Scoring in the top 3% of all PSAT testtakers can earn you a sizable college scholarship
Each October, 1.5 million Juniors take the PSAT.
In early September of senior year, the top 1% or so of PSAT scorers (16,000) are awarded “National Merit Semifinalists” and are invited to submit an application for Finalist awards (similar to college applications: essay, recommendations, transcript, list of outside activities and leadership roles).
Meanwhile, in late September, the top 50,000 scorers (roughly 97th percentile and above) are named Commended Students and become eligible for Corporate scholarships.
In February of senior year, 15,000 Finalists from the 16,000 Semifinalists are named, and half of the Finalists are granted one-time $2,500 scholarships.
From March through April, two other types of PSAT-based scholarships are given out as well to Commended Students, Semifinalists, and Finalists: about 1,000 different corporate scholarships, in addition to scholarships from universities given to students who declare these schools to be their first choice.
The most and biggest scholarships are available to Semifinalists and Finalists. To be named a Semifinalist, you need to score in the top 1% of your state; Washington, D.C., California, and New York have the highest competition, while West Virginia and North Dakota have the lowest.
The PSAT is scored from 320 to 1520, but your report also gives you a score on the Reading, Writing, and Math Sections from 8 to 38. This latter score out of 38 is the one that is factored into your National Merit awards, and it looks like this in your score report:
A more detailed score explanation is available here, but basically a 37 on each of the Reading, Writing, and Math Sections, which you'll score by getting about 1-3 questions wrong on each Section, would get you a top-1% score.
Can I Prepare for the PSAT?
Absolutely. The canniest way to go after these scholarships is to take the PSAT early - some begin as early as 6th grade.
They take it each year, order their score booklet, review their wrong answers, and gradually learn the key testtaking techniques that these tests reward. By the time junior year arrives, they're well prepared for the PSAT and hopefully in position to earn a scholarship. They also have very little studying to do for the SAT/ACT later in Junior year, because they have already prepared.