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    PSAT vs SAT: Everything You Need to Know

    By Lisa Freedland

    Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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    Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

    Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: May 16th, 2024
    PSAT vs SAT: Everything You Need to Know

    The College Board offers many, many different exams. Most students are familiar with the SAT that comes after the PSAT. So, what is the PSAT – is it just a “practice SAT”? Ultimately, while the PSAT and SAT are very similar, there are a few differences between them as well. 

    So, if you’re in high school and anticipate that you’ll be taking either the PSAT or SAT (or both) soon, keep on reading to learn about their similarities and differences!

    Don’t miss: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

    What is the PSAT?

    The PSAT is often appropriately described as a “preliminary” or “practice” SAT. This is for good reason – the test is incredibly similar to the real SAT exam. The PSAT is typically taken before one takes the SAT. Other times, however, the PSAT is called the NMSQT or “National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.” This is because students who perform well on the exam can potentially qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.

    What is the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9?

    While the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 also exist, these are typically taken earlier (in one’s academic career) than the PSAT/NMSQT. Neither the PSAT 10 or 8/9 qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship. When we refer to the “PSAT” in this article, we are referring specifically to the PSAT/NMSQT! 

    What is the SAT?

    The acronym SAT stands for “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” But it is better known as just the “SAT.” Students use the exam to show their “readiness for college work”. Colleges know how much high schools’ standards and grading systems may differ greatly by country, state, and even city. So, having a way to compare students using the same measure is a great tool in the college admissions process. This test is used by both U.S. and international universities and colleges. Thus, the SAT is used to combat some of these discrepancies between high schools.

    The test is similar to the PSAT in the sense that It provides colleges with a way to compare students from all over the country (and world). And, just like the PSAT, the SAT is a multiple-choice exam testing students on multiple subjects. On that note, it’s time to compare the PSAT and SAT! What exactly makes them similar, and what makes them different? Let’s take a look.

    See also: The Digital SAT: Everything You Need to Know

    PSAT vs. SAT: What makes them similar?

    In truth, the PSAT and SAT are nearly identical. This is not necessarily shocking – their names only differ by the fact that the PSAT has a “Preliminary” in front of “Scholastic Aptitude Test” (SAT). Besides this, they’re also both administered by the College Board. So, students who have already taken one of the exams should have a general idea of what to expect on the other. 

    However, it’s important to note that there are still a few important differences between the two. Before we get into their differences, though, let’s first take a look at what makes them similar!

    PSAT

    SAT

    Subjects tested
    • Math
    • Reading and Writing
    • Math
    • Reading and Writing
    Overall structure
    • Multiple choice
    • Occasional right in answers in math section
    • Two main subjects tested
    • Multiple choice
    • Occasional right in answers in math section
    • Two main subjects tested
    Guessing Penalty
    • There is no penalty for guessing (so be sure to answer every question!)
    • There is no penalty for guessing (so be sure to answer every question!)
    Time / Time per question
    • 64 minutes for Reading and Writing (1 minute 11 seconds per question)
    • 70 minutes for Math (1 minute 35 seconds per question)
    • 64 minutes for Reading and Writing (1 minute 11 seconds per question)
    • 70 minutes for Math (1 minute 35 seconds per question)
    Number of questions
    • 54 Reading and Writing questions
    • 44 Math questions
    • 98 total questions
    • 54 Reading and Writing questions
    • 44 Math questions
    • 98 total questions

    PSAT vs. SAT: What makes them different?

    So, we’ve now gone over the similarities between the PSAT and SAT – but what makes them different?

    PSAT

    SAT

    Purpose
    • The SAT is primarily used as a college admission tool, helping colleges compare students from vastly different places and backgrounds
    Registration
    • Schools will typically purchase and administer PSAT assessments on their own, and students will be allowed to sign up for the exams at school. However, schools may require students to sign up themselves. Homeschooled students interested in taking the PSAT can also sign up to take the exam at nearby schools
    • Students can do this by logging into their College Board accounts and registering online. Alternatively, if students take the SAT during an SAT School Day, one’s school will electronically register students or have students fill out registration information on their answer sheet.
    Scores
    • 320 – 1520 total score
    • Each section of the exam contributes equally to your score
    • 4 available scores: Total score, Section scores, NMSC selection index score
    • 400 – 1600 total score
    • Each section of the exam contributes equally to your score
    Additional 

    Scores

    • On the PSAT score report students will have a section called the Knowledge and Skills section. This includes a score for each of the eight content areas measured on the PSAT. There are four content areas in the Math section and four in the Reading and Writing section.
    • The SAT has additional score sections that the PSAT doesn’t. These include Cross-Test scores and Subscores. Cross-Test scores measure your ability to analyze science and history/social studies questions. These scores are pulled from the test as a whole, not individual questions. 

    Also see: SAT/ACT scores: to send or not to send?

    Logistics 

    Now onto the logistics! Let’s talk very briefly about the last few things that differ between each test! 

    Cost

    The cost of a PSAT is typically covered by one’s school. The SAT, however, is far more expensive, costing $60 to register. If you’re interested in securing a fee waiver for either exam (or for your college applications in general), we highly recommend you check out How to get a college application fee waiver and check with your high school counselor!

    Where can you take the exams

    This one’s pretty simple. The PSAT can only be taken at schools, while the SAT can be taken at both schools and test centers. 

    When (and how many times) you can take the exam

    The PSAT is offered only once a year, typically in October. The SAT, on the other hand, is offered seven times throughout the school year (or can be taken on a SAT School Day). Thus, while students are only expected to take the PSAT once or twice, it is not uncommon for students to take the PSAT many more times in hopes of securing a higher score. To see a full list of  this year’s SAT test dates (and their score release dates), we would recommend checking out our SAT score release schedule!

    Practicing for the exams

    Considering how similar the content between the PSAT and SAT are, studying for one of them has the benefit of preparing you for the other as well! With that in mind, here are some tips we have for either exam: 

    • Be familiar with each section’s instructions before taking the exam
      • You don’t want to have to waste time reading directions when you could be answering questions!
    • Answer the questions you know first. Then, go back to the harder ones later
    • Use the process of elimination (strike out answers you’re sure are incorrect)
    • Answer every question – there is no penalty for guessing wrong
    • Budget your time! 
      • Bring a watch or timer if you need to (but not an Apple watch – those aren’t allowed)
    • Fully understand each question before answering it

    Frequently asked questions about the PSAT vs. SAT

    What is the benefit of taking the PSAT?

    Besides giving you an idea of what the SAT will look like, the major benefit of taking (and preparing for) the PSAT is that students who score particularly high may potentially be entered into the National Merit Scholarship Program. Through this program, students can compete for hefty college scholarships and earn national recognition. One’s SAT, ACT, and PreACT scores cannot qualify them to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program, however.

    Do colleges look at the PSAT or SAT?

    In terms of college admissions, universities pay very little, if any, attention to one’s PSAT score. So, while a great PSAT score is important in that it can win you a National Merit Scholarship, colleges don’t consider students’ PSAT scores when choosing which students to admit. In fact, the College Board does not allow students to send their PSAT scores to universities. So, in terms of gaining admission into your dream school, having a high SAT (or ACT) score is far more important than one’s PSAT score. Good luck!

    What age takes the PSAT and the SAT?

    Typically, high school sophomores and juniors take the PSAT, while high school juniors and seniors take the SAT.

    Should I prepare differently for the PSAT and SAT?

    While the content is similar, the level of preparation may vary. You might want to use the PSAT to gauge your readiness for the SAT and then prepare for the SAT based on your results. 

    Are accommodations available for both the PSAT and SAT?

    Yes! Accommodations are available for students with documented disabilities for both the PSAT and SAT. You will need to request accommodations through the appropriate channels such as through your school or the College Board.

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