College Bound Corner

PSAT – Not Just a Practice Test

In the middle of October, millions of high school sophomores and juniors across the country will take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT.) The test has three components – math, critical reading and writing – and is viewed as a “practice test” for the SAT. For juniors, the scores are also used as an initial screen to determine eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Who qualifies and how?

Qualifying scores for commended, semi-finalist and finalist levels for the program vary by year and by state, based upon the pool of students taking the test.

For example, based on some 1.5 million juniors taking the test, a national selection index score is determined to yield students performing at about 96th percentile, which works out to be about 50,000 students.

Semi-finalists by state are determined in September of the senior year, and typically about 15,000 proceed to the finalist stage. About 8,000 of the finalists go on to receive Merit Scholarship awards. Of that, some 2,500 National Merit Scholarships of $2,500 are awarded.

National Merit winners are selected on a state basis. Their accomplishments, skills and potential for success in rigorous college studies are factored into the selection. The number of winners named in each state is proportional to the state’s percentage of the nation’s graduating high school seniors.

Last October, of the 1.5 million high school juniors who participated in the test, 35,595 were from Connecticut. The scoring is similar to that of the SAT, but is on a scale of 20-80 versus 200-800 on the SATs. A breakdown of “mean” scores for the state and the nation were as follows:

Critical Reading – 47.2
Math – 47.7
Writing - 45.7Nationa
Critical Reading – 47.4
Math – 48.6
Writing - 45.9


A full report of Connecticut performance can by found here. The qualifying score in Connecticut for the Class of 2014 was 221.

Does the PSAT really matter?

With such a small percentage of National Merit Finalists, why should students care about the PSAT? Students get a sense of the format, question types, content, and time limits
they will encounter on the SAT. Like the SAT, the PSAT has three components:

  • Math – There are two sections of math, each timed at 25 minutes with a total of 38 questions. The test covers Algebra, Numbers & Operations, Geometry, and Data Analysis. There is a focus on general mathematical knowledge of concepts, as well as the ability to think critically. The test requires a student to read questions full of data and information, and then determine the best way to solve the problem.
  • Critical Reading – There are two sections of critical reading, each timed at 25 minutes with a total of 48 questions. The student will read short and long passages and then answer questions of varying complexity about the passages. Students must extract key information from text, and then use that information to
    select the correct answers. The vocabulary component tests a student’s grasp of the meaning of words, with test-takers required to choose the words that fit best
    into sentences.
  • Writing – There is one section of writing timed at 30 minutes and consisting of 39 questions. Areas tested include Improving Sentences, Identifying Sentence Errors and Improving Paragraphs.

The PSAT is different from the SAT

While there are similarities between the two tests, there are also important distinctions.

The writing section in the SAT requires the test-taker to write an essay in 30 minutes. The PSAT writing section is a multiple-choice test focusing on error recognition and grammar. The math section on the SAT is more advanced in its coverage and includes third-year subjects such as Algebra II. It also contains the tough “stopper” math questions which can trip up some students.

The SAT is longer than the PSAT. The PSAT has five sections versus the SAT, which has 10 – three in each subject and one unscored section in which the College Board tries out
questions that could be used in future tests. That section can be on any of the three topics and won’t be used in the final score, but the test-taker doesn’t know which of the sections
it is so they must do well on all 10. The testing time for the SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes; the PSAT takes about 2 hours.

Why take the PSAT?

Not only is there the chance of being recognized as a National Merit Scholar, but the student will be able to identify areas of strength and weakness. The test provides an indication of how the student performed relative to other students. Students can also check a box for the Student Search Service to have colleges email information to them. The student may want to establish a separate email address for college-related material.

Also, the PSAT will help the student prepare for the SAT in other ways, such as what foods to bring, how much rest is needed before the exam and how to stay focused during the process.

Educators agree that the PSAT is an excellent tool for launching the college preparatory process. According to Kate Guthrie, Director of Academic Services at Greenwich Education Group, “The real-time data each student receives through PSAT pre-study and practice testing at Greenwich Education Group serves as a launch pad for the standardized testing in high school years.”

She adds: “Students receive customized diagnoses, which further allows us to start laying the groundwork for SAT and ACT testing success. Occasionally, we may even have the opportunity to give a student that extra push needed to qualify for a merit scholarship on the PSAT test itself.”

The Common Application – A Chance To Be Unique

For most college-bound seniors, the application essay looms as a fearsome task. Almost all schools use the Common Application approach to admissions, which includesthe Common Application essay. It typically runs between 250 and 650 words.

The essay gives colleges an opportunity to see how well a student can write, provides a sense of the student’s views on different topics and offers a glimpse into the applicant’s personality. According to Sarah Lee, Director of College Counseling at Greenwich Education Group and former Harvard Law School Admissions Reader, “a successful college admissions essay must do three things very well.”

First, the essay informs the Admissions Committee about the student andwhat he or she cares about. Also, according to Lee, the essay ”connects the dots between the quantitative and qualitative information in the application that aligns with clear themes in the application.” Finally, the essay “clearly articulates the student voice so as to convert the Admissions Committee from evaluators to advocates.”


Students can choose from one of the five following options:

1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. The essay should center on how it affected you and the lessons you learned from the experience. 3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, which marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Not What, But Why

The prompts provide a great deal of flexibility in terms of topics, but the bottom line is they are asking the student to be introspective. The essay allows the student to show creativity, mental processes, values, passions, preferences, knowledge of topics such as literature or history, as well as their sense of their humor, if that seems appropriate in the piece. The focus of the essay shouldn’t be on the “what” as much as on the “why.” It is also an opportunity to show analytical and critical thinking skills. Colleges will get a sense of whether the student is methodical, open-minded, artistic or logical, among other things.

Students should avoid making a selection too quickly. It is better first to make a survey of one’s accomplishments, experiences, achievements and traits. Once done, the list can be matched up to the different prompts to see which provides the best opportunity to tell yourstory. As Lee explains, “the good news about writing a personal essay is that you are telling a story about yourself… and this is a subject you should know a lot about!”

Constructing the Essay

Once a topic is chosen, the actual writing begins. Answer the question; while there is a lot of freedom of response within the questions, readers should have no trouble determining which of the prompts a student has chosen. Students must also follow the format guidelines as laid out in the Common App rules (e.g., font, double spacing).It is critical not to lose points because of bad grammar and spelling. In addition to using spell-check, have a teacher, counselor or tutor re-check the essay.

In writing the essay, the student should provide examples, experiences and appropriate details to add color and interest to the essay. While some advise using a traditional essay format (introduction, body of the evidence and conclusion), Admissions officers do not require an essay that follows tradition. In fact, many of the well-written essays published by colleges are unique in format and style highlighting human details about the student that grades and test scores leave out.

Essays That Worked

Some colleges provide examples of essay that they found noteworthy, which may be accessed through the following links:

John Hopkins University

Connecticut College

Tufts University

Some Basic Suggestions

1. Be concise. Make sure you proof-read or better yet have someone else proof-read the essay not just for mistakes, but for content and flow.

2. Be an individual. The essay should help you stand-out from the crowd and establish you as a unique person and candidate. Your personality, character and passions are what make you unique. The reader won’t learn about you through a generic essay. This is the chance to showcase yourself. At the same time, though, watch your tone. Sounding smug, spoiled, stuck-up, cynical, sarcastic or materialistic, for example, won’t win you the support of many admissions officers.

3. Tell the truth. Avoid embellishing. Don’t try to sound super-intelligent by using the thesaurus to come up with a series of complex and obscure words that will leave the reader wondering what you are talking about.

4. Be smart. Above all, college is an intellectual pursuit above all. That is why it is important to show that you have a mind that is sharp and inquisitive – even open to controversial ideas and discussions. However, avoid standing on a soap-box as this will work against you.

5. Write vividly and coherently. You are writing a short story about yourself; being bland won’t set you apart. Make sure your examples are interesting and that you provide some details and color along with them. At the same time, going on and on about a topic or trying to cover too many topics or examples will come across as undisciplined, superficial aneven unfocused. The essay is you as a person. Let the rest of the application provide the facts The essay provides the color.

6. Know your audience. The essay should show how your interests and values fit well with those of the school. Doing some research about the school or schools is time well-spent.


The essay simply gives you a chance to show colleges who you are. It is not often in life you are given an opportunity to simply talk about yourself in a truthful and open manner.Margrét Ann Thors, Greenwich Education Group Writing Specialist, encourages students “to think of the admissions essay less as a piece of academic writing and more as a work of creative nonfiction—a personal essay in which they’re encouraged to let their voices, quirks, and personalities shine through.

“My most tried and true advice is: lead with the heart.”

Students will likely encounter lots of well-intentioned opinions from family members, friends, teachers, and the Internet, but ultimately the essay is meant to be an authentic distillation of who they are, not who they think—or who others think—an admissions counselor wants them to be, she adds.“I am most excited about a personal essay,” Lee says,“when I walk away feeling as if I have met this student and would like to know more about them.”

10 Tips For A Better Chance At Yes

The college countdown has begun for high school seniors. The goal is to write a college essay that will move an application from the “maybe” pile to the “yes” pile.  But wishing for it to happen isn’t enough.  It takes a structured approach and some focused writing efforts.  Bear in mind that the personal statement is a student’s opportunity to sell himself/herself to college admission officers beyond their grades and test scores. Students need to think of themselves as a product of their upbringing, schooling, interests, experiences and more. The essay should explain why the college should want the applicant as part of their student body.

Linda Ortwein, Director of College Counseling at Greenwich Education Group, offers 10 quick tips to make the pitch:

  • Make it memorable; do some structured brainstorming to come up with your memorable sales pitch

  • Distinguish yourself; talk about you, the unique dimensions of you as a person

  • Grab their attention at the start; a great opening line will hook the reader

  • Make them want to meet you; what qualities and attributes don’t show up on your transcript or activity list

  • Make sure you assess the essay prompts; are you answering their questions?

  • Grammar, grammar, grammar; don’t doom yourself with sloppy syntax

  • Keep the essay focused; a laundry list isn’t exciting reading so make sure you edit to a tightly written essay

  • Engage the reader; be polished but use your own voice

  • Read the essay out loud; make sure it sounds interesting and not bland

  • Write and rewrite; your first and second drafts aren’t good enough so demand more of yourself