SAT vs PSAT: Navigating the Path to Your Dream College

The SAT and PSAT are two standardized tests administered by the College Board. While the PSAT is often called a “practice SAT,” it serves a distinct purpose from the SAT. Both tests cover similar subjects, but critical differences exist in their format, content, and purpose.

The PSAT is available in three versions: PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10, and PSAT/NMSQT. The PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10 evaluate students’ preparedness for college-level studies, whereas the PSAT/NMSQT is the National Merit Scholarship Program qualifying exam.

On the other hand, the SAT is a college entrance exam used by many colleges and universities as part of their admissions process.

Despite their differences, the SAT and PSAT share many similarities. 

Both tests cover reading, writing, and math and are scored on a scale of 400-1600. Additionally, both tests use multiple-choice questions and include an optional essay section. However, there are also critical differences in the number of questions, time limits, and difficulty levels between the two tests.

Understanding SAT and PSAT

The College Board, a non-profit aiding college-bound students, administers the SAT and PSAT, two standardized tests that share format and content but differ significantly.

The SAT, a college entrance exam used by numerous US colleges, gauges college readiness in reading, writing, and math. Typically taken by high school juniors and seniors, it can be chosen by sophomores aiming for an early start on college prep.

On the other hand, the PSAT acts as an SAT practice test, offering insight into the SAT for high school juniors and, optionally, sophomores. 

It prepares students for the SAT, mirroring the test conditions, and serves as the qualifier for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

A key distinction is in scoring. The SAT uses a 400-1600 scale, while the PSAT uses 320-1520. Moreover, the PSAT employs distinct scoring, encompassing Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math sections, and a total score.

Another difference between the two tests is the length. The SAT is a longer test than the PSAT, with a total testing time of three hours (plus an optional essay), while the PSAT is two hours and 45 minutes (without an essay).

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The SAT and PSAT are essential tests for students planning to attend college. They can help students prepare for the college admissions process and can also be used to demonstrate college readiness to potential colleges and universities.

Structure of SAT and PSAT

The SAT and PSAT have very similar structures, as the College Board produces them. However, students should know some differences between the two tests before taking them.

Test Length and Timing

The SAT is longer than the PSAT, with a total time of 3 hours and 50 minutes. The PSAT, the other hand, is 2 hours and 45 minutes long. Both tests have a break in the middle, but the SAT’s break is longer.

Test Structure

Both assessments comprise four sections each: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (calculator allowed), and Math (no calculator). Additionally, the SAT offers an optional Essay section absent from the PSAT.

Reading, writing, and Language sections are grouped as Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) in both tests. In Math, both tests divide the section into two parts, one permitting calculator use and the other not.

Question Types

Both tests consist mainly of multiple-choice questions, with some grid-in questions in the Math sections. The SAT also includes a few questions in the Math sections that require students to write their answers.

Additional Topics in Math

The SAT includes additional topics in the Math sections that should be covered on the PSAT, such as trigonometry and advanced algebra. However, most of the questions on both tests cover the same topics.


Both exams are graded on a 400-1600 scale. The PSAT also incorporates a Selection Index score, which is vital for National Merit Scholarship Program eligibility.

Scoring and Score Range

The scoring and score range for the SAT and PSAT are similar, but some differences exist. Both tests are scored on a scale of 400-1600, but the PSAT score range is slightly lower, ranging from 320-1520.

Scores on both tests are determined by merging results from reading, writing, and math sections. However, the section score ranges vary slightly. PSAT’s Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math sections range from 160 to 760, while the SAT scores these sections on a larger scale of 200 to 800.

In addition to the overall score, both tests provide subscores and cross-test scores. The subscores for the PSAT include Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. 

The SAT subscores include Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and an optional Essay section. The cross-test scores for both are Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science.

The percentile ranks for both tests are also provided, which indicate the percentage of test-takers who scored lower than the student. These percentile ranks are based on the test-takers score compared to other test-takers in the same grade level.

While the PSAT serves as a practice test for the SAT, its scores do not directly correspond to SAT scores. Nevertheless, conversion tables are provided to estimate a student’s potential SAT score based on their PSAT score.

Purpose and Difficulty

The PSAT and SAT are standardized tests used to measure a student’s college readiness. However, they have different purposes and levels of difficulty.


The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is primarily taken by high school sophomores and juniors as a practice test for the SAT. It is also used to identify potential National Merit Scholars and to provide students with feedback on their academic strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, the SAT is an admissions test widely accepted by colleges and universities in the United States and many international institutions. SAT scores help colleges compare students from different high schools and determine their readiness for college-level work.


The SAT presents a more significant challenge compared to the PSAT. Despite sharing the same content areas, the SAT features a lengthier exam with more intricate questions. The scoring also distinguishes them, with the PSAT capped at 1520 and the SAT at 1600.

It is important to note that the difficulty of the tests can vary depending on the individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. Some students may find the PSAT more challenging than the SAT, while others may find the opposite true.

Preparation for SAT and PSAT

Preparing for the SAT and PSAT might seem overwhelming, but the appropriate tools and tactics can make it more manageable. Here are a few guidelines to aid students in their preparation for these exams:

Practice Tests

Practicing tests is vital for SAT and PSAT readiness. It fosters familiarity with the test format and question types. The College Board conducts these exams and provides complimentary practice tests online. Also, students can access commercial prep materials for further preparation.

Reading Comprehension

The SAT and PSAT have reading comprehension sections requiring students to read and analyze passages. Students can practice reading fiction and non-fiction texts to improve their reading comprehension skills. They should also work on identifying the main idea, supporting details, and the author’s purpose.


Both exams test students’ vocabulary skills, but the PSAT emphasizes them more. Students can improve their vocabulary by reading extensively and using flashcards to memorize words and definitions.


The SAT and PSAT math sections cover similar topics, including algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. To prepare, students should review math concepts they have learned in school, practice solving math problems, and work on time management skills.

SAT Tutor

For students who need additional help, working with an SAT tutor can be beneficial. Tutors can provide personalized instruction and help students identify areas to improve.


The SAT and ACT are standardized tests that colleges and universities use as part of the admissions process. While they are similar in many ways, there are some critical differences between the two tests that students should be aware of when deciding which one to take.


The SAT and ACT share similarities in content but also differ. The SAT emphasizes vocabulary and reading comprehension, whereas the ACT prioritizes science and math.

The table below summarizes the differences in content between the two tests.

Reading comprehension Reading comprehension
Writing and language English
Math (with calculator) Math (with calculator)
Math (without calculator) Math (without calculator)
Essay (optional) Writing (optional)
No science section Science section


The SAT and ACT differ in format. The SAT has two sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math. Each part is graded from 200 to 800, totaling 1600. Conversely, the ACT comprises four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. These sections are scored from 1 to 36, culminating in a composite score that averages the four section scores.


The timing of the SAT and ACT is also different. The SAT is 3 hours long, with an additional 50 minutes for the optional essay. The ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long, with an additional 40 minutes for the optional writing section.

Which Test to Take?

When choosing a test, students should assess their subject strengths and weaknesses. Opt for the ACT if math and science are strong suits, and lean towards the SAT if reading and writing excel. Additionally, factor in college preferences, as institutions might favor one test.

The PSAT Variants

The PSAT (Preliminary SAT) comprises three versions: PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10, and PSAT 8/9. These exams aim to help students prepare for the SAT and become eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program.


High school juniors typically take the PSAT/NMSQT, the most well-known PSAT variant. It is also the only one that can qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which awards scholarships to top-scoring students. The PSAT/NMSQT tests students on reading, writing, and math, scoring from 320 to 1520.


The PSAT 10 is similar to the PSAT/NMSQT but is taken by sophomores instead of juniors. It covers the same subjects and is scored on the same scale as the PSAT/NMSQT. The PSAT 10 is designed to give students an early indication of their SAT readiness and help them identify areas where they need improvement.

PSAT 8/9

The PSAT 8/9 is taken by students in grades 8 and 9 and is designed to help them prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT. It covers the same subjects as the other PSAT variants but is shorter and less complex. The PSAT 8/9 is scored on a scale of 240 to 1440.

National Merit Scholarship Program

The National Merit Scholarship Program, facilitated by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) established in 1955, acknowledges and rewards high-achieving US high school students. 

Typically, in their junior year, students engage by taking the PSAT/NMSQT. This standardized exam assesses critical reading, math, and writing abilities, acting as an initial screening for the program.

Eligible students meeting requirements enter by taking the PSAT/NMSQT, with the NMSC utilizing the PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index score for the initial screening. Students surpassing a certain threshold become Semifinalists and can vie for Finalist status.

Becoming a National Merit Finalist is highly competitive, necessitating a top PSAT/NMSQT score. Most students must score over 1400 (out of 1520) to qualify as a Semifinalist, although exact score requirements vary by state. Finalists are chosen based on academic records, school recommendations, and SAT scores.

Winning a National Merit Scholarship is a noteworthy achievement offering valuable financial aid. The scholarship covers a substantial portion of college tuition and holds high esteem among colleges and universities nationwide.

Cost and Test Dates

Regarding the cost of SAT and PSAT, there are some differences to be aware of. The PSAT is generally less expensive than the SAT, but this can vary depending on the test and location. 

The College Board offers a new pricing model for both tests, which includes benefits for students and schools. Here is a breakdown of the current test costs:

  • SAT: The cost of the SAT without the essay is $55; with the essay, it is $70. However, additional fees may apply based on factors such as late registration or changing the test center.
  • PSAT/NMSQT: The cost of the PSAT/NMSQT is $17 per student. However, this cost can vary depending on the location and school district.
  • PSAT 10: The cost of the PSAT 10 is $17 per student, but this can also vary depending on the location and school district.
  • PSAT 8/9: The cost of the PSAT 8/9 is $10 per student, but this can vary depending on the location and school district.

It’s important to note that some schools may cover the cost of the PSAT for their students, while others may require students to pay for the test themselves.

Regarding test dates, the SAT and PSAT have different schedules throughout the year. The SAT is offered seven times yearly, usually in August, October, November, December, May, and June. The PSAT/NMSQT is typically administered once a year in October, while the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 are generally offered in the spring.

It’s essential to remember that test dates and locations can vary depending on the specific test and location. Students should check with their school or the College Board website for the most up-to-date test dates and location information.

Understanding SAT and PSAT Scores

SAT and PSAT scores significantly impact college admissions. While both tests evaluate a student’s college-level preparedness, they vary in purpose and structure. Recognizing these distinctions aids students in better preparation and achieving higher scores.

Purpose of the Tests

The SAT serves as a college admission test for assessing students’ college-level readiness, while the PSAT is a preparatory exam to aid students in getting ready for the SAT. Additionally, the PSAT identifies potential candidates for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Test Format

The SAT and PSAT share comparable formats with slight distinctions. The SAT comprises two key segments: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math. 

Similarly, the PSAT encompasses these two segments but is briefer and lacks the optional essay component. The PSAT/NMSQT is the sole PSAT variant featuring the optional essay.

Both exams evaluate students’ reading, writing, and math proficiencies. While the SAT offers an optional essay to gauge a student’s text analysis and argumentative skills, the PSAT omits this essay component.


The SAT and PSAT scores are graded on scales from 400 to 1600. They encompass distinct scores for the Evidence-Based Reading, Writing, and Math sections. 

For the PSAT, separate scores range from 8 to 38 for the Reading, Writing, Language, and Math sections. The PSAT/NMSQT scores determine eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

These scores are presented differently. SAT scores include 1600 and individual scores for the Reading, Writing, and Math sections. Meanwhile, PSAT scores consist of 1520, with separate scores for Reading, Writing, Language, and Math sections.

Interpretation of Scores

SAT and PSAT scores are only one factor that colleges and universities consider when evaluating a student’s application. Other factors, such as GPA, extracurricular activities, and essays, are also important.

When analyzing SAT and PSAT scores, it’s crucial to remember that these tests aim to evaluate a student’s college-level preparedness. A high score suggests strong college performance potential, whereas a low score implies the possibility of requiring extra preparation.

In addition to providing an overall score, SAT and PSAT score reports provide detailed information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses in specific areas. This information can be used to identify areas where a student may need additional preparation.

Grade Levels

Usually, high school juniors and seniors opt for the SAT, sophomores and juniors commonly take the PSAT, and eighth and ninth graders typically sit for the PSAT 8/9.


The SAT and PSAT are taken by millions of students each year. The PSAT/NMSQT is taken by approximately 3.5 million students each year, while the SAT is taken by about 2 million.

Analysis in History/Social Studies and Science

The SAT and PSAT exams feature questions that evaluate students’ aptitude for analyzing and interpreting historical, social studies, and scientific information. 

These inquiries gauge their proficiency in comprehending intricate texts and their skill in analyzing and interpreting data.

Command of Evidence and Words in Context

The SAT and PSAT also include questions that assess a student’s command of evidence and words in context. These questions are designed to assess a student’s ability to analyze a text, use evidence to support their arguments and understand the meaning of words in context.

Standard English Conventions

The SAT and PSAT also include questions that assess a student’s knowledge of standard English conventions, such as grammar, usage, and punctuation. These questions assess a student’s ability to communicate effectively in writing.

Additional Information

There are a few more things to know about the SAT and PSAT that can help students prepare and understand the tests better.


One difference between the SAT and PSAT is that the SAT includes an optional essay section, while the PSAT does not. The essay section is scored separately and is not included in the total score. However, some colleges may require or recommend the essay section, so checking each college’s admissions requirements is essential.


While the SAT and PSAT serve college admissions purposes, the PSAT qualifies for the National Merit Scholarship Program. A top 1% score on the PSAT renders students eligible for this program, offering substantial college financial aid.


The purpose of the SAT and PSAT is similar: to measure a student’s readiness for college-level work. The tests cover similar subject matter and are scored on the same scale. However, the PSAT is designed to be slightly easier than the SAT, with fewer questions and more time per question.


The SAT and PSAT have similar specifications, but there are some differences to be aware of. Here are some key specifications for each test:

Test Total Time Number of Questions Scoring Range
SAT 3 hours (plus 50 minutes for essay) 154 (plus essay) 400-1600
PSAT 2 hours and 45 minutes 139 320-1520

 It’s important to note that the PSAT also has a different scoring scale for each section, with a maximum score of 760.

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