to taking it?

MS: It’s not that it’s a bad predictor of how you’re going to do to on the SAT. It helps you predict your SCORE very accurately. They actually just tweaked the numbers so that if you took the PSAT on a certain day, if you had taken the SAT on the same day, you would have gotten the exact same score. But the percentile predictor is less reliable. That said, it’s still worth taking to get an idea of which test to take, which colleges you might have a shot at, and your eligibility for national merit.

EF: I, for one, would suggest taking the PSAT for all the reasons Megan just laid out plus one more – you’re going to learn how to take on some pressure and stress, and it gives you an opportunity to grow and take on the whole college process in a more powerful way.

BF: So I watched your video about how to read your PSAT score report, and it was great! You mentioned question difficulty ratings. Are higher difficulty questions worth more points?

SQ: No. They’re telling you difficulty level so you can better prepare for the SAT.

BF: Will there be the same proportion of difficult and easy questions?

MS: Sort of. There will be on the SAT some additional hard topics you didn’t see on PSAT because you have more time in school and should know more math and grammar.

EF: I’ve been hearing PSAT scores are higher now.

SQ: There’s no controversy over the scores, 800 or 1400. It’s all over the percentiles. The percentiles seem to be higher than they have been in previous years.

EF: Why do I care?

MS: Because not everyone is taking the same test.

EF: So this is where the money is!
MS: Students often use percentiles to decide which test to take. I got 85th percentile on SAT and only 72nd percentile on the ACT. I must be a better SAT test taker, I’m going to take the SAT!  If percentiles are inflated, it makes it harder for students to decide which test is better for them.

EF: Ah. Well, I can see the business reasons for that. What I have to say about that is, ‘be careful’.

MS: Yes. We actually have pulled and analyzed the first day of data from the test by taking all the College Board publications and following their formulas. It looks like at the very high end and low end, the percentiles are in a good place. In the middle, there’s a real bell curve, and you might be seeing 5 to 10 percentile points of inflation.

EF: So what can we do about it?

SQ: Always take an ACT diagnostic. The ACT’s scoring has not changed, so their percentile is reliable. You can use that as a point of comparison. This is a tough year for the SAT – we don’t know how colleges will view the new SAT scores yet.

EF: Yeah, but without being too Pollyannaish, I think colleges have done a great job handling all the recent changes – CA4, hidden supplementals, you name it. It seems to me that admissions offices are fair, they know where they’re getting their information and it’s more holistic than people realize.

MS: Yes, I agree. Even though there’s a bit of flux going on, colleges are smart. Admissions people know how to deal with this stuff. They’re going to iron it out. The most important thing is that you choose the test you’re most comfortable with and go from there.

EF: In fact, I think life is about constant change. As simple and as corny as that may sound, instead of looking at things that are new as one more hurdle, you should look at it as an opportunity to take on a challenge and be as powerful as you can be. When you swim in a race, swim in your lane. Stop looking to the left and the right and just move forward powerfully and take it on. You’re gonna be great.