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PSAT vs SAT: 6 Key Differences You Must Know


There's the PSAT, there's the SAT. There are even a few other assessments, as it turns out. There's a lot of jargon out there when it comes to the tests offered by the College Board, so it's important to know exactly what you're signing up for—and how each test is different.

The SAT suite of assessments is designed to work together. All tests are fundamentally similar, and you can use any one to prepare for any other. That being said, the PSAT vs SAT isn't a perfectly equal match-up. In reality, there are some differences—both major and minor—between them. We take a look at these below.


The SAT Suite of Tests: Overview

First things first, let's establish what College Board tests are actually out there and what these tests' often confusing monikers actually mean.


PSAT 8/9

This test is taken in 8th and/or 9th grade to indicate what areas need special attention before a student graduates high school.



This test is exactly identical to the PSAT/NMSQT (discussed below); however, it's only offered in the spring and is only open to students in the 10th grade.



This test, taken in the fall of 10th and/or 11th grade, is another check-in point meant to point out any skills a student has yet to master. Notably, though, it also gives students a chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.




The college admission test we all know and love, the SAT indicates your college readiness to any schools receiving your application.


From here on out, we're going to zero in on the two tests that do most of the heavy lifting: the PSAT/NMSQT (hereafter referred to simply as the PSAT) and the SAT.

body_applesandoranges-1.pngThere are similarities, and there are differences.


PSAT vs SAT: What's the Same?

The content and format of the SAT and PSAT are very similar, though not identical. Before we get into the key differences, let's talk about what doesn't change from one test to the other.


#1: Content

These two tests cover the same subjects. I mean, exactly the same subjects—it's even a bit eerie. There's algebra on the PSAT; there's algebra on the SAT. There are vocab-in-context questions on the PSAT, and there are vocab-in-context questions on the SAT, too. You get the picture.


#2: Basic Structure

The style of the questions doesn't change much from one test to the other, either in terms of wording or the actual tasks. Also, the overall structure and global goal of testing remain the same.

Both tests have two major components: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW), and Math (the SAT also has an optional Essay component—more on that below). EBRW includes the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test, whereas Math is made up of two subsections: one allows the use of a calculator, and the other one does not.

On both the PSAT and the SAT, you'll get passages on the Reading and Writing sections. On the Reading section you'll answer reading comprehension questions, and on the Writing section you'll answer questions about how to fix grammatical and stylistic weaknesses in the text. 

In addition, both the PSAT and SAT Math sections contain grid-in questions as well as multiple-choice questions. The grid-in questions come at the end of each section.


#3: Subscores and Cross-Test Scores

In addition to your final composite score, you'll always receive cross-test scores and subscores on the PSAT and SAT. However, there's a division between Math and EBRW, and there are a few other specifications, too.

The two cross-test scores are Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science. These scores refer to every question that tests critical thinking in the named areas, whether appearing in a verbal section or the qualitative one.

As for subscores, these differ for each of the three sections on the PSAT and SAT.

The Reading section uses the following subscores:

The Writing and Language section gives us these subscores:

And finally, the Math section's subscores are as follows:


#4: No Guessing Penalty

In the olden days, answering a question wrong meant having points literally deducted from your score. One-quarter point per question, to be exact.

So if you missed eight questions, not only would you not get those eight points, but you'd also lose an extra two points. Those two points would be subtracted from the points you'd already earned.

Fortunately, those dark days are over. Today, if you miss eight questions on either the PSAT or SAT, all you lose is the opportunity to earn those eight points. Nothing gets subtracted from your score!


body_dice-2.pngSometimes, on the SAT or PSAT, it's worth taking a gamble.


PSAT vs SAT: What's Different?

Now that we've covered the similarities between the two tests, let's dig into the differences.


#1: Purpose

The first major difference is the purpose of each test. Whereas the SAT is a common requirement for college admissions, the PSAT is an SAT practice test and the basis for the National Merit Scholarship ProgramIn other words, since the PSAT is essentially a precursor to the SAT, it is not as important as the SAT is.

In regard to colleges, the PSAT has no impact on your admission chances, while the SAT typically does. Even a super low score on the PSAT would have no effect on your college applications. By contrast, a super low SAT score would likely significantly lower your admission chances.

With National Merit, you can only enter the competition if you get in the top 1% of scorers on the PSAT (and are a high school junior). Thus, while a top 1% SAT score would no doubt give a boost to your college applications, it would not make you eligible for National Merit.


#2: Score Range

The PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1520, while the SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600

This means that the individual section score ranges differ as well. On the PSAT, EBRW and Math are each scored on a scale of 160-760. On the SAT, however, these sections are scored on a slightly bigger scale of 200-800.

Your PSAT score is meant to directly predict your SAT score. So if you get 1200 on the PSAT, you can expect to get roughly the same score if you took the SAT without further preparation. 

Why the different score ranges, though? Because the PSAT is a little less challenging (so as to accommodate a lower grade level), a perfect score on the PSAT falls a little short of a perfect score on the SAT.


#3: Timing

It's also important to note that the amount of time and the number of questions for each section differ between the two tests. The SAT is slightly longer and has more questions, but the amount of time allotted per question is generally the same.

The only exception is the Math No Calculator subsection, for which you get 13 seconds more per question on the PSAT than you do on the SAT.

Here's an overview of the time and question differences between the PSAT and SAT:

Test Section Time # of Questions Time per Question
PSAT Reading 60 minutes 48 75 seconds
Writing 35 minutes 44 48 seconds
Math No Calc 25 minutes 17 88 seconds
Math Calc 45 minutes 31 87 seconds
Total 165 minutes 139
SAT Reading 65 minutes 52 75 seconds
Writing 35 minutes 44 48 seconds
Math No Calc 25 minutes 20 75 seconds
Math Calc 55 minutes 38 87 seconds
Essay (optional) 50 minutes 1 50 minutes
180 minutes
(230 minutes with essay)
(155 with essay)


If you skip the essay, the SAT is only 15 minutes longer. But if you do take the essay—which is probably wise—you're in for an extra hour of testing. You'll want to train your endurance toward that goal.


#4: The Essay

You'll note that there was actually more than just a matter of timing implied in that last section. That's right: the PSAT has no essay.

The SAT, on the other hand, does. It's optional, so you don't have to take it. But as your colleges might require or recommend it, you should be aware that this is one aspect of the SAT that the PSAT won't prepare you for. As a result, make sure you give the essay some attention before you dive into the SAT.


body_typewriter.pngColleges tend to like having students write essays.


#5: Level of Difficulty

Throughout the College Board's suite of tests, things get a little bit harder. It's nothing huge; you just might find that the PSAT has more concrete, find-this-detail-in-the-text questions while the SAT has more abstract, what-purpose-did-this-detail-serve sorts of questions.


#6: Logistics

The final difference lies in the logistics of the PSAT and SAT, namely how each test is administered, how much each test costs, and where you can take each test.

In terms of administration, the PSAT is held just once a year in October, while the SAT is offered seven times throughout the school year. (You can also take the SAT on a designated school-day test day.) As you can see, you're typically expected to take the PSAT just once or twice in total. With the SAT, however, you have far more options to retake it and raise your score.

Another big logistical difference is price. Though the PSAT is sometimes free for students whose schools cover the full cost of the test, the typical price is $16 a test. Comparatively, the SAT costs $46 without the Essay and $60 with the Essay. (Note that fee waivers are available for both the PSAT and SAT.)

Finally, while the PSAT is always administered at schools, the SAT is administered at both schools and test centers. So if you're homeschooled or if your school doesn't offer the PSAT, you'll need to find another local school at which you can take it.


PSAT vs SAT: Key Takeaways

It's always a good idea to throw in a full-length, official practice PSAT before you take the real thing.

If you're preparing for the PSAT using an SAT program, the good news is that you'll likely be overly prepared in terms of comfort with the content and your overall endurance. What you'll need to watch out for, though, is a probable tendency to overanalyze the slightly simpler questions on the PSAT. Know that you will not be writing an essay on the PSAT, either.

If you're preparing for the SAT using the PSAT, bear in mind that though it will get you most of the way there, you'll still need to supplement your study program with official practice SAT questions and at least a few cracks at the essay.


What's Next?

Prepare for the task ahead of you, whether it be the PSAT, the SAT, or both. It's important to be familiar with what you'll be doing on test day. And practice, as they say, makes perfect.

Set some good goals—find out what it takes to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program, and learn what a good PSAT score looks like. That's actually not a simple question to answer, but reading up on the subject will get you feeling more comfortable with what you should aim for!

If it's too early to think about the PSAT or the SAT, read some carefully considered advice about taking the PSAT 8/9.



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Vero Lecocq
About the Author

Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.

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