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In today’s education environment, standardized tests are more common than ever before. But there’s still a difference between typical standardized tests, and the tests students will need to take the next step toward higher education. That’s where the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) comes in.

The PSAT is a test administered by the College Board, and is the first taste of goal-oriented testing for many students. It’s also the first chance many students will have to earn scholarships, and can be a cost-effective way to jump head first into the anxiety inducing world of college admissions.

But with a plan, and the footing that the PSAT can provide students, there’s nothing to worry about.

“I like to tell them it’s a predictor. It predicts how they may do on the real one, however, I don’t put a lot of emphasis on the score,” said Courtney Meiers, a school psychologist who helps students prepare for college. “If it’s a student who maybe has high anxiety, or struggles with test taking, that’s when I’m like, ‘yeah, maybe you should take the PSAT.’”

According to Meiers, the PSAT is a great option for students who are looking to get experience taking tests, but especially for students looking to gain confidence and an understanding of their skills. It also opens the door for scholarship opportunities, and is a good introduction to the college admissions process.

The first step is understanding if you need to take the PSAT. Meiers said that the increased amount of standardized testing in today’s education environment gives students more preparation for college entrance exams than ever before, and that the PSAT’s role as an entry point to the testing world has changed.

It’s still an important step, though. Some students simply need help taking tests, while others need guidance in figuring out which tests to take, and what to work on for each test. It depends on a student’s situation, but Meiers said the PSAT can often times be a good place to start.

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Especially with so many test options, and choices in colleges, Meiers said taking the PSAT can help students gain momentum if they are unsure of which test to take, or if college is even right for them. With no “standardized” route to college admission, Meiers said a lot of students can get caught up in the process.

“It’s those middle ground kids that are teeter-tottering on that line that it is most important,” Meiers said. “When it gets complicated, they start to glaze over and give up.”

Meiers said that while the “smartest and brightest” know which tests to take and how to study, students without those same abilities and resources are the ones who can benefit the most from a test like the PSAT. That benefit even increases in certain areas and districts that may not send a large number of students to college. Meiers worked as a teacher in Phoenix before making the transition to school psychology, and worked in a district where she estimated around 5 percent of students went to college.

In a situation like that, where a school-provided test may be the only option students have to gauge their interest in college, Meiers said these tests can become almost invaluable.

“They really do benefit, otherwise they wouldn’t even know what the PSAT is,” she said. “Especially if they don’t have the money for a tutor or any other practice material.”

Taking the PSAT can also be the first step toward scholarships or other recognition. The PSAT is a partner with the National Merit Scholarship Program, and serves as the qualifying test for that program.

Once students take the test, they can qualify for various rounds of National Merit consideration (semifinalists, finalists and then selected winners). Students who win the scholarships receive awards ranging from straightforward scholarships provided by the program, to corporate-sponsored scholarships and other special honors provided to National Merit award winners.

Even if you aren’t selected as an award winner, making a qualifying round of the National Merit process can help students be considered for other scholarships and admissions. The PSAT is also a gateway to a variety of alternative scholarship programs.

This is another area where the PSAT can help students from certain communities make a college degree more attainable. In addition to the National Merit Scholarship, the PSAT has partners that provide around $220 million annually to minority students and those from low-income situations.

There are awards from more obvious organizations, such as the American Indian Graduate Center and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and more specific honors. The Ron Brown Scholar Program focuses on African American students interested in civic engagement. The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship is available for residents of Washington state who plan or pursuing STEM and health care related fields.

And these are just two examples of the many programs that partner with the PSAT.

No matter what your background, college plan or financial situation, the PSAT can be a great starting point when sizing up a college degree.