PSAT vs. SAT: Is the PSAT Easier?

Millions of college-bound students take the SAT every year. You probably know that many colleges use the test (or the ACT) in the admissions process. But what about the PSAT? Why do you take it? Is it easier than the SAT — and what can it tell you about how you’ll do on the college admissions test?

 

What are the PSAT and SAT?

 

The PSAT is used primarily to give students an introduction to standardized testing and practice for the SAT proper. It is also used as a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship program (this is why it’s called the PSAT/NMSQT; NMSQT stands for “National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test”). 

 

Eligible students who are juniors at the time of the test are automatically entered into the National Merit competition, which includes several levels. Top 1% scorers are designated semi-finalists, and they go on to compete for $2,500 finalist scholarships based on test scores, grades, recommendations, and an essay.

 

Students also receive detailed score reports after taking the PSAT, which will help guide their preparation for the SAT. An interesting fact is that “PSAT” doesn’t actually stand for “pre-SAT.” It actually stands for “Preliminary Scholarship Aptitude Test.”

 

The SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test), meanwhile, is used for college admissions purposes. Prior to the pandemic, most colleges in the US required students to submit scores from either the SAT or ACT. Since many students were unable to test during the pandemic, a majority of schools became test-optional for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, and some are reevaluating their policies going forward.

 

PSAT vs. SAT: Key Differences


Wondering how exactly these tests differ? Here’s what you need to know.

 

1. Grade Levels

 

Students normally take the PSAT between grades 8 and 11. There are three variations: PSAT 8/9 (for 8th and 9th graders), PSAT 10 (for 10th graders), and PSAT/NMSQT (for 11th graders). 

 

Meanwhile, the SAT can be taken any year, although we recommend doing so in grades 11 and 12, when you’ll have gained the most knowledge of the material covered.

 

2. Content Difficulty

 

While the tests follow the same structure and cover the same content, the SAT is more difficult than the PSAT. They do cover the same subjects, but the SAT’s material is a bit more advanced, reflecting the expectation that students will have learned more by the time they take the test. 

 

3. Length 

 

The SAT without the essay is 20 minutes longer than the PSAT; with the essay, it’s more than an hour longer. The chart below shows the section-by-section breakdown:

 

Section

PSAT/NMSQT

SAT

Reading

60 min (47 questions)

65 min (52 questions)

Writing and Language

35 min (44 questions)

35 min (44 questions)

Math (2 sections, calculator & no calculator)

70 min (48 questions)

80 min (58 questions)

Essay

N/A

50 min

Total

2 hours, 45 minutes (139 questions total)

3 hours without the essay, 3 hours, 50 minutes with essay (154 questions total + optional essay)

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4. Scoring

 

The SAT score range is 400-1600 total, with each of the two sections, Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW), scored between 200-800. If you complete the essay, you’ll receive three total essay scores, one each for a different dimension, each graded on a scale of 2-8. A “good” SAT score is highly dependent on the colleges you’re aiming for.

 

Subscores, which measure your skills in different areas, such as Expression of Ideas (EWR) and Heart of Algebra (Math). The main subsections of EWR, Reading and Writing and Language, are each scored on a scale of 10-40.

 

The PSAT, meanwhile, is graded on a scale of 320-1520, with each section scored between 160-760. See our post What is a Good PSAT Score? for more info on how you stack up with other test-takers.

 

Like the SAT subsections, PSAT subsections are scored between 1-15. However, Reading and Writing and Language are each scored on a scale of 1-40.

 

If you want to convert your PSAT score to a predicted SAT score, take a look at this table. Keep in mind that the PSAT scores are for the PSAT/NMSQT and not for other versions of the test. You’re also not guaranteed to perform equally well on the SAT; you will need to study and get a strong grasp of the more difficult material.

 

PSAT Score

Predicted SAT Score

400

630

410

640

420

650

430

650

440

660

450

670

460

680

470

690

480

700

490

700

500

710

510

720

520

730

530

740

540

750

550

760

560

760

570

770

580

780

590

790

600

800

610

810

620

810

630

820

640

830

650

840

660

850

670

860

680

870

690

870

700

880

710

890

720

900

730

910

740

920

750

920

760

930

770

940

780

950

790

960

800

970

810

970

820

980

830

990

840

1000

850

1010

860

1020

870

1030

880

1030

890

1040

900

1050

910

1060

920

1070

930

1080

940

1080

950

1090

960

1100

970

1110

980

1120

990

1130

1000

1140

1010

1140

1020

1150

1030

1160

1040

1170

1050

1180

1060

1190

1070

1190

1080

1200

1090

1210

1100

1220

1110

1230

1120

1240

1130

1240

1140

1250

1150

1260

1160

1270

1170

1280

1180

1290

1190

1300

1200

1300

1210

1310

1220

1320

1230

1330

1240

1340

1250

1350

1260

1350

1270

1360

1280

1370

1290

1380

1300

1390

1310

1400

1320

1410

1330

1410

1340

1420

1350

1430

1360

1440

1370

1450

1380

1460

1390

1460

1400

1470

1410

1480

1420

1490

1430

1500

1440

1510

1450

1510

1460

1520

1470

1530

1480

1540

1490

1550

1500

1560

1510

1570

1520

1570

 

5. Essay

 

The SAT has an optional essay, which some colleges require (in non-pandemic years). The essay is scored separately and no impact on your composite score. Meanwhile, the PSAT has no essay.

 

6. Cost & Timing

 

The PSAT/NMSQT costs $16, and is offered once per year in October (there is an extra January sitting in 2021 because of the pandemic). The SAT costs $49.50, and is offered multiple times per year.

 

Is the PSAT Easier Than the SAT?

 

Yes — for the most part, the PSAT is easier than the SAT. The test takes less time to complete, and the content covered is not as difficult. But remember that you’ll probably take the SAT later in school, when you’ve learned more.

 

The PSAT can also be a good indicator of your performance on the SAT. No matter how you do, though, you should still study for the SAT. The PSAT can also serve as a way to guide your preparation for the SAT, allowing you to pinpoint your weaker areas and focus on honing them. Check out our guides for help with your preparation, too.

 

How will your standardized test scores factor into your admissions decisions? When predicting whether you’ll be admitted to your top schools, we’ll take your scores, GPA, extracurriculars, and other factors into consideration. Our Chancing Engine will pinpoint your real chances of admission to more than 500 colleges and universities — all for free.

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Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.

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