Everyone knows that preparing for the SAT or ACT is challenging enough. But when it comes to the younger cousins of these standardized tests—the PSAT/NMSQT and PREACT—your family’s options and opportunities can be even more puzzling. Should your student pre-test—and if so, which one should he or she take? Are both pre-tests necessary?

In this blog post, I’ll unearth a few of the mysteries surrounding these tests and make them more approachable. You’ll learn exactly what the tests are, why (and when) your student should take them, and a handful of preparation techniques.

Let’s dive in!

So what are these acronyms, anyway?

They’re quite a mouthful of letters—PREACT and PSAT/NMSQT. What exactly do they stand for? They’re shortened versions of the official ACT and SAT tests, and they offer your student the chance to prepare ahead of time. Pre-test scores provide insight into your student’s academic strengths and weaknesses, and help them determine what subject areas they need to strengthen before taking the official tests during their junior year of high school.

While the PREACT tests your student’s knowledge in English, mathematics, reading, science reasoning, and writing, the PSAT tests for verbal and mathematical reasoning. The tests are comparable in length and subject matter, and there’s no penalty for wrong answers.

Arguably, the biggest difference between the PREACT and PSAT is your student’s eligibility to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. While qualification for the National Merit Scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean your student will receive an award—he or she must also meet additional academic requirements—the PSAT is the only way to qualify for participation. For this reason, the PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).

Are these tests worth my student’s time?

The short answer is yes! The PSAT and PREACT give homeschool students early exposure to standardized testing for college admissions. While the PREACT is an excellent college admissions pre-test, and while the ACT offers students the opportunity to win scholarships, they don’t give your student a chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship like the PSAT/NMSQT does.

Some scholarship organizations use only the PSAT to select award recipients, so students who don’t take the PSAT miss out on those opportunities, too.

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When your student takes the PSAT, you’ll get an idea of his or her standing in comparison to other students from around the country. And if your student qualifies to compete for the National Merit Scholarship, he or she may have a chance to gain recognition for talents or skills that aren’t typically in the spotlight.

What year of high school is best for pre-tests?

Having a game plan for when to take the PREACT and the PSAT is essential for creating the best possible results for the ACT and SAT. While conventional wisdom suggests taking the pre-tests in the junior year of high school, it’s a better idea to take them during sophomore year, then again during junior year.

The PREACT is tailored to tenth graders and is offered any time between September and June of every year, which makes planning ahead easy. The PSAT, on the other hand, requires careful advance planning and preparation.

The PSAT-10 is essentially the same test as the PSAT/NMSQT, except it’s targeted for tenth graders and offered in February or March every year, while the PSAT/NMSQT is offered every October. The College Board recommends homeschoolers sign up for each test through their local high school four months in advance of the testing dates.

Taking the PREACT and PSAT as a sophomore provides a sneak peek into what awaits your student during the junior and senior years. Plus, the pre-tests point out subject areas that call for improvement and more test preparation.

How can homeschoolers prepare?

Test resources will tell your student not to prepare for the PSAT, but he or she should prepare for the test the second time around by taking a full practice test once or twice. There are many online resources your student can access to have a look inside the PSAT before taking it.

The College Board has a free practice test here, and Khan Academy offers free online SAT practice testing that will give your student a personalized plan for academic improvement and feedback on their progress.

For the ACT, your student can access preparation resources on the official ACT site and through Kaplan.

Your student will come away from test prep with tools to strengthen his or her weakest academic areas for optimal performance on the real thing. Plus, your student will have a better idea of what to expect from the official tests.

The bottom line: What do you have to lose?

The PREACT and PSAT/NMSQT pre-tests are great practice for the standardized testing required for college admission. The PSAT, in particular, will give your student the opportunity to qualify for more recognition and more scholarships than the ACT alone can offer—so why not encourage him or her to jump in and give both tests a try? It never hurts to learn and achieve as much as possible, especially when preparing for college.