02/06/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

The PSAT: Does It Count Towards College Admissions?

When you sit down in your junior year to take the PSAT, does what you're doing actually count for anything?

The answer, as it is with many things college admissions related... is yes and no.

The PSAT -- the warm-up exam for the SAT -- may not matter when it comes to admissions.

Yet it does offer some potential rewards for those who score highly.

The old adage is -- you've got to walk before you run. And by that same accord, you've got to take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) before you can take the 'real' SAT.

The PSAT is at its core a practice test. Its purpose is to prepare students for the kind of questions they'll encounter when they take the SAT in their senior year.

The test covers three areas: critical reading skills, math problem-solving skills and writing skills. The three sections are scored individually and then added up to give the student their total score.

These scores can of course be very helpful in helping a student determine what areas they need to work on and improve before SAT time comes rolling around.

However, a student's PSAT score is absolutely NOT looked at by colleges when considering a student for admission.

Schools don't ask for, or even have access to, a student's PSAT scores. The test is strictly used for practice and will not serve as any kind of criteria for acceptance.

On the other hand...

The PSAT can actually be worth something to you beyond the practice experience you receive.

PSAT scores are actually used to award many scholarships. And that includes the approximately 8,200 National Merit Scholarships handed out each year.

You're automatically entered into consideration for these National Merit awards when you take the test. So it pays to try to score as high as possible.

Here's the rub when it comes to National Merit Scholarships:

They are extremely difficult to qualify for. We're talking the cream of the crop here... so that's important to understand, right off the bat.

However, if your scores are good enough to qualify to be "commended" or a "finalist," this piece of info looks fantastic on a college application.

Getting that far in the competition for a National Merit award is a surefire way to make your application stand out from the rest.

Plus, finalists and even those "commended" are sometimes honored with different corporate scholarships for advancing so far... and many colleges also award their own merit scholarships based off such a distinction.

Being able to attach the label of National Merit Finalist to your application is invaluable when competing against other students for admission to college.

So as you can see, while the PSAT doesn't technically affect your chances for admission one way or another, it can prove to be very important.

That's because of both the practice it provides for the real SAT and the opportunity to win merit aid based off your scores.

The PSAT certainly isn't a make or break piece of the college admissions process. Approach it as you should -- as a chance to learn your testing strengths and weaknesses. Anything else you receive beyond that is a very useful bonus.

Scott Weingold is the publisher of and also co-founder and a principal of College Planning Network, LLC - the nation's largest college admissions and financial aid planning firm. Scott has been ranked the #1 "College Financial Aid Expert Worth Knowing About" in the U.S. by, and he co-authored the book, "The Real Secret To Paying For College"