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The PLAN and PSAT Exams

Before you read any further, you should heave a big sigh of relief. Why? The PSAT and PLAN exams will not factor into your college applications. At all. The only people likely to see the scores are your parents, your guidance counselor and you. So, why bother sitting for either test? We’re glad you asked!

Though they won’t have any effect on your transcript, the PSAT and the PLAN tests are worthwhile endeavors.  With a similar format and layout (though shorter and slightly easier), they are great preparation for the SAT and ACT respectively. Certainly, they offer an excellent opportunity to practice taking a timed test under genuine exam conditions. Moreover, the score you earn is a good barometer of how you’ll fare when it comes time to face off with the real deal (note: multiply your PSAT score by 10 to see what the projected SAT number would be). You can use the results to gauge where you stand with potential colleges. 

Conversely, you can also view your PSAT/PLAN score as a starting point. After all, your results don’t necessarily pre-determine how you’ll do on the SAT or ACT. If you’re unhappy with your score, both tests will definitely help pinpoint areas that might need improvement. And, fortunately, you'll still have time to kick your test prep into high gear between the PSAT/PLAN and the actual SAT/ACT.

Here’s a quick breakdown of each individual test:


The PLAN exam, administered by the American College Testing Program, tests common high school skills and knowledge. Usually taken during the fall of sophomore year, it includes 50 questions on English (usage/mechanics, rhetorical skills), 40 questions on mathematics (pre-algebra, algebra, geometry with calculators allowed), 25 questions on reading comprehension and 30 questions on science. As with all standardized testing, it’s important to work through the sections, answering the questions that come easiest to you first so you don't get bogged down on the hard ones.


Similar to the SAT, the PSAT is divided into three sections – math, reading and writing. The test is designed to measure the analytical and critical thinking skills you’ve acquired throughout your education. You will not be tested on specific facts such as who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. or who wrote The Great Gatsby. Additionally, akin to the SAT, you will be penalized for wrong answers. Therefore, we advise against just making random guesses.

Most students typically take the PSAT in the fall of either their sophomore or junior years of high school. Talk to your guidance counselor about testing dates, fees and how to register. Finally, unlike the SAT, you may only sit for the PSAT once a year.

National Merit Scholarship
There’s another added bonus to registering for the PSAT: the National Merit Scholarship. That’s right – you have the potential to earn money for taking a test (if only all exams were like this). Though, before you start deciding how to allocate the cash, we should tell you that it’s fairly competitive.

Each year, (roughly) 50,000 of the (roughly) 1.4 million high school juniors who took the PSAT are recognized for their achievements in earning a high score. Around 2/3 of those students will receive letters of commendation. While they ultimately will not be in scholarship contention, the letter can most certainly enhance their college application. The remaining 1/3 become National Merit Semi-finalists. After submitting academic records, teacher recommendations and an essay, half will be selected for either a one-time $2500 scholarship or renewable corporate or college sponsorship awards.

While most of us spend our time avoiding standardized tests (if they’re not mandatory), it’s actually quite advantageous to take the PSAT. Between the practice and the potential for money, you have nothing to lose and potentially confidence and $2500 to gain!



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Don Munce