Across the country, students are gearing up for the PSAT. Parents, counselors, and friends are putting on the pressure and telling kids to study since they can "win college scholarships." All of the drama is the result of the PSAT's second name: NMSQT. NMSQT stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. So it's true that the PSAT does help students qualify for scholarships. But, the myth is that these scholarships mean serious money for students. Read on.
Reality is that National Merit Scholarships are devilishly hard to win. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation awards 9,700 scholarships to students annually. That sounds like a lot until you consider that over 1.5 million high school juniors took the PSAT last year. That means that only 0.006 percent of the students taking it will actually win the scholarship. A larger number of students (40,000 in the top 3% of scores) will be recognized as National Merit Commended students, Semi-Finalists or Finalists. While there is some prestige in this recognition and it looks nice on a college application, there's no money involved.
So I know you're thinking...if you win one of the scholarships, won't that get you into Harvard? I hate being the bearer of bad news, but no. The issue is that pretty much every National Merit Scholar is applying to Harvard. It's not going to differentiate you from the pack there. It might help a great deal if your sights are set on a less selective school, though.
Finally, the money just isn't anything to get excited about. The majority of the scholarships are $2,500 one-time awards from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The rest are awarded by corporations or colleges that may offer multiple-year scholarships in larger amounts. It's not enough to make or break anyone's college dreams. Further, colleges are likely to deduct the amount from any grant money you might have been awarded anyway, so the monetary value is effectively zero.
So does this mean you should blow off the PSAT? Of course not! It's great practice for the real thing. It's also a wonderful way to get a baseline score so you'll know how much prep you have ahead to hit your target score. If you're one of those aiming for National Merit recognition, best of luck. But if you're like most students, just relax and do your best.