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How to Turn a Strong PSAT Score into a Full Scholarship

Posted by Grace Franklin on September 14, 2021 in College Admissions, Featured, Test Prep

There’s a widely held assumption about the PSAT—that it doesn’t really matter unless you are a top-of-the-charts student with National Merit potential. Sure, some high schools factor scores into class placement, but the more common narrative associated with the PSAT/NMSQT tells the story of an elite few. Out of the more than 1.5 million juniors who take this test each fall, only 50,000 qualify for National Merit Scholarship recognition, an application process that whittles down to 15,000 finalists, or less than 1 percent of test-takers. 

Hold on to your seats. I’m about to outline a PSAT scenario in which numbers move in the opposite direction—from one student, to paid tuition—and this story could be yours

Regardless of qualification for financial aid, college applicants can secure an array of merit-based scholarships tied to test scores. These range from a few hundred dollars in award money to full-tuition coverage. Even if you, like most students, do not stand a realistic chance of National Merit recognition, you can use the PSAT as a launch pad to major tuition dollars. Here’s how this choose-your-own PSAT adventure might go: 

STEP ONE: Prepare ahead of time for the PSAT/NMSQT

Recognizing that this test need not only benefit the uppermost scorers, the savvy junior should treat the PSAT/NMSQT as more than a no-stakes morning of standardized testing. Your scores on this exam could lead various scholarship organizations to reach out directly and invite you to apply. More to the point of your long merit-funding game, a serious attempt at the PSAT will give a clearer picture of your probable performance on the longer, slightly more challenging SAT. 

The PSAT takes place in mid-October each year, and there’s a lot you can do to improve your performance in the coming weeks. With juniors like you in mind, Applerouth will host free strategy sessions and practice tests from September 25 – October 3. At the least, taking an official practice test will give you familiarity with the exam format, so that you don’t go in blind. As a former prep tutor, however, I recommend learning how to solve each problem you missed (the same types of questions appear on every test) and putting tried and true test strategies to use. 

STEP TWO: Give the PSAT/NMSQT your best shot 

Every year, the PSAT takes place on a Wednesday in mid-October. Most U.S. high schools offer the exam, so if you show up to school on PSAT-day, you’ll take it.* Sophomores might sit for the PSAT/NMSQT or the PSAT-10 and can use either as a practice run for junior year. On test day, be sure to check “yes” to the Student Search Service option on your answer sheet. Doing so enables scholarship organizations to see your score and reach out directly to with application opportunities. According to the College Board, more than $300 million in scholarships are available to PSAT test-takers, beyond National Merit

STEP THREE: Strategically choose the SAT or ACT

Many colleges award merit scholarships (tuition discounting) based on GPA and test scores. A strong GPA plays an important factor in earning as much scholarship money as possible, but, by junior year, boosting your GPA will be a slower climb, with a less dramatic result, than boosting your score on an admission test. At Applerouth, our students achieve an average increase of 5 composite points on the ACT and 130 points on the SAT. These gains can mean the difference in thousands of covered tuition dollars per year of college. 

Treating the PSAT as step-one in your standardized testing edge gives you a head start on identifying the admission test that plays to your strengths and in pursuing maximum score gains. Scored out of 1520, the PSAT includes 40 fewer Evidence Based Reading & Writing questions (EBRW) and 40 fewer math questions than the SAT. Otherwise, the test format and types of questions will be identical. Just by prepping for and taking the PSAT, you may glean a sense for whether algebra and historical passages bring out your best academic self, or whether you prefer more geometry and a calculator all the way through. 

In order to definitively find your ideal test match, it’s smart to take an official ACT practice test near the date of your PSAT. With accurate—giving it your all—PSAT and ACT scores, you’ll be able to confidently choose your best test, set targeted score goals, and work towards achieving them. If you take spring admission tests, you may hit or get close to your dream scores in time for summer college visits. 

STEP FOUR: Make merit-based scholarships a key factor in your college list 

In addition to enabling you to make a timely and informed test choice, a strong PSAT score can act as an early tool in your merit-scholarship-driven college search. Wendy Nelson, founder of Merit Scholarship List, created a comprehensive index that enables you to search for merit aid by state, dollar amount, school, intended major, and other factors. MSL generates search results that include the percentage of students who receive a given scholarship each year, along with the typical SAT/ACT scores and GPAs of recipients. 

Of course, it’s important to apply for colleges based on personal, academic, and geographic fit, but adding targeted merit-based aid to your search can ensure that these metrics become a feasible possibility. Alison Grandis, founder of Grand Fit Educational Counseling, recommends that students look for merit aid just as they would academic fit. Find scholarships for which you meet or exceed the score requirements and pay attention to the percentage of applicants who receive this aid. Looking through the lens of merit aid also means expanding your list to include schools in which you fall among the top 25 percent of applicants. Often, schools that lack go-to name recognition offer fantastic educational experiences tailored to their top scholars. 

STEP FIVE: Choose from among the financially viable choices you’ve created

Many colleges offer generous or full tuition aid to National Merit Finalists. This serves as the most direct route from PSAT exam to full tuition ride, but this path has space for only a marginal segment of students. With a long game in mind, here are multiple ways that a strong PSAT score can alter the financial landscape of your college prospects: 

  • Merit aid tied to GPA and test scores. All public universities in Kentucky, for example, offer merit awards to students (in and out of state) with a 3.5 GPA, and the dollar amount increases based on SAT/ACT scores. Students with a 26 ACT or 1230 SAT score are eligible for $2,500-$8000 in tuition reduction. Scholarship recipients with an ACT score of 28-30 or SAT score of 1300-1380 are guaranteed $7,500. Recipients with a 31 ACT or 1390 SAT receive full in-state tuition. While public colleges, such as the University of Delaware, more commonly offer in-state students full tuition tied to scores and GPA, Kentucky is not alone in offering out-of-state students a potential full-tuition ride to its state schools.
  • Merit aid tied to class rank and test scores. Various schools in Texas offer merit aid based on a metric of class rank and test scores. Texas Tech provides a straightforward grid of this process here. With class rank remaining consistent, SAT or ACT scores can make the difference between $1,000 and $9,000 in reduced tuition per year. UT Austin factors academic standing and scores into many of its major-specific scholarships, which can be substantial. Students in the College of Natural Sciences, for example, can receive a full out-of-state tuition waiver if they have already secured more than $1000 in scholarship money.
  • Mix-and-matched merit scholarships tied to numbers. Most commonly, a full-tuition ride can be achieved through a combination of merit scholarships derived from state-funded aid, institutional merit aid, and private scholarships, granted by local businesses and organizations. Though public schools tend to be more upfront about merit scholarships, typically listing them on their financial aid page, many private schools also award merit aid driven by GPA and test scores. You may just need to look at specific majors or use a tool like the MSL to find them.

Even though the PSAT is standardized, your approach to this exam and college admission tests doesn’t have to be. We hope you feel inspired to fill-in this outline with details from your own life—to carve out a trajectory that creates opportunities uniquely suited to you. The PSAT is just the first step in that story. 

We hope to see you at our PSAT Prep Rally, and we’re happy to support you at any step along the way. Just give us a call at 866-789-PREP (7737). 

*If you are homeschooled or attend a school that does not offer the PSAT, you can locate host schools in your area using the College Board’s High School Search Tool and contact school administrators to register. When not covered by a school, the PSAT costs $18 per student. Learn more about registration and fee waiver eligibility

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