PSAT vs. SAT: All the Differences You Should Know

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Students today take a lot of tests. In fact, it’s estimated that the average student in the U.S. takes 112 standardized tests from Pre-K through the end of high school. The exact tests you take depend on where you live and what school you attend. But two tests that just about every U.S. student has heard of are the PSAT and the SAT.

With so many tests on your plate, it’s easy to get confused. What exactly are the PSAT and the SAT? How are they similar? How are they different? In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about these two important exams.

What is the PSAT?

The PSAT, formally known as the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, is a practice version of the SAT. It’s cosponsored by The College Board and The National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

The 2-hour and 45-minute test assesses reading, writing and language, and mathematics.

Who takes the PSAT?

There are three versions of the PSAT. Most often, people who mention the PSAT are referring to the PSAT/NMSQT. NMSQT stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The PSAT/NMSQT is for high school juniors, and top test-takers may qualify for scholarships and other honors.

The PSAT 10 is for sophomores, and the PSAT 8/9 is given to students in eighth and ninth grades. So, you may take the PSAT as early as eighth grade, then take various versions of the exam through your junior year of high school.

In total, over six million students in the United States take some form of the PSAT annually.

What’s the purpose of the PSAT?

The main purpose of the PSAT is to prepare students for the SAT. Format, test questions, and testing conditions are designed to mirror the SAT, giving you an authentic practice experience.

Students also receive a score report with detailed, useful information about strengths and weaknesses. You can use this info to create a customized SAT study plan.

In the case of the PSAT/NMSQT, the exam can earn you accolades, scholarships, and even full tuition at some colleges.

What is the SAT?

The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is designed to measure what you learned in high school and how prepared you are to succeed in college. It provides colleges with a common data point that can be used to evaluate applicants.

It’s a three-hour test (3 hours and 50 minutes if you do the optional essay) that assesses reading, writing and language, and math. Yep, just like the PSAT!

Who takes the SAT?

College-bound high school students take the SAT, typically during their junior year. However, all high school students are eligible to take the test.

About two million high school students sit for the SAT each year.

Why is the SAT important?

The SAT is important because it’s one of the primary metrics that colleges use to assess applicants. Admissions officers will use your SAT score to compare your college readiness to the college readiness of other applicants. They want to admit the students who will be most successful at their school.

Of course, the SAT is not the only factor in admissions decisions. Admissions officers also look at your GPA, strength of schedule, extracurricular participation, letters of recommendation, and personal statement(s). However, the SAT is one of the easiest ways to compare you to the national applicant pool. That’s why at many universities, it’s one of the most significant factors determining admission.

Question Types: SAT vs. PSAT

Now that you know the basics, let’s get into the major differences between the PSAT and the SAT.

When it comes to question types, the two tests are very similar—remember, the PSAT is designed to prepare you for the SAT. On the College Board’s website, in fact, you may notice that the pages describing PSAT and SAT content are nearly identical.

Both tests feature a Reading Test, Writing and Language Test, and a Math Test.

Reading

On both the SAT and the PSAT, the reading section consists of passages and multiple-choice questions that test your comprehension and analytical skills. No prior knowledge is tested. All the information needed to answer the questions can be found in the provided passages.

Passages on both tests always consist of:

  • One passage from U.S. or world literature
  • One passage or a pair of passages related to a U.S. founding document
  • One passage related to a social science, including psychology or economics
  • Two science passages

Both tests will ask you “command of evidence” questions. For these questions, you’re given four quotes from the passage, then asked to select the quote that provides the best evidence for your answer to the previous question.

You’ll also answer questions about textual analysis and words in context, and you will examine hypotheses and interpret data. Although the questions are similar, those on the SAT will be more challenging.

While the SAT will ask you 52 reading questions, you’ll answer only 47 reading questions on the PSAT.

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Writing and Language

The Writing and Language section on both tests includes 44 multiple-choice questions. These questions are passage-based and assess:

  • Command of Evidence (Improve the way passages develop claims and ideas)
  • Words in Context (Improve word choice)
  • Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science (Make editorial decisions that improve passages on these subjects)
  • Expression of Ideas (Make changes that improve the passage’s organization and clarity)
  • Standard English Conventions (Questions related to subject-verb agreement, verb tense, comma usage, parallel construction, etc.)

Math

The SAT and PSAT math test is divided into two sections, one that permits a calculator and one that does not. While most questions are multiple choice, some are grid-in.

Questions focus on:

  • Heart of Algebra (linear equations and systems)
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis (analyzing quantitative measures and patterns)
  • Passport to Advanced Math (manipulating complex equations)
  • Additional Topics in Math (geometry and trigonometry)

The PSAT asks 40 multiple-choice math questions and eight grid-ins. The SAT, on the other hand, requires you to answer 44 multiple-choice questions and 13 grid-ins. SAT math questions will cover an additional year of high school mathematics.

Essay: PSAT vs. SAT

One major difference between the PSAT and the SAT is that the SAT offers an optional essay question. The PSAT does not.

SAT test-takers who choose to write the essay have 50 minutes to complete it. Students read a provided passage and explain how the author creates an argument to persuade his or her audience. The explanation must be supported with evidence from the passage.

Although the essay is optional for SAT test-takers, some colleges require it. If you’re taking the SAT and unsure whether you should write the essay, look into application requirements at the schools you’re interested in applying to. If you aren’t sure where you want to apply, it’s smart to write the essay so all your bases are covered.

Scoring: PSAT vs. SAT

The PSAT and the SAT are scored on the same rubric, but a slightly different scale. On the SAT, your total score will fall between 400 and 1600. On the PSAT, the total score range is 320-1520.

Why? The PSAT is designed to directly predict your SAT score. So, if you score a 1320 on the PSAT, you should score around a 1320 on the SAT (if you don’t do any additional preparation). Because the SAT is more challenging than the PSAT, however, the ranges are slightly different. Someone who lands a perfect score on the PSAT wouldn’t necessarily do the same on the SAT, although they would be expected to perform extremely well.

How are the tests scored?

On both tests, there is no penalty for guessing. That means your raw score is the number of questions you answered correctly. The raw score is then converted to a section score, one score for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and one score for Math.

Section scores on the SAT range from 200-800. On the PSAT, they range from 160-760. Adding the two section scores together gives you your total score.

Score Reports

But section scores and total scores aren’t the only numbers you’ll see on your score report. You’ll also see the mean (average) scores earned by test-takers around the United States, your percentile rank, and college and career readiness benchmarks. Together, this information presents a clear picture of how prepared you are for college and how your performance compares to the performance of other test-takers.

In addition, you will receive cross-test scores and subscores that indicate your strengths and weaknesses. Cross-test scores include Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science.

You’ll see seven subscores:

  • Reading and Writing and Language: Command of Evidence and Words in Context
  • Writing and Language: Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions
  • Math: Heart of Algebra, Problem-Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math

Check out the breakdown of SAT and PSAT score structure below for a clear comparison of score types and score ranges.

Score Structure (SAT)

  • Total Score (sum of two section scores): 400-1600
  • Section Scores (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math): 200-800
  • Test Scores (Reading, Writing & Language, Math): 10-40
  • Optional SAT Essay: Three scores ranging from 2-8
  • Cross-Test Scores (Analysis in History/Social Studies, Analysis in Science): 10-40
  • Subscores: 1-15

Score Structure (PSAT)

  • Total Score (sum of two section scores): 320-1520
  • Section Scores (Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, Math): 160-760
  • Test Scores (Reading, Writing & Language, Math): 8-38
  • Cross-test Scores (Analysis in History/Social Studies, Analysis in Science): 8-38
  • Subscores: 1-15

As you can see, both score reports give you a ton of information. The PSAT score report is especially detailed.

You’ll see which questions you missed and which you answered correctly, the difficulty level of each question, the correct answer for each question, and a detailed explanation of the answer. This is an extremely valuable tool as you create an SAT study plan and begin your prep for the big test.

Test Duration: PSAT vs. SAT

The SAT is a slightly longer test than the PSAT, especially if you decide to write the optional essay. Without the essay, the SAT is only 15 minutes longer (2 hours and 45 minutes vs. 3 hours). With the essay, you’ll test for about an hour longer (2 hours and 45 minutes vs. 3 hours and 50 minutes).

In addition to being a longer test, the SAT asks a few more questions than the PSAT. This includes five more questions on the Reading test and 10 more questions on the Math test.

Overall, the amount of time you’ll have per question mostly evens out. The one exception is the Math (No Calculator) section. On the PSAT, you’ll have about 13 seconds more per question on this section than you do on the SAT.

Price: PSAT vs. SAT

Currently, it costs $49.50 to take the SAT without the essay and $64.50 to take the SAT with the essay. If this cost is prohibitive for you and your family, you may be eligible for a fee waiver. The SAT is administered mostly at test centers, but your school may offer the test on-site once a year.

The typical price for the PSAT is $16, but many schools cover the cost and offer the test to students for free. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT is offered only at schools. Students take the PSAT at schools around the country once a year in October. If your school doesn’t administer the PSAT, you may be able to take it at another local school.

Final Thoughts: PSAT vs. SAT

Because the PSAT prepares students for the SAT, the two tests have many similarities. Both assess evidence-based reading, writing and language, and mathematics skills. Content and question types are virtually identical, but SAT questions are more challenging. They assume an additional year of schooling.

The purpose of the two tests differs: While the PSAT is a practice version of the SAT and can help students secure scholarship money, the SAT is a requirement for admission to most colleges. It’s designed to measure how likely students are to be successful in college.

In addition, the SAT is slightly longer than the PSAT and features more questions. While the scoring process is the same for the two tests, the range is different. Your PSAT score is meant to predict your SAT score, and the difference in range reflects that the SAT is a more difficult exam.

The PSAT is also more affordable (and possibly free) and is offered through your school. Although you may be able to take the SAT at school, you can also sign up to take it at a testing center.

Ultimately, these two tests are more similar than they are different. The PSAT is an excellent practice run for the SAT, and you can use your score report to shape your SAT prep.

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