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PSAT to SAT Score Conversion

There are many reasons to take the Preliminary SAT, more commonly known as the PSAT. Maybe you’re an 8th, 9th, or 10th grader looking to see if you’re meeting benchmarks for your grade level. Maybe you’re an 11th grader hoping to be eligible for National Merit Scholarship programs. Or maybe you’re simply using the PSAT as a trial run for taking the actual SAT later down the road. In any case, the PSAT can be a helpful predictor of how you’ll perform on the SAT ... but how? In this article, we’ll look at how the PSAT compares to the SAT on content, structure and scoring, explain how to convert your score from PSAT to SAT (without the use of a fancy PSAT to SAT converter), and explore how to prepare for your PSAT — and your SAT while you’re at it.

What is the PSAT?

Calling one test “the PSAT” is a little misleading. The CollegeBoard actually offers several PSAT exams as part of their SAT Suite of Assessments: the PSAT/NMSQT, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT 8/9.

The most well-known of the PSAT exams is the PSAT/NMSQT, or the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. This test is taken by students in the fall of their junior year to, as the name indicates, qualify them for National Merit Scholarship programs — each year, the top 1% of 11th grade test takers become National Merit Semifinalists, who then have an opportunity to earn scholarship money. While the test can be taken in the fall of a student’s sophomore year (10th grade), these scores will not be considered for National Merit Scholarship eligibility. Regardless of when the test is taken, the PSAT/NMSQT also serves as a dress rehearsal of sorts for the SAT, with approximately 3.5 million students taking it every year.

The PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10, on the other hand, are less well-known.

  • The PSAT 10 is the exact same test as the PSAT/NMSQT — no difference in difficulty, content, structure, scoring, anything. Its only distinguishing features are that it is taken exclusively by high school sophomores (and thus cannot be used to qualify for National Merit Scholarships) and that it is offered in the spring rather than in the fall.
  • The PSAT 8/9 is essentially the same test as the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10, but it is offered to 8th graders and high school freshman and is adjusted for an 8th/9th grade difficulty level. Like the PSAT 10, it cannot be used to determine eligibility for National Merit Scholarship programs. The PSAT 8/9 is not offered at a consistent time, so when an individual student takes the exam is determined by their school.

While these tests have no bearing on National Merit Scholarship programs (hence their lower popularity), they both provide valuable checkpoints on the way to PSAT/NMSQT and SAT itself — any areas of weakness identified by the PSAT 8/9 and 10 can be addressed before they become areas of weakness on the more important tests in the SAT Suite.

Comparing PSAT to SAT: Content and Structure

When comparing PSAT to SAT in terms of content and structure, the most important thing to know is that CollegeBoard did not get particularly creative when designing the PSATs: all of the tests in the SAT suite have near-identical content. This means that the question types typifying the SAT (Command of Evidence, Words in Context, etc.) will also appear on the various PSAT exams. Similarly, it also means that there is nothing you’ll see on the PSAT exams that isn’t also fair game for the SAT.

However, these tests are designed to be Preliminary SATs, so while the content is the same across the tests, the difficulty is not. The difficulty of each test is scaled to be appropriate for the age and grade level of the test takers taking it, such that the challenge presented by each exam increases through the PSAT series and from PSAT to SAT. So of the tests in the SAT suite, PSAT 8/9 is the easiest, the SAT is the hardest, and PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT fall in between them. The idea is that PSAT 8/9 should be as difficult for 8th and 9th graders as PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT is for 10th and 11th graders, which in turn should be as difficult as the SAT is for students entering their senior year.

The increased difficulty from PSAT to SAT is also reflected in the structure and length of the tests:

Reading 42 questions / 55 minutes 47 questions / 60 minutes 52 questions / 65 minutes
Writing 40 questions / 30 minutes 44 questions / 35 minutes 44 questions / 35 minutes
Math No Calc 13 questions / 20 minutes 17 questions / 25 minutes 20 questions / 25 minutes
Math Calc 25 questions / 40 minutes 31 questions / 45 minutes 38 questions / 55 minutes
Essay (optional) n/a n/a 1 question / 50 minutes
Total 120 questions / 145 minutes 139 questions / 165 minutes 154 questions / 180 minutes

155 questions / 230 minutes with essay

As the table shows, the overall length of the test increases with its level — again, this is meant to reflect the grade-level of the students each test is designed for.

Some particularly important changes from the PSAT to SAT to note, with particular emphasis on the difference between the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT:

  1. While the Writing section is a little bit shorter on the PSAT 8/9, the Writing section structure doesn’t change at all between the PSAT/NMSQT (or PSAT 10) and the SAT. With the same number of questions and section time, the time per question and overall experience of the section is the same between the two tests.
  2. The Reading and Math (Calculator) sections, on the other hand, change in both question number and section time between the tests in the SAT suite. However, between the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT, the two scale up linearly, such that the time per question is almost identical for the two tests — there is only a one second difference in time per question on Reading and even less on Math. This means that while you may need more endurance to get through the longer SAT sections, the actual pacing on PSAT/NMSQT Reading and Math (Calculator) should be about the same as on the corresponding SAT sections.
  3. Like the Reading and Math (Calculator) sections, the Math (No Calculator) section increases in question number and section time from PSAT to SAT. However, they do not scale linearly on this section, and the time per question is actually lower on the PSAT/NMSQT than on the SAT (40.8 and 48 seconds respectively). This means that while the SAT Math (No Calculator) section requires more endurance than the PSAT/NMSQT Math (No Calculator) section, it is not as fast-paced.
  4. Finally, the most noticeable difference is that the PSATs do not have an optional essay section, whereas the SAT does. This means that while some students taking the SAT will stay after the No Calculator section for an additional 50 minutes to write an essay, all students taking a PSAT exam will take the same sections and leave at the same time.

These differences in content and structure, while seemingly minor, affect how test takers will perform from PSAT to SAT. This in turn affects how each test is scored, which leads us to our next section.

Comparing PSAT to SAT: Scoring

The scoring of the PSATs and the SAT is somewhat complicated, with total score, section scores, test scores, essay scores, cross test scores, and subscores. How this scoring breaks down from PSAT to SAT is visualized in the table below:

Total 240-1440 320-1520 400-1600
Section Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 120-720 160-760 200-800
Math 120-720 160-760 200-800
Test Reading 6-36 8-38 10-40
Writing and Language 6-36 8-38 10-40
Math 6-36 8-38 10-40
Essay Reading n/a n/a 2-8
Analysis n/a n/a 2-8
Writing n/a n/a 2-8
Cross-Test Analysis in History/Social Studies 6-36 8-38 10-40
Analysis in Science 6-36 8-38 10-40
Subscores Command of Evidence 1-15 1-15 1-15
Words in Context 1-15 1-15 1-15
Expression of Ideas 1-15 1-15 1-15
Standard English Conventions 1-15 1-15 1-15
Heart of Algebra 1-15 1-15 1-15
Problem Solving and Data Analysis 1-15 1-15 1-15
Passport to Advanced Math n/a 1-15 1-15

Just as test length increases over the SAT suite, scores do too … in general. The upper and lower bounds of the score range increase with the test level for the total score, as well as for section, test, and cross-test scores. Notably, the size of the scores ranges stay consistent, with 1200 points between the highest and lowest possible total scores, 600 points between the highest and lowest possible section scores, and 30 points between the highest and lowest possible test and cross-test scores.

There are some exceptions to the rule though. Interestingly, the subscores are all given on a 1-15 scale, with no differences between the exams. Additionally, as the PSATs do not include an essay section, they do not have essay scores — pretty logical. The PSAT 8/9 similarly does not have a Passport to Advanced Math score, as these topics are still being taught to many 8th and 9th graders and are thus not included on the test.

PSAT to SAT Conversion

Now that we know how the PSATs and SAT differ in content, structure, and scoring, we can get better understand how scores can be converted from PSAT to SAT.

The PSAT exams use what is called a common score scale for the total, section, test and cross-test scores. As the College Board states, “This common score scale means that a student who took the PSAT/NMSQT and received a Math section score of 500 would be expected to also get a 500 on the SAT or PSAT 8/9 if they had taken either of those tests on the same day; a score of 500 represents the same level of academic achievement on all three assessments.” Essentially, with this move to a common score scale, it makes it unnecessary to put your score through a PSAT to SAT converter — you should simply expect approximately the same score!

However, there are some caveats to note when doing your own PSAT to SAT conversion.

First, the common score scale applies to total score, section scores, test scores, essay scores, and cross test scores, but it does NOT apply to subscores — this makes sense, as it is the only type of score not to change between the various exams. As a result, subscores on a PSAT exam will not be predictive of SAT scores. So while a 32 in Reading on the PSAT/NMSQT predicts a 32 in Reading on the SAT, and a 28 in Analysis in Science on the PSAT/NMSQT predicts a 28 in Analysis in Science on the SAT, a 13 in Words in Context on the PSAT/NMSQT does NOT predict a 13 in Words in Context on the SAT.

Second, the common score scale predicts how a student would perform on the other exams in the SAT suite on the same day. This means that if there is a significant time gap between your exams, you are likely to perform differently on the second exam — most likely better as you spend more time learning and developing your skills in school. So for instance, if you take your SAT early (e.g. in the fall of your junior year, shortly after you take the PSAT/NMSQT), your PSAT/NMSQT scores are likely to be fairly predictive of your SAT scores. However, if you take your SAT toward the end of your junior year or at the beginning of your senior year, your scores are less likely to match between the two exams.

In this case, the percentile of your PSAT/NMSQT scores are likely of more value to you. Provided that your learning and development is consistent between your exams, your total scores will differ between the two exams, but the percentiles of those scores are likely to be similar. For instance, a 92nd percentile score is a 1200 on the PSAT/NMSQT and a 1310 on the SAT. So if you remain at a 92nd percentile for your grade level from the 10th/11th grade (when you take the PSAT/NMSQT) through the time you enter your senior year (when you take the SAT), your score is likely to jump from around a 1200 to around a 1310.

As a note here, this difference in scoring from PSAT to SAT implies that the college board expects students to take the SAT later than the PSAT/NMSQT, such that they have time to improve their scores between the two exams. This means that if you are taking your SAT exam early, you might be limiting your ability to score as high as possible on the SAT. This isn’t to dissuade you from taking the SAT early! It’s a great idea to lower the burden during college application season. However, consider retaking your exam closer to the beginning of your senior year to give yourself an opportunity to grow.

Finally, the predictive ability of the common score scale decreases at the upper and lower bounds of the score scale. Since the PSAT exams have lower top and bottom scores than the SAT, they don’t do a great job predicting extremes in performance. For instance, the maximum score on the PSAT/NMSQT is a 1520 — even someone who will score a 1600 on the SAT will score a 1520 or lower on the PSAT/NMSQT. This means that if you are scoring at the very top end of the score range on the PSAT/NMSQT, you may very well score higher on the SAT. On the flip side, the minimum score on the PSAT/NMSQT is a 320, which is 80 points lower than the lowest SAT score (a 400). This means that if you are scoring toward the bottom end of the PSAT/NMSQT score range, your SAT score may come out higher.

Preparing for the PSAT (and the SAT at the Same Time)

Given all of this, how should a test taker prepare to make the most of their PSAT exams?

First, there’s no real need to study for the PSAT 8/9 or PSAT 10. As previously mentioned, these tests have no bearing on scholarship eligibility or college admissions chances, so their real utility is as diagnostic tools. Going into the test without any real prep (other than a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast) will give you useful insight into where you currently stand for the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT.

However, if you’re taking the PSAT/NMSQT your junior year and you’re interested in National Merit Scholarships, you’ll likely want to do some prep. This is confusing for a lot of students because there aren’t a ton of PSAT/NMSQT-specific prep materials out there — what exactly are they supposed to study? The best solution here is to use SAT materials for your PSAT/NMSQT prep. As previously mentioned, the two tests are extremely similar, so SAT materials will prepare you for anything you could see on the PSAT/NMSQT. If anything, SAT materials are slightly harder, leading to over-preparedness. The official SAT materials from CollegeBoard are a great choice for practice problems, while options like Veritas Prep’s Self-Study Course, Live Class, and Private Tutoring can help you dive deep into content areas and question types you personally need to work on. However, it is important to learn PSAT/NMSQT-specific section timing so you can keep on-pace throughout the rest.

As a final note, remember that the predictive ability of PSAT scores extends beyond the numerical scores: areas of weakness on any of the PSATs will almost certainly be areas of weakness on the actual SAT. Put emphasis on shoring up these specific elements in your prep to maximize your improvement between tests. Similarly, if possible, leave time from PSAT to SAT to make these changes.

Starting your PSAT/NMSQT prep? Or looking to improve your score from PSAT to SAT? Enroll in a Veritas Prep SAT course now to learn how to boost your scores and master the SAT suite, or contact us for more information!


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