Thursday, August 27, 2015

Take it from philosopher Blaise Pascal: For students, preparing for the PSAT is a can't-lose proposition

Click to enlarge
    In just over six weeks high school juniors will have the chance to take the PSAT, or National Merit Test. Those with scores in the top one percent of their state will become National Merit Semifinalists. The overwhelming majority of these students (15,000 of 16,000) will become National Merit Finalists.
    To score in the top one percent of Mississippians one need but post a score that is just above the national 97th percentile on the PSAT. On average our state’s students have lower scores, and so it’s easier to become a National Merit Finalist in Mississippi than in most states.
    I’ve written it before, but I’ll write it again. The National Merit Finalist designation carries with it some of the sweetest scholarships available to prospective college students. Ole Miss offers a free ride. Alabama and Oklahoma go one step further, offering 10 paid semesters, both undergraduate and graduate, plus free summers. Since most NM Finalists will arrive at college with more than 50 hours through AP classes and dual enrollment, these schools are essentially offering a free graduate, law, or medical degree. This can be worth a quarter of a million dollars to an out-of-state student.

    So it pays to put some effort into preparation for the PSAT. But don’t take my word on it. Take the advice of Seventeenth Century philosopher Blaise Pascal.
    They didn’t have the PSAT back in the 1600s, but Pascal advanced a theorem which provided a logical basis for believing in God. Essentially his theorem was that there was no penalty in believing in God and being wrong, but if one refused to believe and was wrong the result was eternal damnation.
    The chart at right sums up the possible outcomes for someone who believes or doesn’t believe in God. (Belief, by the way, means more than just detached observation, but rather belief with commitment; however, I’m not attempting any theological debate here).
    I’m not sure when I first heard of Pascal’s Wager, as it’s called. I actually had conducted the same mental exercise as a child of 8 or 9. But it’s an interesting way of looking at things, and in my view a valuable contribution to religious thought.
    One can use a variant of Pascal’s Wager as providing a real incentive to study for the PSAT, at least for those who have at least an outside chance of making the test’s Semifinalist cutoff score. There are four choices, based on two choices and two possible outcomes. One can prepare or not prepare. One can earn a high enough score to become a Semifinalist; or not.
    Those who attempt to become Finalists and fail will still be better students because of their preparation. They will likely have higher grades and score higher on the ACT and SAT. Even if they don't bag the National Merit scholarship, they might improve their scores enough for other merit aid. And of course, those who don't prepare and just barely fail to make the Semifinalist cutoff will be forever burdened with the knowledge that massive amounts of money could have been theirs with just a slight bit of effort.
    I’ve put all of this in the chart which is at the top of this blog post. If this doesn't convince your student to prepare for the PSAT, I'll end by offering this poem by William F. O'Brien.

Better To Try And Fail Than Never To Try At All
by William F. OBrien

Some say risk nothing, try only for the sure thing,
Others say nothing gambled nothing gained,
Go all out for your dream.
Life can be lived either way, but for me,
I'd rather try and fail, than never try at all, you see.

Some say "Don't ever fall in love,
Play the game of life wide open,
Burn your candle at both ends."
But I say "No! It's better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all, my friend."

When many moons have gone by,
And you are alone with your dreams of yesteryear,
All your memories will bring you cheer.
You'll be satisfied, succeed or fail, win or lose,
Knowing the right path you did choose.

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