Junior and Sophomore College Guy Rant for October - what's up with the PSAT?

Hey there members of the Class of ‘20 and ‘21 (and their parents),


Greetings from Gary the College Guy!


Here’s the first of what will be several of my newsletters (I call them “The College Guy Rants” - get it? :) I’ll be sending you over the next year or two for your elucidation - this one going out for you to groove on as you attain warp speed in this your junior (or sophomore) year.  In these rants I’ll discuss timely issues pertaining to information gathering and preparation for the college selection and admission process. For parents I'll talk about financial aid and other aspects of meeting college costs. Along the way I'll drop some suggestions, reminders, and references to on-line articles I think you'll find interesting. 


I always send my Rants out “blind cc”, so no one sees your email and you won’t see anyone else’s (except mine). If you find these emails useful forward them on to your friends, or have them contact me and I'll add them to my list of recipients. If, on the other hand, you'd rather not get these occasional missives, kindly let me know...and you won't.




This month I want to talk about the PSAT, which all public school juniors and sophomores in Maine will be taking next week . I’ll do it via a Q and A format, just for fun and giggles. Let’s get going, shall we?


Q: What is it? 

A: It's a practice test, consisting of a pared-down SAT.  It has three components: Reading, Writing/Language, and Math. There is no essay component. It’s a two hour and forty-five minute test (60 minutes reading, 35 minutes writing and language, and 70 minutes math - 25 w/o a calculator, 45 using a calculator).


You can read more about the test here: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10/inside-the-test/key-features

…and here: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10/inside-the-test/compare-specifications


Q: When and where do I take it?

A: You take it at your high school - for most of you it will be offered next Wednesday, October 10th (some schools may offer it on Saturday, October 13 - that’s up to your high school).


Q: How do I register? 

A: Unlike the SAT, you do this through your high school. If you live in Maine your guidance office will do it for you. If you’re not in Maine your guidance office should have already told you how to sign up. Your school may handle the $15 fee or pass it on to you - that's up to your school.


Q: Should I take it?

A: Absolutely.


Q: Even if I'm not sure I want to go directly to college after high school?

A: Positively.


Q: Why? I'm not convinced. 

A: You're a tough cookie! Look, the PSAT is purely a practice test, to get you familiar with the SAT. The scores don't count for anything, your scores aren't put on your transcript, colleges neither ask for nor care about them, and scores are never forwarded to colleges. If you do REALLY REALLY WELL on the PSAT your junior year you may qualify for something called the National Merit Scholarship. Don't worry about this, and don't hold your breath - only a handful of test takers (one half of one percent nationally!) will score well enough to qualify. The real benefit of taking the test is that it will give you (and your guidance counselor, and consultants like me) great predictive information about HOW YOU'LL DO ON THE SAT when you take it in the spring of your junior year. Further, it will give you information about how best to prepare for the SATs when you take them for the first time.


Q: Why do I have to... 

A: Hey, enough back talk! If you're still not convinced email or phone me and I'll give you more good reasons why you should take it. And don't get me going on the importance of the SATs (and their arch-rivals the ACTs), both of which I passionately dislike, though I recognize them as 'necessary evils' and will urge most of you to take one or both of them in the spring of junior year and again in the fall of senior year. I'll bore you in future rants about these infernal tests, promise.


Q: Okay, okay. Should I prepare, and what's the best way to do so? 

A: Yes you should do some prep, but keep it mellow. I suggest you take forty-five minutes to an hour over the next week before you take the test, just to get familiar with the multiple choice format and the way the questions work. 


Perhaps some of your classes have devoted time to prepping for the PSAT math and verbal sections. Say "thank you" to those teachers! Otherwise the best way to prep is to go to this collegeboard.org website for information about the test and examples of the various questions:




Take note of the link on this page to “practice with Khan Academy”, which is an ultra cool and free test-prep outfit which some of you may be familiar with. If you're not, you'll want to be - particularly when you're stumped with a diabolical math homework assignment. Check out what Sal from Khan has to say about it and you'll be back in the driver's seat. I’ll be directing you to the Khan Academy web site when you’re ready to start a more serious test prep for the spring SAT test date, around mid to late February (sophomores just relax and don’t sweat it for another year).


Q: Should I take a PSAT prep course or use a tutor?

A: HECK NO! Puh-leeeze, avoid buying in to the standardized test “arms race” (promulgated by the test prep industry and test-prep merchants themselves!) trying to scare you in to spending your or your parents’ simoleans on something YOU DON’T NEED. After you have two years worth of PSAT scores, and two and a half years of high school coursework and grades, a competent guidance counselor can advise you on how much, and how to prepare for the actual tests that matter (which, once again, you take for the first time in the spring of junior year). And if they won’t, give me a call and I’ll set you straight.


Q: Any final tips?

A: You may have heard that on the "old" SAT and PSAT, which is no longer extant, test takers were penalized for guessing, so you had to be judicious about when to answer a question, and when to omit it. THIS IS NO LONGER TRUE ON THE “NEW" SAT AND PSAT. So guess away, don't leave any questions blank, 

regardless of how many responses you can exclude. With four possible answers you've got a 25% chance of getting lucky.


Q: What happens after I take the test?

A: Nothing till late December, when you'll get a complete score report back and access to a very nifty and free SAT prep and college information program. Your guidance staff will show you how to use them - they're great. When you get your score you should meet with your guidance counselor - that’s a good time to contact me as well if you want some additional hand holding and advice!


Last Q: What's all this talk about the "new SAT"?

A: It was totally redesigned three years ago - the class of 2017 were the ‘guinea pigs’ for this new incarnation of the test. Each section will still be scored along a 200 to 800 scale, only now there are only two sections: verbal and math. A "perfect score" will be 1600 (previously the test had three sections, thus a perfect score was 2400. 


Like before a 500 score per section is average, and nota bene that out of 2,400 accredited four year colleges and universities in the United States, a combined score of 950 or better will more than satisfy about 2,250 of those colleges. So what's the problem? 


Don't sweat this stuff, but take the PSAT seriously and put a little effort in to prepping it. I'll write more about the SAT later.


That's my story and I'm sticking with it!




Okay, that’s enough about the PSAT for now. I usually end these rants by referring you to some good reading/listening I've come across, so check these out. If you have difficulty accessing any of them let me know and I’ll send them to you another way:




Frank Bruni of the New York Times writes wonderfully about issues related to higher education. Here’s a recent column of his worth reading. Note there are links to several others of his college-related pieces:





Here’s another Times article about “Gap Years”, which I’m a fan of. 





Here’s a web page I use quite a bit (from the Chronicle of Higher Education) which is pretty cool. It gives you "cross-applies" for any college you type in. “Cross apply" schools are schools which students tend to like who also like the school you're interested. List a school you’re considering in the space at the top, it will show you schools which are in some ways similar. Capisce?


Go try it - you'll see what I mean. It's a good way to learn about colleges and expand/refine your (eventual, it's early yet) lists:






Parents - it’s still early in the game but you’re well advised to begin reading about ways to pay for college, including understanding financial aid and whether you may qualify for it. Here are a couple recent articles on that topic:





I do a great deal of consulting around financial aid, so don’t be bashful about giving me a call or email to begin the discussion. I don't charge for schmoozing on the phone!




And one more - really, these are worth your while to check out!!!!!


Julie Lythcott-Haims is a past Dean of Students at Stanford who published a book a couple years back called: “How to Raise an Adult”. It addresses the unnecessary  hysteria many people attach to the college selection process. I read it, and I give it a “thumbs up”. Slate Magazine and an outfit called “Panoply” have combined to offer a series of free itunes podcasts on the college admissions process, hosted by Ms Lythcott - Haims. Check it out here: 




Happy reading and listening, and catch you next time! Don’t forget to prepare just a little for next week’s PSAT!!!


From your PSAT Poobah, your Academic Avatar, your Vocational Virtuoso, your ACT Authority, etc. etc.


Gary the College Guy


P.S. If you’ve got more questions than answers after reading this, give me a call (number below). No charge (talk is cheap!) for phone conversations. I’m also happy to tell you (parents) what people actually pay me for!


P.P.S. If you know a student or parent who may derive succor (good SAT word kids - look it up!) from the above, feel free to forward this along to them (include my signature please).



Gary L. Canter

College Placement Services

210 St. John Street

Portland, Maine 04102

(207) 772-9711 



College Placement Services provides high school students and their families assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application and financial aid process.