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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!

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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.” Students who perform well on the exam can potentially qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.

While students can certainly win a National Merit Scholarship by taking the PSAT, it’s important to note that they can only qualify for it by taking one specific version of the exam, the PSAT/NMSQT. 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. Thus, for the purpose of simplicity, when we refer to the “PSAT” in this article, we are referring specifically to the PSAT/NMSQT! 

Before we move on to the SAT, if you’re taking the PSAT soon and interested in the National Merit Scholarship, we highly recommend checking out How to win a national merit scholarship!

See Also: What is the PSAT?

What is the SAT?

Originally, the acronym SAT stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” As the test evolved over the years, however, the name has changed to just “SAT,” and the original meaning has been dropped. Despite this name change, though, the test’s importance has remained as significant as ever among students. Students use the exam to show their “readiness for college work,” trying to prove to colleges that they are capable of performing well if accepted to a university. 

Widely accepted by both U.S. and international universities and colleges, schools use the SAT to compare students who’ve attended vastly different high schools. Colleges know how much high schools’ standards and grading systems may differ greatly by country, state, and even city. Thus, the SAT is used to combat some of these discrepancies between high schools and give admission panels a way to compare students using the same measure. In this way, the test is similar to the PSAT – providing 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 (but we’ll get more into this later!).

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.

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.

1. Subjects tested

One of the most easy-to-spot similarities between the PSAT and SAT is their content. Both tests test the exact same subjects and ask students the same types of questions. On the bright side, this means that preparing for one essentially prepares you for the other.

2. Overall structure 

Just as the subjects and wording of the questions largely stays the same from one exam to the other, the PSAT and SAT also share a very similar structure. 

Both exams have two major parts: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math. While the English-Based Reading and Writing section consists of a Reading test and a Writing and Language test, the Math section is split up into two subsections (Math with Calculator and Math without Calculator). This structure stays the same for both exams, and so do the types of questions you’ll see in each section.

The Reading and Writing sections will both give students passages which they must use to successfully answer questions. However, while the Reading section will test a student’s reading comprehension skills, the Writing section will assess one’s knowledge of English grammar and writing.

In terms of the Math sections, both those on the SAT and PSAT contain multiple-choice and grid-in questions, testing a students’ understanding of high-school math concepts.

3. Subscores and cross-test scores

Another similarity between the PSAT and SAT lies in the types of scores you’ll receive after taking each one. Essentially, for both exams, you’ll receive cross-test scores and subscores in addition to your final composite score. 

As for the cross-test scores, there are only two: Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science. The scores you receive on these are given on a scale of 10-40 (with 40 being the highest) and are based on your answers to every question that tests critical thinking in the named areas. For example, this means that your answer to any question testing your ability to critically think about history or social studies, no matter what section or subsection it’s in, will contribute to your Analysis in History/Social Studies subscore. 

In addition to the cross-test scores, you will also receive a set of subscores for each section. Namely, for the Reading and Writing section, the subscores will include Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, and Standard English Conventions. Similarly, for the Math section, the subscores are Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. For each of these subscores, you can receive a minimum score of 1 and a maximum of 15. These scores are simply telling you how well you performed in specific subcategories of each test section, so don’t worry too much about these (except to see what you may need to practice if you want to re-test).

4. No guessing penalty!

The last, but certainly not least, similarity between the PSAT and SAT is the lack of a guessing penalty! This is good news for students: it means that you are not penalized for wrong answers on either exam. Instead, you are only awarded points for questions answered correctly, and simply receive 0 points for incorrect answers or skipped questions. Thus, we highly recommend you answer each question on either exam, even if you’re unsure about your answer (or if it’s a complete guess!).

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?

1. Purpose

The first, and perhaps most important difference between the PSAT and SAT is something we’ve briefly mentioned already: the purpose of both exams.

The SAT is primarily used as a college admission tool, helping colleges compare students from vastly different places and backgrounds. The PSAT, on the other hand, is seen as an “SAT Practice Test” of sorts and allows students to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program

The PSAT thus is incredibly different from the SAT in that it has essentially no impact on one’s college admission chances. Meanwhile, the SAT (if submitted) is still largely a defining factor (many schools don’t require the test anymore). A very low PSAT score will have no impact on your college admission chances. However, a very low SAT score will certainly lower your chances of being accepted to universities. 

On the other hand, while a very high SAT score could not qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship, a very high PSAT score (in the top 1% of test-takers) would – so long as you took it as a high school junior. 

2. Registration 

Before students take either the PSAT or SAT, they must first register for the test. When it comes to the SAT, 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.

The PSAT, however, works a little differently. Schools will typically purchase and administer PSAT assessments on their own, and students will be allowed to sign up for the exams at school. Sometimes, however, schools may even require students to take the PSAT and sign them up themselves. Homeschooled students interested in taking the PSAT can also sign up to take the exam at nearby schools

3. Timing

While the sections on the PSAT and SAT are the same and largely test the same material, the number of questions and time one will have to complete each section differ by exam. The SAT itself is slightly (15 minutes) longer than the PSAT and has more questions, but the amount of time you get to answer each question is roughly the same. This is true for all sections except the Math Without Calculator section, in which you actually get slightly more time to answer each question on the PSAT than the SAT!

This sounds a little confusing, right? To simplify things, here’s a breakdown of the time allotted and questions per section on 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 Calculator 25 minutes 17 88 seconds
Math with Calculator 45 minutes 31 87 seconds
Total 165 minutes 139
SAT Reading 65 minutes 52 75 seconds
Writing 35 minutes 44 48 seconds
Math No Calculator 25 minutes 20 75 seconds
Math with Calculator 55 minutes 38 87 seconds
Total 180 minutes 154

4. Score ranges

While the SAT is scored on a 400-1600 scale, the PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1520. 

As expected, this means that the individual section score ranges must differ as well. On the PSAT, the EBRW and Math sections are scored on a scale of 160-760. On the SAT, however, these sections are scored on a range of 200-800.

Although this information is pretty simple to digest on its own, you may be wondering why there is such a difference – and that’s a great question! It’s because the PSAT is a little less difficult. Thus, a perfect score on the PSAT is not completely reflective of a perfect score on the SAT – falling a little short of a perfect 1600. With that said, however, one’s score on the PSAT is meant to roughly predict one’s SAT score – so don’t disregard them entirely!

5. Difficulty

As we just mentioned, the SAT is meant to be a little more difficult than the PSAT. However, considering that they test the same material and include the same sections, don’t expect the differences between the two to be too drastic. Rather, while the PSAT will likely have more concrete questions which require you to find specific information in the texts, the SAT’s questions may be a little more abstract and require more critical thinking.

6. Logistics (costs, where and when you can take the exams, etc.)

Now onto the logistics! The PSAT and SAT differ in a few key ways: costs, where you can take each exam, and when they can be taken.

Starting with costs, the cost of a PSAT is typically covered by one’s school – who pay $18 per exam. The SAT, however, is far more expensive, costing $55 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!

Next up: 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. 

Now, for something a little more complicated – when (and how many times) can you 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 2021-2022 SAT test dates (and their score release dates), we would recommend checking out our SAT score release schedule!

And we’ve made it to the end of the differences between the PSAT and SAT! Now it’s time for our last similarity: practicing for the exams.

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)
  • Use your test booklet (NOT the answer grid) as scratch paper
  • Answer every question – there is no penalty for guessing wrong
  • Make sure you’re marking your answers in the grid correctly (e.g. if the answer to question #37 is A, make sure you’re marking #37, and not #38, with an A)
  • 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
  • Fill in your answer grid neatly so your test is processed correctly

And, if you’re in search of some good PSAT or SAT practice resources, we recommend checking these out:

Alternatively, if you just want some general tips on improving your score, or think that test anxiety may be hindering your ability to perform your best, be sure to check out these helpful articles:

And with that, we’re done! We hope that you’re now feeling reassured about the PSAT and SAT and are ready to do your best. Good luck!

Frequently asked questions 

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!