With college costs on the rise, high school students and their counselors look closely for options that are a potential source of funds.
That's one of many reasons high school counselors encourage students to take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT.
The test is a door opener to the $2,500 National Merit Scholarship and other scholarships from participating corporations and colleges, said Eileen Artemakis, information director for the PSAT/NMSQT.
"The $2,500 scholarship is a one-time award, given on a state-by-state, representational basis. This method ensures that students are represented nationwide. We determine an allocation based on the number of graduating seniors," nationally and state by state, she said.
High test results can open doors to two other types of scholarships — corporate-sponsored and college-sponsored scholarships.
Artemakis said, as an example, if parents work for a PSAT/NMSQT sponsoring corporation, a student might receive a scholarship of $1,000 to $5,000. And if the student's college of choice participates, an award might be offered that typically ranges from $500 to $2,000 per year and that is possibly renewable.
"We have a list of those colleges, and we also have a list of corporations," Artemakis said.
Harry Simmons, an Omaha Central High School senior, recently found out that he's a National Merit Scholarship finalist. His score of 216 out of 240 points put him well above the 209 for Nebraska's PSAT/NMSQT semifinalists. In Iowa, 210 was the cut-off score, Artemakis said.
"It will make a big difference," Simmons said. "It will be basically a free ride" somewhere.
To be a semifinalist, a student must be a junior, a full-time high school student and U.S. citizen.
Artemakis said about 50,000 of the highest scorers are recognized, and about 16,000 are designated semifinalists. After taking the SAT exam and sending a letter of recommendation from the high school counselor, a student might advance to finalist. Finalists also must meet other requirements.
Simmons, who plans to major in musicology, the study of music history, is considering several midwestern universities, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But the road to one of those schools started in his junior year, 2010, when he took the PSAT/NMSQT.
For Simmons and other college-bound students, the score wasn't all that important at the time. It was practice for the SAT and the ACT, which colleges and universities usually require for admission.
But that test did have consequences.
Students receive a selection index number which is the sum of the verbal, math and writing tests. The highest possible score is 240, the equivalent of 2400 on the SAT. Artemakis said some students do hit that 240 mark.
Unlike college entrance exams, such as the ACT or SAT, a student's PSAT/NMSQT scores are never sent to colleges, said Kathleen Fineout Steinberg, executive director of communications for the New York City-based College Board. Also, although most students take the test when they are 11th-graders, they can take it as 10th-graders.
Or "you don't have to take it," said the director of counseling at Central, Bette Norton Ball.
"But we encourage it. It's good practice for other entrance exams and it's THE major scholarship opportunity for high school kids. We encourage as many as possible to take it."
The PSAT, at a cost of around $14 to $20, is at least half the price of the ACT and SAT.
And because it measures skills in critical reading, mathematics and writing, it can help advisers counsel students on taking advanced placement classes before graduating.
Although students can prepare for the PSAT, many don't.
Simmons said the PSAT "tests the foundation you've built." This, he said, is where a student finds out the "soundness of what you've learned and whether you've challenged yourself."
In other words, he said, there was no cramming for this one.
What is the PSAT/NMSQT? A comprehensive assessment of college readiness and a tool students can use to plan their future.
Who takes it? Nationally, about 3.5 million students. Typically, 10th- and 11th-graders take the test. Only 11th-graders can qualify for scholarships. Younger students tend to benefit from testing practice.
Who uses the information? National Merit Scholarship Corp. uses test results to screen potential college entrants for recognition and scholarships.
Why take it? It prepares students for the SAT, provides an entry into scholarship programs, increases participation in advanced placement courses and supports college- and career-planning.
When do students take it? This year, the dates will be Oct. 17 and Oct. 20.
How long does it take and where is it given? The test is given in schools and takes approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes for the test. Allow additional time for instructions and other administrative work.
How much does it cost? The 2012 fee is about $15 per student. Fee waivers are available for eligible juniors if requested by June 15 at www.collegeboard.org/school.
What's on the test
The PSAT/NMSQT includes five sections:
Two 25-minute critical reading sections
Two 25-minute math sections
One 30-minute writing skills section
Two 25-minute critical reading sections have a total of 48 questions — 13 sentence completions and 35 critical reading questions,
Two 25-minute math sections have 38 questions — 28 multiple-choice math questions and 10 student-produced responses or grid-ins.
Students are advised to bring a calculator with which they are comfortable. Students should have basic knowledge of four math categories: Numbers and Operation; Algebra and Functions (but not third-year level math that may appear on the new SAT); Geometry and Measurement; Data Analysis, Statistics and Probability.
One 30-minute writing section has 39 questions —14 identifying sentence errors; 20 improving sentences; and 5 improving paragraph questions.
These multiple-choice questions on writing skills measure a student's ability to express ideas effectively in standard written English, to recognize faults in usage and structure, and to use language with sensitivity to meaning.
Highlights of 2011 Junior Data
» 1,557,056 juniors took the PSAT/NMSQT.
» 53.2 percent of juniors who took the test were female; 46.8 percent were male.
» Of those indicating racial/ethnic background, 43.5 percent of juniors indicated a category other than “white,” an increase from 43 percent in 2010.
» Scores for each subject area are reported on a scale of 20 to 80. Junior average scores for 2011 (compared to 2010):
Critical reading: 47.6 (0.3 increase)
Math: 48.3 (0.6 decrease)
Writing skills: 45.6 (0.2 increase)
Highlights of 2011 Sophomore Data
» 1,570,141 sophomores took the test.
» 51.6 percent of sophomores who took the test were female; 48.4 percent were male.
» Of those noting racial/ethnic background, 49.8 percent of sophomores indicated a category other than “white,” a decrease from 50.2 percent in 2010.
Sophomore average scores for 2011 (compared to 2010):
Critical reading: 43.1 (0.6 increase)
Math: 43.1 (0.9 decrease)
Writing skills: 40.9 (0.5 decrease)
Source: The College Board