How the PSAT Changed My Life

Rear view of a young woman hitchhiking on countryside road walking on the road

JJ was a National Merit Scholar in 2006. With the final 2016 PSAT administration date occurring this Wednesday, Nov. 2, he reflects on his experience taking the PSAT in 2004 and the effects it had on his education.

This week marks the conclusion of a month-long process wherein over three million students will have sat down to take the PSAT. Nominally known to high school students as a practice SAT, the PSAT has much higher stakes and more far-reaching implications than a simple practice exam; a strong performance can alter the trajectory of one’s life, as it did mine over a decade ago.

I was a kid of an inauspicious background from small-town Arkansas, the son of a salesman and a teacher. I knew college was part of my future — that had been impressed upon me from a young age — but that future would most likely materialize in the form of a yet another townie attending the local state school. The PSAT didn’t mean much to me: it was nothing more than another school-sponsored standardized exam I was forced to endure.

Still, I remember the day I took the PSAT. We sat in a cramped auditorium, under conditions hardly ideal for an administration of a standardized exam. The stadium chairs had the faux appearance of comfort, and we used lapboards instead of an actual desk.

For nearly three hours, I labored through reading, writing, and math. When the exam was over, I headed home, without any lingering thoughts on the outcome of this “practice test.”

Little did I know, my life was forever changed by those three hours. Three months later, scores were released, and an asterisk next to my score designated me as a high performer. I was invited to a small session with 6 of my peers (from a class of more than 600 students) where we were told we would likely be named National Merit Semifinalists. Nearly a year after taking the test, in September 2005, this was confirmed; I was a National Merit Semifinalist, and I had my picture taken for the local newspaper. That’s when everything changed.

Within weeks, I began receiving mail from schools in states all over the country — New York, California, Oklahoma, Michigan and more — that invited me to apply to their schools, guaranteeing not only admission, but also scholarships covering tuition and room and board. These were universities I’d never heard of before, let alone ever considered as a possible location for my undergraduate experience.

I was not raised in a family of means. We were comfortably middle-class, but I was certainly not in line to attend a fancy private school on one of the coasts. My status as a National Merit Semifinalist changed that. My worldview had expanded to a previously unknown realm of possibilities, all due to my performance on a “practice SAT.”

The next year was a whirlwind. I visited and interviewed at schools I would have never dreamed of attending. I took the real SAT to further the National Merit process, which was itself somewhat of an irregularity in small-town Arkansas, where the ACT is the primary college admission test taken.

That’s how I ended up attending Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and at this point, I have lived in Boston for nearly a decade. Attending Northeastern opened countless opportunities for me, including working at premiere corporate institutions in America, traveling the world, and experiencing life beyond Arkansas.

The PSAT is important. It can change the trajectory of your life.