SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

PSAT vs SAT: 4 Key Differences You Must Know

Posted by Vero Lecocq | May 13, 2017 9:00:00 AM

PSAT Info and Strategies, SAT General Info



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. It's important, then, to know exactly what you're signing up for—and how each test is different.

The new SAT suite of assessments is designed to work together. All of the tests are fundamentally similar, and you can use any one to prepare for any other. That being said, PSAT vs. SAT isn't a perfectly equal matchup: there are some differences—major and minor—between them.


The SAT Suite of Tests

First things first. Let's establish what tests are out there, and what their often confusing monikers actually mean.


The 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.


The PSAT 10

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



This test, taken in the fall of 10th and/or 11th grade, is another check-in point meant to show the skills a student hasn't mastered yet. Notably, though, it also gives students a chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.

If you're not yet hip to the redesign that was released last year, you'll want to read about it before taking the test.



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

From here on out, we're going to focus in on the two 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 isn't going to change.


#1: Content

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


#2: Basic Structure

The style of the questions doesn't change much, either in terms of wording or in terms of 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, and Math (the SAT also has an optional Essay component—more on that below). Evidence-Based Reading and Writing is divided into the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test. Math is divided into a test where calculator use is permitted and a test where it is not.

On both the PSAT and the SAT, there will be passages on both the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test. On the Reading Test, you'll be answering reading comprehension questions, and on the Writing and Language Test, you'll be answering questions about how to fix weaknesses found in the text. 

On both the PSAT and the SAT, the two Math tests will contain grid-in questions as well as multiple-choice questions. These grid-in questions will come at the end of each section; the instructions will be as follows:



#3: Subscores

In addition to your final, global score, you'll always receive cross-test scores and subscores. There's a division, first of all, between Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and there are a few other specifications, too.

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

As for subscores, we have, from the Reading test:

  1. Command of Evidence
  2. Words in Context

The Writing and Language test gives us:

  1. Expression of Ideas
  2. Standard English Conventions

From the Math test, we get:

  1. Heart of Algebra
  2. Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  3. Passport to Advanced Math


#4: No Guessing Penalty

Now, in the olden days, answering a question wrong meant having points literally deducted from your score. One-quarter point per question. So, if I missed eight questions, not only would I not get those eight points, I would actually lose an extra two points. Those two points would be subtracted from the points I had already earned.

Fortunately, those dark days are over. Today, if I miss eight questions, all I lose is the opportunity to earn those eight points. Nothing gets subtracted from my 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: Score Range

Starting with some logistics, the PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1520, while the SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600. Your PSAT score is meant to directly predict your SAT score. If you get a 1200 on the PSAT, you can expect that you'd get roughly the same if you took the SAT without further preparation. 

So why the different score ranges? 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.


#2: 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 alloted per question is the same (except for Math, where you have a few seconds more for each PSAT question).



Section Time Number of Questions
Reading 60 minutes 48
Writing and Language 35 minutes 44
Math 70 minutes 47
Total 165 minutes 139



Section Time Number of Questions
Reading 65 minutes 52
Writing and Language 35 minutes 44
Math 80 minutes 58
Essay (optional) 50 minutes 1
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 towards that goal.


#3: The Essay

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

The SAT, on the other hand, does. It's optional—you don't have to take it. But as your college may well require or suggest it, you should be aware that there is one aspect of the SAT that the PSAT won't prepare you for. Make sure you give the essay some attention before you dive into the SAT.


body_typewriter.pngColleges tend to like having students write essays.


#4: Level of Difficulty

Throughout the suite of tests, things just get a little bit harder. It's nothing huge; you just may 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.



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 you'll tend to be overly prepared in terms of comfort with the content and overall endurance. What you'll need to watch out for is a probable tendency to over-analyze the slightly simpler questions of the PSAT. Also know that you will not be writing an essay on PSAT.

If you're preparing for the SAT using the PSAT, bear in mind that, while it will get you most of the way there, you'll need to supplement your program with some 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 and what a "good" score really looks like. That's actually not a simple question to answer, but reading up on the subject will get you feeling more comfortable with where you should aim.

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


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points


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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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