PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 158 | What To Do With Your Junior's PSAT Score?

Is my child's PSAT score good, bad, or average? What am I supposed to do with this number?

Show Notes:

Junior year PSAT scores will come out this week. In today's episode, I reveal the methodology I use to predict a student's actual SAT score based on their 11th-grade PSAT score.

Over the last decade, I have developed an "improvement margin" model that will give you a ballpark idea of how much improvement your child should expect based on their gender, level of motivation, and level of resources available.

Can my child increase their SAT score by 20 points, 50 points, 200 points? What should I expect? Tune in and find out where your junior's SAT score might end up by the time they take the real thing...

Real The Full Transcript:

[00:00:25] Hello friends and welcome back to the PrepWell podcast.. This week's episode was designed to help you answer one simple question, which is the following: What should you be thinking when you see your juniors PSAT score sometime this week? Should you be jumping for joy? Should you be scratching your head and confused, or should you be hitting the panic button? Today I'm going to reveal a system that allows me to predict a student's future SAT score based on their 11th grade PSAT score. In other words, if I'm working with a junior and they just got an 1150 on their October PSAT, how much improvement should they expect by the time they take their official SAT, let's say, in four or five, six, up to nine months from now? This anticipated improvement differential, if you will, is an important number because it sets in motion a lot of other things. How much do they need to study for the real SAT When should they start studying? What type of studying should they do? What types of colleges should they be thinking about based on this predicted score? And the list goes on and on. And I'll be the first to admit that my methodology is not perfect. I don't have years of longitudinal studies corroborating my findings. I didn't submit this method to some academic journal to be vetted by a panel of my peers. This is not a PhD thesis. It's a very general back-of-the-envelope method that I use to get a sense of where I think a particular student is headed. Now I am drawing on my experience with a few hundred students that I've worked with closely, including my own sons, over the last ten years. So I'm not pulling these numbers out of thin air. But it's not foolproof.

[00:02:22] So if you have a junior in high school, I hope they took the PSAT a few weeks ago in the middle of October. This is the test that's usually given during the school day. It's usually put on by the school. If they did, their scores should be coming out any day now, depending on where your child took their particular test. So keep your eyes peeled. You will want to know this score, so ask your child. If your junior did not take the PSAT a few weeks ago, then contact me and I'll get you set up with an at home equivalent that will get you the benchmark score that you'll need. This is an important test inasmuch as it gives you a window into the future. So please don't blow it off. Before we get into my predictive model and how you two can guess what your child's SAT might be. Let's quickly put the PSAT into context. The PSAT technically stands for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. I like to think of it as the Pre-SAT or the practice SAT. The PSAT is traditionally taken in mid-October of a student's junior year. And yes, you can take the PSAT earlier. You can take a PSAT eight nine. You can take a PSAT ten as a sophomore, which I would recommend. But the most common time to take the PSAT is early in your junior year. The point of the PSAT is to give your child an early idea of where they might stand next year in the college admissions process. Because the PSAT score is supposed to be a rough indicator of the score that they'll get when they take the real SAT sometime in the next ten months or so. Now, don't panic. Most students will improve their scores, some dramatically, between taking the PSAT and their actual SAT. But the PSAT score is still a good benchmark number to pay attention to. And we'll talk much more on this later. And no colleges never see this PSAT score. They won't ask for it. They don't care about it. There's nowhere to submit it on a college application. It's like it never happened. You don't have to tell anyone your PSAT score if you don't want to. Understanding that there are a few exceptions where you might want to share your SAT score, which I'll also address in a couple of minutes. And no your child didn't necessarily have to study, quote unquote, for the PSAT. It's supposed to be a practice for the real SAT. My general rule of thumb, however, and they've heard this many, many times in their weekly video lessons, if they're a PrepWeller, is that you should, at a minimum, familiarize yourself with the test. I would advise your average student to spend at least 30 minutes or so getting used to the format, the types of sections, the grammar, the math, the reading comprehension, just so that the test doesn't feel like a complete cold start. And by the way, your child can very easily familiarize themselves with the PSAT by going to Khan Academy and searching for PSAT practice.

[00:05:31] Now, having said that, if your child is ambitious and or they want to attend a highly selective college and or they took my advice to study for the SATs over the summer before their junior year, then they may want to go all in on their PSAT and try to smoke the thing. Why would they do that? Well, a couple of reasons. Number one, because if they do very well on the PSAT, their score might get them recognized as a national merit scholar, as a commended scholar or a semifinalist or a finalist. Getting one of these distinctions would be a huge deal. Why is that so? Well, remember, there are so few ways left to show colleges any type of objective academic excellence that you have to take what you can get. And in some cases, for some colleges, it's one way to get around their refusal to consider your actual SAT or ACT scores. Let me explain. My two older sons, for example, took the PSAT seriously because they were highly motivated. They didn't want to leave any stone unturned. And they were in a disadvantaged demographic. They were ambitious. They planned on applying to highly selective colleges. And so they studied for the SAT over the summer before their junior year. They were in a category of students who wanted to do well on the PSAT and were ready for it. So they took it. They both scored well. They both became National Merit Scholarship finalists, which is the highest level, which meant that they scored in the top 1% of all test takers in California. California being the most competitive state because of the large number of students taking the test, which then allowed them to include this recognition as National Merit finalists on their UC applications. Their University of California applications. This was a great workaround that allowed them to show strong standardized test scores, something that would otherwise have been missed on their applications. Because as many of you know, especially if you're out here in California, U.S. schools are prohibited from seeing your actual SAT or ACT scores, even if you want them to. Even if you got a perfect score. They don't want to know about it. So one way to prove to UC admissions officers that you're on the ball academically, at least, is to put National Merit Scholarship finalist on your list of honors and awards inside the application. That way, the admissions officer is forced to see that you performed well on a national standardized test. They have no choice. They aren't legally shielded from such information.

[00:08:21] And since my son's got 1590s on the real SAT, but weren't allowed to submit those scores to the UC schools. They got zero credit for all of their hard work. So it felt good to at least have something to submit to prove that they performed well on a standardized test. The other reason why a PSAT score might be helpful is if you're a prospective college athlete. If you can nail the PSAT early your junior year and use that score in your correspondence with college coaches, you're going to get their attention a lot earlier than everyone else. At many of the high academic colleges, coaches won't read an email or watch a highlight video or make any effort to correspond with an athlete until they show the coach a PSAT or SAT or an ACT score. Why? Because coaches don't want to waste their time investing in an athlete who can't deliver academically. They've been burned too many times. They talk to prospects with, quote unquote, straight A's and spend a lot of time and effort recruiting them for months and months and months, only to find out that a student got a 1080 on the SAT. And for many of the high academic colleges, this is going to be a non-starter. And they've wasted a lot of their time. So if you intend to get recruited by the Ivy League or NESCAC schools or other high academic colleges, it would behoove you to do well on the PSAT to put a coach's mind at ease that you're worth their time and investment. And in that regard, you also differentiate yourself and you put yourself on the radar well before other athletes who have to wait until sometimes their senior year to cough up an SAT score. Okay. We got into tangent territory there for a few minutes. Now I want to bring us back to present day.

[00:10:14] When your junior gets their PSAT score back again sometime in the next week or so take a look at it. It's an important number. In some ways, it immediately puts them in the running or out of the running, as it were, for certain tiers of colleges. What do I mean by that? Well, if your daughter has been dreaming about going to Stanford since second grade and she brings up a 1020 on the PSAT, she's going to have to come to grips with reality, which is that Stanford is probably not in the cards. Now some of you might be thinking, well, Phil, are you saying that it's impossible to get into Stanford if you get a 1020 on the PSAT? No, not quite. But in this case, the odds have gone from slim to almost nonexistent. It may be possible, but this student better have a lot of uncommon things going for her. What could she possibly do to get back in the running to be a viable candidate at Stanford? Well, she could study a lot and bring her SAT score up 200 or 300 points. Get up to a 1200 or a 1300, which would be tough and would take a lot of work and money. But it's probably not impossible. And even with that improved score, which would still be low and uncompetitive for Stanford, she would also likely have to be an LGBTQ plus student or a first gen college student, or from an underrepresented minority, or interested in a major in an unusual subject, or the daughter of the vice provost or a celebrity or a high ranking politician. She could be the daughter of a big donor. She could be a highly recruited athlete or some combination of those things. But if she is not one or a few of these things, she's not getting in. In other words, if she doesn't have some incredibly significant hook or multiple hooks, she should move on from the dream of attending Stanford and set her sights on something more realistic.

[00:12:14] Now, I know this is hard for some people to accept, but it's the reality. That's why the SAT score can be so important, because if she had gotten the equivalent of a 1540 on the PSAT, then the math changes. She still is by no means a shoo-in at Stanford. Not even close. But at least she would be in the general neighborhood, and it wouldn't be a complete waste of time and money to assess her likelihood of getting accepted, even with a 1540, we'd still have to check dozens of other factors, but at least she wouldn't be starting in a nearly unrecoverable hole. I really don't want to get sidetracked too much about any one student's chance of getting admitted to any one particular college. There are just too many factors to consider in this particular episode. Instead, I just want to focus on one thing. When you see your child's PSAT score, what should you be thinking? Should you be happy, sad, panicked, anxious? I don't know. I don't know what you expected. I don't know where your child expects to apply to college. So there are a lot of questions here. So what I'd like to do now is give you a little cheat sheet on how to interpret your child's PSAT score. Meaning, once you get their score back, how much improvement is possible by the time they take a real SAT? Assuming they need to improve and or they want to improve, this is always the question that pops up. For example, if my son gets an 1100 on the PSAT, what can he expect to get on the real SAT? The same 1100, 1200, 1300? Is it possible to get a 1400 if you're starting at 1100? These are questions that I field every single day, and they're important ones. And so over the last ten years or so, I've gotten pretty good at predicting that number based on my experience working with so many families and students. Does the real SAT score, compared to the PSAT, typically go up by 20 points, 50 points, 100 points, 300 points? What's common? What's realistic? What does it take to really improve the score? This is important for many reasons, as we discussed. Remember, families don't want to waste time visiting, researching or mentally investing in colleges that are completely off the table. They want to have a realistic picture about what types of schools they should be focused on.

[00:14:44] Okay, so how do I predict any particular student's score improvement from the PSAT to the SAT? Well, to keep it simple, let's talk about three basic data points. Gender. Are they a boy or a girl? Level of motivation. Are they indifferent or highly motivated? And number three, available resources. Are they using Khan Academy for free or are they getting more expensive? Personal one on one tutors. That's it. Those are the three data points. Gender, level of motivation and available resources. And no, these are not perfect categories because there's quite a bit of wiggle room for most of these. How exactly can I measure level of motivation? How do I assess the quality of the resources that any family brings to bear? So again, this is not a perfect science. But to get to a back of an envelope number, you can glean a lot of information from these three data points. There are other things that come into play, but the big movers, in my opinion, are gender motivation and resources. So let's start with the most optimistic case. The most optimistic case I encounter where I see the most improvement potential is that of a super motivated girl with access to one on one private tutoring. With this combination of factors, it's possible to see jumps as high as 200 to 300 points. Which means if this type of girl gets a 1200 on the PSAT, it's not out of the question that she could wind up with a 1500 plus SAT score. Now let's go to the other extreme. The other extreme, which unfortunately has been on the upswing, is the unmotivated boy with limited resources. If this type of boy gets a 1200 on the PSAT, it's likely that this score will not improve by very much, if at all. Maybe 20 points. Theoretically, there's no real reason why this score would go up or should go up, other than maybe the boy is a few months smarter by the time they take a real SAT. But again, an unmotivated boy with no resources isn't getting smarter at a particularly high rate of speed. Now, obviously, the permutations you could get with even this limited set of variables can quickly become pretty complicated. Boy or girl? High motivation. Low motivation. No access to resources. Great access to resources. As I look at these variables, I attribute a certain percentage of point improvement to each one. In other words, how much more or less important is gender versus motivation or motivation to access to resources? Mind you, I don't know exactly. I'm sure a social scientist could write an entire thesis about these questions. But for our purposes, I just want to give you some rough ideas of what you're looking at.

[00:17:42] So how much of a score improvement is attributable to gender boy versus girl? I would estimate about 40%. How much of a school improvement is attributable to motivation? I would estimate also about 40%. Well, how much school improvement is attributable to access to resources? My guess would be only about 20%. Now, why so much lower than the other variables? Well, these days, as you probably know, Khan Academy offers free online world class SAT tutoring that anyone can access at any time. So that's not a huge differentiator anymore. Anyone with a computer and Internet access. In other words, a public library has the same access to this resource. On the opposite end of free resources are students who pay $200 or $300 an hour for private one on one SAT tutoring sessions. Yes, this helps, but not as much as you'd think. If you're dealing with an unmotivated student. So just to make this more real, I want you to grade your son or daughter across these variables gender motivation and resources. But before you do this, let me say a little bit more about what I mean for each of these variables.

[00:19:00] So variable number one, boy or girl? That's an easy one. Are they a boy or are they a girl? Pretty straightforward. Easy to determine. Variable number two High motivation or low motivation? A high motivation student would be someone who is high energy, who cares deeply about their score improvement. They have a particular target score in mind. They would schedule time to prepare on their own with very little prodding from their parents. They would take the initiative, they'd monitor their own process, they would track their improvement. And they're very conscientious. They get up early, they stay up late, they would work on weekends. They would do what they need to do to max out their potential. This is basically what we want all of our kids to be like. Now, on the other hand, a low motivation student doesn't get it. They understand that the SAT is a thing and something that they likely need to improve. But that doesn't necessarily translate into action. It's a low priority to them. And if left to their own devices, no studying would get done. Now, if they have a particularly savvy parent, they may squeeze in a little bit of studying here and there begrudgingly just to take off some of the heat from their parents temporarily. But they are particularly engaged. And lastly, what about low resources versus high resources? Low resources means self-study on Khan Academy. In the past, there wasn't really a baseline level resource that every child could access. With Khan Academy, which is free and online and can be accessed on any computer, it is a baseline resource that nearly every student can take advantage of. High resources, on the other hand, means private one on one tutors, either online or in person. These students have access to the best tutors in the world. Made easier these days with Zoom, who can customize the help that each student needs. The student doesn't have to waste time repeating things that they already know. The one on one tutor zeroes in on the student's weaknesses and will keep up with the lessons until these issues are resolved. And of course, there are gradations of motivation and resources. This is not a black and white metric that's that easy to follow. Some students have off the chart motivation and start studying for the SAT in seventh and eighth grade. Some families might even hire a living SAT tutor for a year. You'd be surprised the lengths that some people go to. But for our purposes, let's not worry so much about those extreme cases. Let's keep it simple.

[00:21:41] All right, let's get to the numbers. Here are my predictions across a combination of factors for how much a student's SAT score will improve from their PSAT score. To make this easier to understand, if you're listening, I'm going to start with the best predicted improvement and end with the least predicted improvement. In other words, who stands to improve the most, followed by who stands to improve the least? Let's start with the girls. A girl who is highly motivated with high resources. That would be the best combination. I would give her a plus 280 points. In other words, a 1200 on the PSAT would become a 1480 on a real SAT. One step below that is a girl who's highly motivated with low resources. I would give her a plus 140 points, so a 1200 would become a 1340. Next category is a girl with low motivation but high resources. I would give her a plus 100 points so her 1200 would become a 1300. And then the bottom of the girls would be a girl - low motivation and low resource. I would give her a plus 40. A 1200 would become a 1240 on the real SAT.

[00:23:09] Ok now are moving down the ladder, moving over to boys. A boy who is highly motivated with high resources. I would give a plus 250 points. So his 1200 on the PSAT would become a 1450 on the real SAT. Below that is a boy who is highly motivated but low resources. I would predict a plus 120 points. So at 1200 would become a 1320. And then we step down from there. A boy with low motivation but high resources. I would give a plus 80 points. A 1200 would become a 1280. And then lastly, the absolute bottom of the barrel would be, boy, low motivation, low resources, which would be the worst combination of all. I'm going to give that a plus zero points. So I 1200 would probably stay at about a 1200. I know that's a lot to digest, especially if you're listening. So let me try to draw out some of the important takeaways, some of the important insights. Insight number one, girls typically perform better than boys across the board in all scenarios in my experience. This is usually based on level of maturity and ability to focus on a task for a prolonged period of time. Insight number two, as you might guess, the magic formula is a child, girl or boy who is motivated and who has access to the best resources. These types of students can really improve their scores if they make it a priority. Insight number three, a low motivation child, even with high resources meaning expensive tutors, usually won't catch up to a motivated child, even with low resources. Again, this isn't always the case, but it seems to hold true. Self-motivation typically trumps having the perfect tutor. And lastly, insight number four and unmotivated child with low resources usually shows very little improvement. And we try to steer clear of this scenario as much as best as we can. So what can you do with all this information?

[00:25:28] Take their PSAT score. Assess which of these categories they fall under. Boy, girl, motivated, unmotivated, high or low resourced. And then do the math. Add the margin of improvement, if you will, based on my back of the envelope predictions. And if you need to handicap the numbers to account for your child's particular situation, great. Go for it. Adjust the numbers as you see fit. And while this method certainly won't be perfect, it may give you an idea directionally of where they may end up. Then determine if your child's projected SAT score aligns with the types of colleges that they aspire to attend. So here's an example. Your son gets a 1260 on the PSAT. His dream school is Princeton. He falls under the boy, highly motivated, low resource category. That would be a plus 120. Why are you low resource either because you don't have the money or because you're burned out on spending money on him and you're going to let him figure this out on his own, especially with the robustness of the free resources out there. So a plus 120 improvement margin would bring his projected SAT score from a 1260 to a 1380. Theoretically, of course. I would take this information and I would check Princeton's average SAT score. I check the middle 50%, which is probably 1500 plus. So what does this mean? Well, it means that it's not looking good for your son. Again, unless your son has a very significant hook and I hate to belabor this, but it matters a hook like LGBTQ plus underrepresented minority first gen recruited athlete child the faculty legacy child of a celebrity or head of state, child of a big donor or some other exotic skill that's in high demand, I would begin to steer him away from Princeton because he will most likely not have the juice to get in.

[00:27:32] Again, this is a big generalization because we're only looking at an SAT score and there are many other factors that go into a quote unquote holistic review. But it's not a bad proxy. All other things being equal. On the other hand, if you decided that your family was willing to pay for a world class one on one SAT tutor, then the math changes. With the help of a tutor, a 250 point differential would bring his SAT score to a 1510. Now that's not blowing anyone's doors off, but at least now he's in the ballpark to consider Princeton. He'd be in that middle 50%. And then we'd have to look at the rest of the application. But the point is, with this cheat sheet, the family has some idea of whether or not an investment in an SAT tutor might be worth it. In this particular student's case, it might be. If this episode does nothing more than bring your attention to your child's PSAT score and maybe initiate a conversation with your child about what that score means in the bigger picture, then I'll consider it a success. If this motivates your child to get more serious about SAT prep. I would consider that another big success. If this gives you a more realistic picture about what colleges to focus on, that would be a success. And by the way, because I know I'll get a few questions about this, I do want to acknowledge that there is the option to take the ACT instead of the SAT. I don't want to get into the weeds about how to make that decision today. I've covered that decision in several prior episodes. Suffice it to say that in today's episode, we've assumed your child is moving forward with the SAT. If you have any questions about my methodology, or if you want me to assess your child's PSAT score and help you project their improvement differential. Or if you want a recommendation for a world class SAT tutor who my sons and many of my private prep boilers have used, please reach out to me. Thank you for listening today. I hope this was valuable content for you and your family because the PSAT is very easy to ignore. If your child didn't do very well. They probably won't volunteer their score to you. They'll just sweep it under the rug and move on with the rest of their life. And then the next nine months will fly by and your child will be taking the real SAT and you will have missed your window. So don't let that happen to you. Stay informed and keep on top of what's going on out there.

[00:30:02] That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in and for your continued support. And in case you didn't know, this podcast supports PrepWell Academy's online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics like this and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and ROTC and athletic scholarships. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in PrepWell Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman or sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child for their specific grade and with their specific goal in mind, go to and enroll today.

[00:31:01] If you know a parent with a middle school or high schooler that might find this content helpful, please share the episode with them and give us a rating too. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a wider audience. If you have questions, comments or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email. DM on Instagram. Check out our blog Facebook page. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear from you. Until next week. Goodbye, good luck and never stop preparing.

[00:31:36] This podcast is brought to you by PrepWell Academy. PrepWell Academy is my one of a kind online mentoring program that delivers to your ninth or 10th grader a short, highly relevant video from me every week. Every Sunday, in fact. Or I give them a heads up about what they should be thinking about to stay ahead of the game to get these valuable lessons into your child's hands. Please head over to PrepWell and enroll your child today.

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PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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