Brian Underwood: Familiarize yourself with PSAT / NMSQT

What has nine letters, looks like duck, but doesn't quack like a duck, and has a total value of more than $44 million?a. Merganserb. Husbands asking for directionsc. Teenagers getting up on Saturday morning and asking how they can help around the house.d. PSAT/NMSQTLet's see how you did. A — A merganser has nine letters, is a bird that looks like a duck and doesn't necessarily quack like a duck, but it does not have a monetary value north of $44 million. If you knew what a Merganser was, you get an “A” for the day, but this answer is not correct.B. Husbands asking for directions. It looks like a “duck,” but it certainly doesn't “quack” like a duck. And depending upon the gravity of the situation (recall your last family road trip), a wife might think the gesture is worth $44 million, but, this choice clearly more than nine letters.C. Completely implausible on all levels.D. PSAT / NMSQT — Correct!If you are unfamiliar with the PSAT / NMSQT, otherwise known as the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test / National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, it is a two-pronged national test that is issued to juniors and sophomores each October to assess their readiness to take the SAT, which colleges and universities consult when making admissions decisions.This test has a different level of significance for juniors versus sophomores. For sophomores, this assessment simply represents an early exposure to the material and the testing paradigm they will encounter on the road to college. It is important, however, that sophomores and their parents place this assessment into perspective.Given that sophomores are only two months into their second year of high school, it stands to reason that most 10th graders will be unfamiliar with a great deal of the test, as they lack a year's worth of curriculum and test preparation for this exam. Therefore, it is critical for sophomores and their parents to review the results (generally available in December) in a more philosophical manner. View it as practice.For juniors, the PSAT carries a bit more weight, as it not only represents a more realistic and current view of their readiness for the SAT, but it also carries the extra letters that are irrelevant to sophomores — NMSQT. Co-sponsored by the College Board and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying test is, according to the Official Student Guide to the PSAT / NMSQT, “an annual academic competition among high school students for recognition and scholarships,” that represents a total of $44 million in scholarships. To be eligible for this competition, the guide states that a student must be enrolled as a high school student and be making normal progress toward graduation or completion of high school by 2014, and planning to enter college no later than the fall of 2014. Additionally, a student must be a U.S. citizen, or be a lawful permanent resident, and take the 2012 PSAT/ NMSQT in the specified year of the high school program.Next month, about 3.5 million students will take the PSAT/NMSQT, of which 1.5 million will meet the minimum eligibility criteria to be considered for the approximately 9,600 scholarships available based on performance.Through the use of a Selection Index (the sum of scores earned on the critical reading, mathematics, and writing scores on the PSAT/NMSQT), 50,000 students will be recognized as “High Scorers.” In April 2013, these individuals will be offered the opportunity to be referred to colleges and universities for potential scholarship opportunities.From this pool, 34,000 will receive Letters of Commendation in September 2013 but will not continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships, though they may be candidates for Special Scholarships provided by corporate and business sponsors. The remaining 16,000 will be notified through their school during this same period as having earned Semifinalist status, which represent the highest scoring entrants from each state. This level of achievement requires an additional application that the student and the school jointly complete.In February 2014, 15,000 students who, according to the PSAT/NMSQT guide, “meet academic and other requirements,” will be notified that they have advanced to Finalist standing. These students who reach this level will then be considered for the 8,300 Merit scholarships that are available. In March 2014, the NMSC will notify the 8,300 students who have received a scholarship falling into one of three categories, a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship, a corporate-sponsored scholarship, or a college-sponsored scholarship.The other 1,300 students will be notified in March 2014 of having won a special scholarship provided by one of the 240 corporations, company foundations, and business sponsored scholarships who support the National Merit Program. These students are non-finalists who meet their sponsor's eligibility criteria. These sponsors are committed to $19 million in support of not only the special scholarship program but also 1,000 scholarships in the merit portion of the competition.So what does all this mean? There are lots of scholarship opportunities for students who take advantage of their education, and who prepare for the PSAT/ NMSQT. Translation — freshmen (you didn't think you were going to escape this discussion, did you?), sophomores, and juniors — get to work.Freshmen, make sure you establish good study habits, which can be furthered by taking good notes in class and instituting good time management, and reading as much quality literature as possible.Sophomores, build on (or start) the study habits necessary for academic success, and do your best on the PSAT next month. If you don't score well, recognize you have a year of academic growth ahead of you that will help next October. You also have next summer or fall to take a prep class (hint, hint) to become more familiar with how to take the test.Juniors, if you don't already have the official student guide to the PSAT/ NMSQT and a full-length practice test, visit your counselor as soon as possible. The testing dates this year are Wednesday, Oct. 17, or Saturday, Oct. 20, so use the next month to prepare. When visiting the counseling office, make sure to ask which day your school will be administering the test.Seniors, I haven't forgotten about you. We'll talk later. Until then, make sure you're staying on top of your various college planning deadlines.All students — if you're asked what a merganser is on the PSAT or the SAT, you know whom to thank.• Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School. He can be reached at


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