A testing guide and college mail. (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)

Brimming with promise and praise, the brochures of idyllic campus scenery and tantalizing letters of interest from admission deans pour into high school students’ mailboxes starting as early as their sophomore year. The messages on the outside of the envelopes, from subtle to insistent, aim to stoke curiosity and, above all, entice students to open them.

A sampling: “Discover your personal college type. SEE INSIDE …”. “What will you do? FIND OUT!” “Reach higher, dream bigger.” “There is something we like about YOU.” “5 great reasons to visit.” “It all starts here.”

Where does this marketing avalanche begin? Many students will open the door to these mass-mailings on Wednesday when they take the PSAT/NMSQT, a preliminary test designed to prepare sophomores and juniors for the real college admission exams. The tests also aim to gather student profiles for a huge national database that colleges mine for recruiting.

The College Board, which sponsors the test along with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, oversees what it calls the Student Search Service. Colleges pay the College Board 42 cents per name to obtain addresses of prospects through this service. (They pay the ACT an identical amount for similar information gathered through that testing program.)

To activate the service, the key question on the PSAT/NMSQT is No. 8 in what the College Board calls the “pre-administration” period of the test. Testing supervisors will read this exact script to students across the country:

“Fill in the ‘Yes’ circle in box 8 to let colleges, universities, scholarship programs, and educational opportunity organizations know that you are interested in receiving information about the educational and financial aid opportunities they offer. Colleges, universities, and scholarship programs that request it will receive information you provide to the College Board. They will NOT receive your actual test scores or telephone numbers.”

It’s optional. But the students are strongly encouraged to do it.

Here’s some of what students are asked to submit: Street and email addresses; racial and ethnic background; gender; religion; potential college majors; estimated grade point average; level of parental education; and parental military service.

The pre-administration questions take 45 to 50 minutes, on top of the 2 hours and 45 minutes required for the actual test. Schools often devote an entire class period in advance of the test to get students to fill out the forms. Debate has erupted among educators and admission experts about whether that’s a good use of class time.

“Millions of students across the country are unnecessarily missing instructional time answering optional questions necessary for the College Board to maximize their profits,” admission consultant Scott White wrote this month in an online forum of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But Palmer Muntz, a senior admissions counselor for Trinity Western University in Canada, replied that “there’s some value to students” in getting information from colleges through the mail, especially for those who live in areas that admission counselors rarely visit. “The ‘rental’ of students’ information to college marketing offices isn’t an evil practice or worthless to the students (though it’s probably completely overdone),” Muntz wrote.

The College Board said in a statement that the information it collects helps connect students with colleges and helps researchers assess its testing programs. “The College Board is committed to protecting student privacy,” the organization said, noting that students can opt out of the search service if they choose.

Many colleges pay the College Board and the ACT substantial sums to obtain tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of names and addresses that they will use to start building a list of prospects. It’s not the only way they build their mailing lists, but it is a core element.

Colleges typically ask for names that fit a targeted geographic and academic profile. While colleges cannot see the individual scores that students obtain on the PSAT, they can ask the College Board for a list of names within a range of scores, and they can screen for the students’ self-reported GPA and academic interests. Knowing their ZIP codes often gives colleges a good idea of the socio-economic background of the prospects.

Robert Springall, dean of admissions at Bucknell University, a private college in Lewisburg, Pa., said the release of student names obtained through the PSAT is one of the most significant events in the annual college recruiting cycle. Names gathered in October typically are released in January.

“A lot of the rest of the calendar is built on those two things happening,” Springall said, noting that targeting is crucial. “It’s not in anybody’s best interest for me to be recruiting students I’m not likely to admit.”