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PSAT vs. SAT: Explaining the Difference Between the PSAT and SAT Exams

In most U.S. high schools, students start hearing about the PSAT, or the Preliminary SAT, and the SAT during their sophomore or junior year. While some students get excited about a chance to deviate from traditional classes, others worry about the test material and if high school courses have prepared them for the test. Although the SAT and PSAT sound similar (and do share some common elements!), there are some key differences between the two tests. Let’s take a look at some of these differences.

The Purpose of the PSAT and the SAT
The PSAT/NMSQT is known as the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. While it does not directly impact a student’s college application, for a handful of students each year, a strong performance opens doors to scholarships and grants including National Merit Scholarships. Consideration for the National Merit Scholarships will come from a PSAT taken Junior year of high school. Students who score in the top 99th percentile in their state become semi-finalists and are invited to send in high school records that will be considered before finalist status is granted. You can learn more about the National Merit Scholarship here. Scoring highly enough to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship is pretty rare, so for most students the primary benefit of the PSAT is exam exposure. The PSAT exposes students to the style of standardized testing that they will encounter when they apply to colleges. Students get a taste of the SAT and have a better idea what they should expect when it comes time to take the SAT. Students can also get an idea of how prepared they are for the SAT. Results from the PSAT can help students identify strengths and weaknesses and design their study plan. Students can practice their pacing, get an idea of their response to testing stress, and get a sense of where they currently stand. Unlike the PSAT, which does not get submitted to colleges, the SAT is one of the key components of most college applications. Millions of students take the test, often multiple times, in order to put forth their strongest and highest score.

The Material Covered in Both Tests
From a content perspective, the PSAT and SAT are fairly similar. Each test contains a reading and writing and language section as well as a math section that is broken down into a calculator and non-calculator section. The PSAT does not include an essay, and while the SAT does include an essay section, it is optional. Students can learn more about which schools require or recommend the essay at the College Board website. Each test provides four answer choices and does not penalize students for wrong answers or guessing. Therefore, it’s in every student’s best interest to answer every question on the test.

On the Writing and Language section both exams have essentially identical content. Both the PSAT and SAT heavily emphasize words in context instead of obscure vocabulary. This section also tests on analysis of content, expression of ideas, and standard English conventions. Both sections are the same length, with 44 questions to be completed in 35 minutes.

The Reading section on the PSAT is shorter than on the SAT. The PSAT has 48 questions and a 60 minute time limit, compared to 52 questions and a 65 minute time limit on the SAT. The types of passages included, and the content of the questions are the same. Some passages leverage charts and tables which deliver information through different channels. These questions expect students to be able to interpret charts and graphs. Other question types include: command of evidence, words in context, and analysis.

the Math sections reward mastery and fluency in algebra as well as arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry. The PSAT does not include questions from algebra II, but the SAT does include questions from algebra II because it is targeted at juniors. Both tests have a no calculator and calculator section. Both tests have a mixture of multiple choice and grid in style questions. The number of questions and timing is different. On the PSAT no calculator section there is 25 minutes to complete 17 questions. On the SAT there is 25 minutes to complete 20 questions. On the PSAT calculator section there is 45 minutes to complete 31 questions. On the SAT there is 55 minutes to complete 38 questions.

At Veritas Prep, we have instructors who specialize in preparing students to take the SAT. We offer students tips that can help to boost their performance on the test. We also give students updates on the latest changes in the test. All of the professional instructors at Veritas Prep are dedicated to the success of our students!

Test Duration
The good news is if you can develop the focus to successfully complete the PSAT, you’re also setting yourself up for success on the SAT. The PSAT is 2 hours 45 minutes, and the SAT is 3 hours (unless you’re completing the optional 50 minute essay). The PSAT breaks down as follows: 60 minutes to complete 47 questions on the reading test, 35 minutes to complete 44 questions on the writing and language test, and 70 minutes to complete 48 questions on the math test. Meanwhile on the SAT, students receive 65 minutes to complete 52 questions on the reading test, 35 minute to complete 44 questions on the writing and language test, and 80 minutes to complete 58 questions on the math test. It’s important to note that the exact amount of time will vary based on the time students need to get checked in and for restroom and snack breaks.

PSAT vs. SAT Scores
The PSAT is designed to give students an indicator of how they might perform on the SAT. Students receive a total score on a 320 – 1520 point scale. Each of the sub sections (reading and math) is scored on a 160 – 760 point scale, and each section also has sub-scores (for math, reading, writing and language) on an 8 -38 point scale.

Test Days and Test Price

The SAT is offered seven times a year and students can sign up for multiple testing dates. The SAT will usually be held on a Saturday. Students will sign up for the SAT and will go to a testing center or a high school to sit for their exam. The PSAT is offered once a year, usually in October. The exam is usually on a school day and administered at school during school hours.
A student signing up for either one must confirm both the date and location of the test. The PSAT might be free, or it might be 16 dollars. This depends on the school administering the PSAT. The SAT is 46 dollars for on time registration without the essay. With the essay registration for the SAT is 60 dollars.

Does the PSAT Matter?

The PSAT matters, but only in the sense that it is an opportunity to get exposed to SAT material in a low stakes way. If a student does worse on the PSAT than they had hoped, there is nothing to fear. The PSAT is not the be all end all indicator of college readiness, rather, it should be treated as a practice run. There is plenty of time to address any shortcomings identified by the PSAT. Students that want extra guidance can take advantage of our excellent tutoring programs staffed by instructors who scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT. Students can choose from several programs: A self-study program, a live online classroom, or private tutoring. In short, learn from experts on the subject of SAT prep! Students use quality study resources and discover valuable test-taking strategies that can help them put forth their best performance on the SAT.


  SAT   PSAT  
Sections   4 – 5 (if completing the essay)   5  
Time   3 hours to 3 hours, 50 minutes   2 hours 45 minutes  
Written Essay   Yes (Optional)   No  
Total Questions   154   139  
Scoring   400 to 1600   320-1520  
Significance   College Applications   National Merit Scholarship Qualification