PSAT vs SAT: Key Differences And Similarities
So there’s the SAT, the standardized multiple choice test used as a factor in college admissions. But then there’s also the PSAT. What’s that about? What’s up with the extra P in front? What difference even is there between the two College Board assessments?
What Are SAT And PSAT?
The SAT and the PSAT are both part of The College Board’s SAT Suite of Assessments. They’re fundamentally similar, in that they’re both pretty hefty multiple choice standardized exams, focusing on reading, grammar, and math abilities, but there are a couple of key differences that separate the two tests.
What does the SAT stand for?
The SAT, short for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, is a standardized test that measures college readiness, and is often used as a benchmark in college admissions. Although each college will consider SAT scores in different ways, colleges will, for the most part, compare applicant scores against each other to see if each student is a good fit for their program.
While some colleges and universities may not require students to take the SAT, taking the test is still highly recommended as an easy way for schools to further understand, analyze, and assess a student’s academic skills and weaknesses.
Many scholarships will also consider high SAT scores as a benchmark for academic excellence during their selection process.
The PSAT Explained
The PSAT stands for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. It’s often referred to in conjunction with the NMSQT, or the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The exam is structured very similarly to the SAT, and it is often thought of as a “practice round” for the SAT.
Typically taken in the fall of junior year, and sometimes in the fall of sophomore year as well, the PSAT is a less intensive, lower stakes exam that gives students a gauge of how ready they are to take the SAT. The PSAT 10 is an exam specifically for those taking it in sophomore year, as opposed to the PSAT/NMSQT, which is usually taken in junior year of high school.
Other than the shorter time frame, however, the PSAT uses the same multiple choice format, has the same style of questions, and focuses on the same categories (reading, writing and language, math with and without calculator) as the SAT.
Taking the PSAT is a good way to estimate future SAT scores, and a good way to see what sections of the test should be focused on more heavily when studying for the SAT. Additionally, taking an SAT practice test is also a good score predictor for how the student will do on their actual SAT test day.
Juniors who take the PSAT and score within the top 1% nationally are also eligible to be considered for the National Merit Scholarship, an annual college grant given out to high scoring, high achieving high school students.
The Difference Between the PSAT and the SAT
While the PSAT and the SAT are structured similarly, they differ in a few fundamental regions, including their purpose, their timeline, the score range, the number of questions, the cost, and the venue.
The biggest difference between the two tests is their purpose.
The PSAT’s Purpose
The PSAT/NMSQT, as the name implies, is meant to be a “preliminary” or practice round for the actual SAT. Students will not need to share their PSAT scores with any colleges that they are applying to, and PSAT scores are not direct contributors to the college admissions process.
The PSAT is also the test that determines National Merit Semifinalists. This exam allows top-scoring students to be in the running for certain grants, scholarships, and financial aid opportunities when considering college costs.
The SAT’s Purpose
The SAT score is the score that students will share with the colleges that they are applying to. Because this test is the one that actually matters for college admissions, many consider it to be a higher stakes exam.
Many college applications will ask for SAT scores, although some schools have begun to shift to become test-optional, meaning they do not require you to report SAT scores.
Unlike the SAT, which is scored in between 400-1600, the PSAT is scored between 320 and 1520. Because of this slight difference in scoring, PSAT and SAT scores cannot be compared directly to each other, but instead need to be scaled to correspond correctly. Generally, a student should aim to score 50-70 points higher on the SAT than the PSAT in order to remain in the same score percentile.
The SAT is meant to be a more difficult exam, so a perfect score on the PSAT (a 1520) would not guarantee a perfect score on the SAT. Therefore, students should do more SAT prep after their PSAT — relying on PSAT practice is not enough to guarantee the highest score possible.
|SAT vs PSAT Percentile and Score Comparison|
|Percentile||SAT Score||PSAT Score|
Time and Number of Questions
The PSAT is a shorter test than the SAT. Although the sections and the format of the test are the same, each section takes less time, and there are less questions per section.
|Section||Time||# of Questions||Time per Question|
|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|
|Time||# of Questions||Time per Question|
|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|
The PSAT costs $18 to take, but many schools will either subsidize the cost, or offer it for free to its students. If a school does not offer the test for free, and the cost poses a financial burden, it’s possible to contact the guidance counselor or the organizing official for a fee waiver for the exam.
The SAT costs $55 to take. Late registration adds another $30 onto the initial cost. If the cost for registering poses a financial burden, or if you are otherwise eligible, fee waivers are available.
Test Dates and Venues
The PSAT is offered once a year in October and is generally organized by the high school that the student attends. If they are homeschooled, the student can contact the local high school to participate in testing. In order to register for the PSAT, students usually go through their school administration, and the test is usually taken on a school day.
The SAT is offered multiple times throughout the year (August, October, November, December, March, May and June). Unlike the PSAT, registration for the SAT happens independently on the College Board website. A student can choose to take the SAT at whichever facility is available, and the test usually occurs on the weekend.
What do the SAT and PSAT Have in Common?
Both the SAT and the PSAT have two main components- Evidence Based Reading and Writing, and Math. The SAT and PSAT also share four main sections-Reading, Writing/Grammar, Math No Calculator, and Math With Calculator.
The reading and writing sections will ask students to answer multiple choice questions based on passages in context, and the math sections will ask students to answer math problems up to an Algebra II level.
The SAT and the PSAT cover the same content, and will test on the same reading analysis, writing, and math skills. There is really no difference between the subjects present within the two exams.
Both tests will have multiple choice questions with four answer choices for the reading and writing sections. None of the multiple choice questions will ever result in a penalty for picking the wrong answer (guessing is good!)
Beyond multiple choice, the math sections also contain some grid-in style questions, where students must respond to an open-ended question with a numerical answer. These grid-in questions come after all of the multiple-choice math questions.
Cross-Test Scores and Subscores
Both the PSAT and the SAT offer cross-test scores and subscores as a portion of the results received after taking the exam.
Cross test scores are scores that represent your aptitude in all three sections- reading, writing and language, and math. There are two reported cross test scores: Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science. These cross test scores are representative of the students answers in these two types of questions, regardless of the section that the questions are in.
The SAT and PSAT tests also report subscores across the three sections:
In the Reading section, there are two subscores:
- Command of Evidence
- Words in Context
In the Writing and Language section, there are two subscores:
- Expression of Ideas
- Standard English Conventions
In the Math sections, there are three subscores:
- Heart of Algebra
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis
- Passport to Advanced Math
These subscores are a good indication of how well you are doing in each specific subject area, and what areas should be focused on for further improvement after taking the test.
Is the PSAT Easier Than the SAT?
While the general subjects covered on the PSAT and the SAT are the same, the PSAT is generally considered to be easier than the SAT.
Not only is it a shorter test, but it is also a much lower stakes exam, which takes away a lot of the pressure to perform that students feel when taking the SAT.
Content wise, the PSAT is also slightly easier than the SAT. The SAT may ask you to do more critical thinking in order to answer the reading analysis questions, and the math questions may require more multi-step processes.
Taking practice tests during SAT and PSAT test prep can also show the differences between the two exams. The extra practice is also extremely important for people who are looking to be part of the National Merit Scholarship Program, which is based off PSAT scores.
The PSAT and SAT are both important exams, but other aspects of students’ college applications will also help with admission, like a strong GPA or extracurriculars. These components can also help with scholarships, which will most likely require applications separate from the Common App; students will also need to research and look for these opportunities individually or with their school’s help.
Prepare for the Exams in Advance with SoFlo
If a student is thinking about preparing for the PSAT, or has taken the PSAT and needs help preparing for the SAT, SoFlo’s Online SAT Tutoring is a great resource. SoFlo offers personalized, one-on-one tutoring with high-scoring college students who are incredibly familiar with the standardized test-taking process.
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- PSAT/NMSQT Information: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10/taking-the-tests
- SAT Key Content Features: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/inside-the-test/key-features
- About the SAT Suite of Assessments: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/about
About the Author
Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, Shirley Xie attends Johns Hopkins University and is majoring in Public Health and Behavioral Biology. She scored a 1580 on the SAT. In her free time, she enjoys playing volleyball and baking with friends.