PSAT vs. SAT: How Are They Different?

PSAT vs. SAT: How Are They Different?

September 20, 2021

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The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT, which makes them very similar tests. Both will test your math, reading, and writing skills.

There are, however, some key differences to know as you prepare for each test. For example, the SAT is more challenging and some schools that offer the SAT on a school day include an additional essay section. You can also take the SAT as many times as you want, though it costs more than the PSAT.

Keep reading to learn more about how the PSAT and SAT compare.

What Is the PSAT?

The PSAT/NMSQT (short for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is an opportunity for students to practice for the SAT. You can take the PSAT a total of three times in high school but only once per year. Most students take the test their junior year, with some taking it as a sophomore as well.

Your PSAT scores are designed to predict your SAT scores and gauge your college readiness. By taking the PSAT, you will learn which areas you should focus on when studying for the SAT and will be better equipped to score well on the SAT.

The PSAT is also the qualifying test for a National Merit Scholarship. Juniors who take the test must score in the top 1% to move on as semifinalists for National Merit Scholarships.

What Is the SAT?

The SAT is one of the main college entrance exams for undergraduates. Many college applications will ask you to submit either SAT or ACT scores. Colleges use your test scores to assess your academic strengths and weaknesses, as well as your readiness for college-level education. The SAT also acts as a common data point for colleges to compare all applicants.

Each college will factor SAT scores into their admission decisions in a different way. A high score on the SAT is often required for admission to Ivy League colleges and competitive universities. Other colleges may not ask for SAT scores at all.

The SAT can also qualify you for scholarships awarded for academic excellence. The colleges you apply for may offer scholarships based on your SAT score and grades, too.

PSAT vs. SAT: 4 Key Differences

The PSAT and SAT have similar subject matter and test structure but are quite a bit different when it comes to testing frequency, scoring, cost, and difficulty.

1. The SAT Is Offered Throughout the Year

While students can take the PSAT a total of three times in high school, the exam is only offered once a year in October. The SAT, by contrast, has no limit on the number of times you can take it. It's also available multiple times each year in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June.

To take the SAT, you must register independently on the College Board website and will usually take the test on a weekend. Many schools also offer the test during a weekday. To take the PSAT, you must register through your school and will usually take the test during a school day in place of classes.

2. The SAT Is More Difficult Than the PSAT

The PSAT is slightly less challenging than the SAT because it is designed to be a practice test. As a precursor exam, the PSAT will introduce students to the subject matter and test structure of the SAT.

The PSAT is a shorter test as well, with fewer questions. The SAT is 15 minutes longer.

Section PSAT SAT
Reading 60 minutes
47 questions
65 minutes
52 questions
Writing and Language 35 minutes
44 questions
35 minutes
44 questions
Math — No Calculator 25 minutes
17 questions
25 minutes
20 questions
Math — Calculator 45 minutes
31 questions
55 minutes
38 questions
Total 2 hours 45 minutes
139 questions
3 hours
154 questions

Source: College Board, PSAT and SAT

The SAT will have more advanced content, anticipating that students will have learned more by the time they take the test. Students take the PSAT earlier in their high school career and are likely to advance academically in the years following.

3. The Tests Use Different Score Ranges

The PSAT is scored between 320 and 1520, while the SAT is scored from 400 to 1600. PSAT scores correspond directly to SAT scores, so a 1250 on the PSAT equals a 1250 on the SAT. But because the SAT is more challenging, a perfect score on the PSAT does not equal a perfect score on the SAT.

While the PSAT is meant to predict your SAT scores, it's not an exact conversion. A 1460 may put you in the 99th percentile for the PSAT, but that same score on the SAT may land you in the 96th percentile. You'll generally have to score about 50-70 points higher on the SAT to rank in the same percentile as you did on the PSAT.

PSAT to SAT Score Conversion and Percentiles
Percentile PSAT Total Score SAT Total Score
99+ 1490-1520 1560-1600
99 1460-1480 1520-1550
95 1360-1370 1430-1440
90 1280 1350
85 1230 1290
80 1190 1240-1250
75 1150 1200-1210
50 1000-1010 1040-1050

Source: College Board, PSAT and SAT

4. The SAT Costs More

The PSAT test costs $18, but most schools will cover a portion of the cost. Some schools will even offer the PSAT to its students for free. You can talk to your school guidance counselor about potential PSAT fees and opportunities for a waiver.

Taking the SAT will cost students $55 each time. Fee waivers are available for eligible students. If you register for the SAT late, you will be charged a $30 late fee. In addition, if you need to send more than four score reports to colleges, there is a $12 fee per extra report. All in all, taking the SAT could add up to around $100 or more.

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The SAT is an important test for colleges, and a good score can improve your chances of getting accepted. Learn what a good score is for you. The benchmark for a "good" PSAT score is often considered the 75th percentile. We'll cover how PSAT scoring works and what you should aim for. A good SAT score can help you get into your preferred college. Learn about registration dates and the best times to take the SAT.