Category Archives: PSAT

Is the National Merit Scholarship a Big Deal?

To be named a National Merit Scholar is a recognition for which students strive – they will earn accolades from their school, their parents, and their community.  But is it as big a deal as people make it out to be?  In my humble opinion, being named a National Merit Scholar is not nearly as important as it once was for a number of reasons.

  1. You really don’t get that much money. In the 1960s or 1970s, and even when I went to college in the 1990s, the amount of money that the National Merit Scholarship often provides seemed like quite a bit relative to the cost of a college education.  Now, it is pretty insignificant.  You can expect an award of anywhere to $2000-8000, with many of the awards being a one-time scholarship of $2500.  When a private college education costs in excess of $200,000, National Merit is not enough to make a big dent. There are some colleges that may offer full or partial tuition scholarships to National Merit Scholars. These opportunities are rare, however, and the vast majority of National Merit recipients aren’t looking at receiving a ton of money as a result of winning. There are far more opportunities to win merit-based money through college programs like University Scholars, Presidential Scholars, and so on.  Many schools will give full rides to students who not only perform well on the ACT or SAT, but have strong grades and extracurricular activities.  Put your energy and effort into winning a University-based scholarship because that is where the real aid is.
  1. The PSAT doesn’t go on the Common Application. Colleges arefar more concerned about your performance on the SAT and ACT than the PSAT since there are actually spaces for these score results on the Common Application, and no space for PSAT results.  (You can report National Merit recognition as an academic honor on the common application if applicable.)  It is fascinating to me how much more stress people feel going into the PSAT compared to the PLAN, which is the practice ACT.  Other than the relatively insignificant scholarship dollars at stake, they both serve only to give you practice for the SAT or ACT respectively.
  2. Understand that your school wants you to make them look good! Because of the association that adults have with the National Merit recognition and significant scholarship money and academic quality, high school administrators know that having National Merit winners will help their public relations and reputation.  (Take a look at some private school websites and see how frequently they use this as a marketing tool!  Also, do a search of “national merit” on http://www.google.com/news to see how high schools love to play this up.)  As a result, they may overly emphasize the importance of high performance on this test, making you think it will make or break your entire future.  Know that they have an agenda, and don’t let their worries cause you concern.
  1. As our country has shifted its educational focus, the National Merit Scholarship has become less important. I was fascinated to learn that the National Merit program began in 1955.  This was right at the beginning of the Cold War, and two years before the Sputnik Launch by the U.S.S.R.  The U.S. was paranoid about its competitiveness with respect to the Soviets, and was reforming its educational system to emphasize math and science as well as to give highly intelligent students the tools they needed to develop technology that would enable the U.S. to be the best.  The National Merit Scholarship enabled students with high scholastic aptitude to attend great universities at a much lower cost, empowering them to focus on their academic development and become the scientists, engineers and inventors who would ensure American preeminence.  It is no wonder that people who grew up in this era believe the National Merit program to be of extraordinary importance; it once truly was.

    With the Cold War over, American education is shifting towards inclusion and diversity.  As a result, having one test – the PSAT – determine one’s eligibility for a scholarship is deemed by many to be too exclusive.  In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling came out strongly against the use of the PSAT for this purpose:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/09/22/testing

    As time goes on and the memories of the cold war fade, I imagine that colleges will continue to move away from emphasizing the PSAT and National Merit process, will look more comprehensively at a student’s academic and personal attributes when making scholarship and admissions decisions.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

New PSAT Book for Barron’s is done!

I am thrilled to report that I finished my manuscript for the new Barron’s Strategies and Practice for the New PSAT/NMSQT this past week.  This was the most challenging professional task I have ever taken on, given the very short amount of time and the minimal information available about the new PSAT.  Fortunately, I am quite pleased with the 85,000 word final product and I look forward to using it with my students this spring.

I started writing the text in February after signing my contract with Barron’s.  There was just enough information available at that time to create a body of practice and review materials.  I carefully reviewed the College Board test specifications for the new SAT and PSAT, as well as the practice questions they released.  It is fortunate that the new PSAT and SAT are more like the ACT than they were in the past, since I have great familiarity with the ACT having written the most recent Barron’s ACT Guide.

Just a few days before my April 1 deadline, the College Board finally released a full-length sample PSAT.  I had to make a few tweaks to my book materials, but all in all my original materials were very well-aligned with the practice PSAT.

The new PSAT book will feature a number of things that will make it extremely useful for students preparing for the 2015 PSAT:

–Several hundred practice questions, representing the equivalent of over 3 full-length PSAT tests.

–Comprehensive answer explanations to every question, including explanations of why incorrect answers are wrong.

–Extensive strategies and content review.

You can check out the new book here:

http://www.amazon.com/Barrons-Strategies-Practice-PSAT-NMSQT/dp/143800768X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1428270936&sr=8-2&keywords=barrons+psat

Please contact BWS Education for any of your tutoring needs as you prepare for the brand new 2015 PSAT and 2016 SAT.

3 Things Students Can Do to Prepare for the New 2015 PSAT

What should students do to prepare for the new PSAT?

1. Read widely and deeply. Students should read texts from a variety of content areas, from world literature to natural science, to become familiar with the types of materials they will encounter. The PSAT reading will not be difficult for most students to finish, so they should focus on learning to read well rather than read quickly.

2. Learn grammar fundamentals. Many students have not had thorough training in grammar. The new PSAT will expect students to thoroughly understand proper punctuation, parallelism, subject-verb agreement, and a host of other topics. Since grammar is often not taught in depth at many schools, students may want to review independently.

3. Brush up on algebra and statistics. There is very little geometry and trigonometry on the new PSAT. If someone is trying to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, they will want to study geometry so they can be prepared for the handful of questions that will arise. If someone has more moderate goals, they can emphasize algebraic and statistical fundamentals.

Major Changes to the PSAT in 2015

I am currently writing the new Barron’s PSAT Guide, so I have become very well-versed in what the new PSAT will look like.   Here is my concise summary of the major changes coming to the PSAT this fall:

Current PSAT Vocab:  Students need to spend countless hours memorizing obscure vocabulary words that they will probably not use again.

New PSAT Vocab:  Students focus on deciphering the meaning of words based on context clues.  The potential words are ones that are more widely used in professional settings.

Current PSAT Math:  An emphasis on pure mathematical reasoning, with many problems more akin to IQ test questions than ones that students are very likely to encounter in the real world.

New PSAT Math:  A major shift towards practical word problems, data analysis, statistics, and algebra.  The mathematical concepts are ones used in a variety of careers, both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and non-STEM ones.

Current PSAT Guessing:  There is a quarter point guessing penalty for missed questions.  (If students answer a question correctly, they earn a full point; if they omit it, they receive zero points; if they answer incorrectly, they lose a quarter point).  In my tutoring experience, the guessing penalty drives students nuts as they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to determine whether they should answer a question or leave it blank.

New PSAT Guessing:  There is no guessing penalty–simply answer every question.  Students can devote their mental energy to the problems presented instead of wasting it on trying to decide whether to answer.

Current PSAT Theme:  The current SAT is more a test of pure problem solving skills, with not much of a focus on practical applications.

New PSAT Theme:  No one will be able to justifiably say that there is nothing useful or practical being evaluated on the new SAT.  It has writing passages from career fields, lots of real world mathematical word problems, and reading passages from the great historical & political documents of the U.S. and world.