PSAT vs SAT – What are the Differences?

Written by: Kristine Thorndyke

The PSAT and SAT are both valuable standardized tests that you’ll be faced with before the end of high school. The PSAT is generally taken by sophomores and juniors, while the SAT is taken by juniors and seniors. SAT scores are considered heavily by colleges, whereas PSAT scores are utilized for scholarship opportunities. But what is the difference between PSAT and SAT? What should you expect from each test when comparing PSAT vs SAT?

Prepping for the PSAT? Start with the best PSAT prep books!

PSAT vs SAT – Similarities

It’s important to understand the similarities of the PSAT and the SAT because you’ll quickly figure out that they aren’t that different! Although we recommend PSAT-specific prep books so that you can do your best on this test and potentially win a scholarship, the prep that you do now for the PSAT will help you later down the line on the SAT or ACT. Let’s look at some of the striking similarities of the PSAT vs SAT!

1. Format

The PSAT and SAT have very similar formats. Each test is divided into a series of sections, and each section has a number of multiple-choice questions. The exception to this is the writing section on the SAT, which usually requires the test taker to complete an essay during the allotted period of time.

This is one of the reasons that taking the PSAT helps to prepare you for the SAT: you’ll become familiar with the multiple choice format and the idea of different sections with different time lengths for completion.

2. Content

The content that you’ll be tested on with the PSAT and SAT is exactly the same. Each test has the math and language-related sections broken down into subsections. The subsections mirror each other exactly. Both have algebra sections, both have vocabulary questions, both have reading comprehension questions; the list goes on and on. You can now let out a big sigh of relief knowing that your PSAT prep efforts now will definitely serve you in the near future when you are taking such a similar test a year or two down the line.  

3. Subscores

Subscores are scores based on different components specific to the section of the test you’re taking. They explore your overall skill set regarding different areas of the content covered.

Subscores are different depending on the section of the test that you’re referring to. However, the section-specific subscores for both the PSAT and SAT are the same. The reading section will give you a Words in Context and Command of Evidence subscore. The writing and language section will give you an Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions subscore. The math section will give you a Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math subscore.

4. Cross-Scores

A cross-score is a score based on your performance over several different sections of the test. The biggest cross-score that you’ll receive for both the PSAT and the SAT is your Critical Thinking score.

Critical thinking scores are based on the questions across the entire test which require you to use critical thinking skills. These scores measure how well you’re able to apply basic analysis to science questions, as well as how well you can apply basic analysis to social studies and history questions.

5. No Penalties for Guessing

When the tests were originally conceived, answering a question incorrectly would result in points being deducted from your overall score. Every wrong answer would deduct 1/4 of a point. But today’s PSAT and SAT have different scoring qualifications, which mean that you don’t lose any points if you guess incorrectly.

The Differences Between PSAT and SAT

Now is where people get a bit nervous, because they’d hate to waste too much time preparing for two different kinds of tests. Trust me here, in the PSAT vs SAT differences, there are not a whole lot, and the majority of which will not affect how you prepare for these tests. Let’s have a look at some of the differences between the PSAT and SAT:

1. The Purpose of the Tests

The PSAT and SAT are administered for different purposes. The PSAT, known as the Preliminary SAT, does not have an impact on your college application. But it is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. This means that if you perform well, you might have the door opened to multiple scholarship opportunities that will greatly help your financial future. Learn more about why to take the PSAT.

The SAT is administered for college applications. It’s one of the most important components of your college application, weighed about as heavily as your graded academic performance. Most students will take the test multiple times to allow the highest score possible to be reflected in their college applications. Many colleges even have a base score for acceptance.

Related: 7 Helpful PSAT Tips & Tricks

2. The Scoring

Though the sections included on each test are fundamentally the same, the score ranges are different. For the PSAT, you’ll be graded based on a range of 320 to 1520. The SAT, on the other hand, has a minimum score of 400 and a maximum of 1600. This also causes the individual score ranges for the sections to differ. PSAT’s math and EBRW sections are each scored between 160 and 760 points, while the SAT scores these sections between 200 and 800 points.

The score you get on the PSAT is meant to predict what score you will get on the SAT. If you get a 1000 on the PSAT, and you don’t take any further preparation, this is about the same score you can expect to receive on the SAT. Read more on what’s a good score on the PSAT here

3. Time Allotment for Testing

Timing is different between the two tests. The SAT has more questions than the PSAT, and it also goes for a longer period of time. This means that, broken down, you have about the same amount of time to answer each question on both tests. There is one exception regarding the math section; PSAT test takers have about thirteen extra seconds for each question in comparison to SAT test takers.

That said, the SAT also includes an optional essay section. The PSAT does not have this section. It’s a wise choice to do the essay, but doing so will add an extra hour to the time you take the test. When you study, you should train yourself to have the endurance for that time period.

4. Essay Section

The PSAT does not have an essay section, but the SAT does. Completion of this section is optional, but it is highly recommended, especially if you consider your writing skills strong. The essay is the only aspect of the SAT that the PSAT will give you no preparation for.

5. Location of the Tests

The PSAT’s administration always takes place at a school. The SAT, on the other hand, can take place both at your school and at an official testing center. The PSAT is also held only once annually (view PSAT test dates), while the SAT is administered seven separate times over the course of the school year. Finally, the pricing of the tests is different; the PSAT costs roughly $16 while the SAT costs $60 with the essay.

Did you find what you were looking for in this PSAT vs SAT article? Feel free to comment below on some of your thoughts on your test prep journey!