by Emily Gunter

Standardized test names are like alphabet soup. You have the PSAT, the SAT®, and the ACT® tests, all offered in high school. The acronyms all stand for something, and it can be easy to confuse them because of their similar names.

Knowing what to expect, why to sign up for each test, and how each test is different can help you better prepare for these steps in your journey to college.

Both the PSAT and SAT tests are part of the SAT suite of assessments, offered by the College Board®. These tests follow a similar format, and taking one test may help you prepare for the other.

However, no two tests are exactly the same. There are some fundamental differences between the tests that you should consider. In this post, we go over the 8 key differences between the PSAT and SAT tests.

If you’re looking for a comparison of the ACT and SAT tests, read “Differences Between the ACT and SAT Tests.”

PSAT vs. SAT Test: 8 Key Differences to Consider

1. The “Why?”

Why take the SAT test?

The SAT test is a college entrance exam, and colleges often require SAT scores as part of your application to college. The letters “SAT” stand for “Scholastic Assessment Test.”

Nearly all U.S. colleges and several international schools accept scores from the SAT test. Colleges use SAT test scores when determining which students to accept and which to deny, and a good SAT score can help you build a strong college application.

In 2020, many schools have moved to “test optional” admissions, meaning some college applications do not require test scores for admission. However, many schools will still use test scores to qualify students for more selective aspects of the admissions process, such as scholarships, competitive degree programs, and acceptance into the honors college. This means a strong SAT score can still help you.

Why take the PSAT test?

There are three versions of the PSAT test that are offered at different grade levels: the PSAT/NMSQT®, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT 8/9. The letters “PSAT” stand for “Preliminary SAT.” Each version of the test plays a different role in your journey to college.

PSAT/NMSQT

Students take the PSAT/NMSQT in October of 11th grade, but this year some schools may decide to offer the test in January 2021 due to COVID-19 test cancellations. Contact your school to find out the exact date of the test.

The “NMSQT” stands for “National Merit® Scholarship Qualifying Test.” Scores from this test are used to qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Students who score in the top 0.5% of each state will become National Merit Semifinalists, advancing them to the next level of the competition.

Students who reach Finalist status may qualify for a number of scholarships sponsored by scholarship organizations, corporations, and colleges throughout the United States. For example, National Merit Scholars can attend the University of Texas at Dallas tuition-free, plus additional stipends to cover other costs of attendance.

Please note that the PSAT test is not a college admissions test. While receiving an honor like National Merit Semifinalist may be appropriate to highlight in your application, colleges do not ask for PSAT score reports.

Some high schools will give the same PSAT/NMSQT test to 10th graders as practice. For instance, many schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area will do this instead of the PSAT 10. Keep in mind that only 11th grade scores will go toward the National Merit Scholarship Program.

PSAT 10

This version of the PSAT is very similar to the PSAT/NMSQT test except that students take it in the spring of 10th grade. However, scores from this test do not qualify students for National Merit.

We recommend that students take the PSAT 10 as practice for the 11th grade test. This version of the test helps students become familiar with the content found on the test, and students take the test in a similar environment.

PSAT 8/9

This is a slightly shorter version of the PSAT test offered to students in 8th and 9th grade. This is a student’s first opportunity to take the PSAT test. National Merit does not review test scores on the PSAT 8/9.

We often recommend the PSAT 8/9 to advanced students who are ready to try the test out. Remember, this test will likely cover material that the student has yet to learn in high school, so it’s important to understand that there will be plenty of time for improvement.

2. When You Should Take Them

The PSAT and the SAT test are offered at different times throughout the year. While the SAT test is offered on multiple dates throughout the spring, summer, and fall, the PSAT test is only offered once per year depending on your grade level.

When should I take the SAT test?

We recommend that students finish testing by the end of their junior year of high school so that they can shift focus to college applications. Keep in mind that it may take multiple attempts to reach your target score, so you should plan to take the test more than once.

However, we do understand that every student is unique and should create a testing plan according to his or her specific needs.

For example, if you have a busy sports season coming up, you may choose to take the test at a later date. And that’s okay! Just be aware that college applications and essay writing can take a lot of time, and you should plan ahead to put your best foot forward.

When should I take the PSAT test?

As explained above, there are different versions of the PSAT test offered depending on your grade level. National Merit will only consider scores from the 11th grade test, offered once per year in October. 12th graders do not get the opportunity to take the test.

3. Length of Time and Number of Questions

The SAT test is longer with more questions.

The SAT test with no essay is 15 minutes longer than the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 tests. Without the essay, the SAT test consists of about 154 questions total (15 questions more than the PSAT test).

The SAT Test Section Breakdown:

  • Reading: 65 minutes, 52 questions
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions
  • Math with No Calculator: 25 minutes, 20 questions
  • Math with Calculator: 55 minutes, 38 questions
  • Optional Essay: 50 minutes, 1 question
  • Total: 180 minutes, 154 questions (With Essay: 230 minutes, 155 questions)

When breaking that down to time per question, that difference amounts to 13 seconds less per question on the SAT test.

If you decide to take the SAT essay section, you have more than an hour difference in length.

The PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 Test Section Breakdown:

  • Reading: 60 minutes, 48 questions
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions
  • Math with No Calculator: 25 minutes, 17 questions
  • Math with Calculator: 45 minutes, 31 questions
  • Total: 165 minutes, 139 questions

The PSAT 8/9 is 20 minutes shorter than the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 tests and 35 minutes shorter than the SAT test.

The PSAT 8/9 Test Section Breakdown:

  • Reading: 55 minutes, 42 questions
  • Writing and Language: 30 minutes, 40 questions
  • Math: 60 minutes, 38 questions
  • Total: 145 minutes, 120 questions

4. The Essay: Only Offered by the SAT Test

In the test section breakdowns above, you’ll notice that the PSAT test does not include an essay option. However, the SAT test does offer an essay option.

Some colleges will require or recommend that students take the essay portion of the SAT test. However, the essay is scored separately on the SAT test and will not affect your overall score.

For more advice, read our post about deciding whether to take the essay on the SAT or ACT tests.

5. Retake Options: More Opportunities to Retake the SAT Test

There are no retake options for the 11th grade PSAT/NMSQT test.

You have one shot at earning a score that will qualify you as a National Merit Semifinalist.

This differs from the SAT test, which is offered several times throughout the year and can be retaken as many times as desired.

While there are no retake options for the 11th grade PSAT/NMSQT test, you can take the PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10 tests as practice for the 11th grade test.

On the SAT test, you’ll have plenty of time to retake the test to improve your score if you start testing early. If you wait too long, you may miss out on retaking the test and improving your test score.

Colleges will not penalize you for taking the test multiple times. They will evaluate your score based off of your “superscore” (taking the highest results for each section) or your highest single test results.

Colleges have certain deadlines to turn your test scores in, and you may miss your window if you wait to take the test for the first time in 12th grade.

6. Score Reporting: Different Score Ranges

College Board grades the SAT and the PSAT tests using different scoring scales.

SAT test scores range from 400 to 1600 points, whereas the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 scores range from 320 to 1520 points.

PSAT 8/9 scores range from 240 to 1440 points.

7. Level of Difficulty: Is the SAT test harder than the PSAT test?

The PSAT test is slightly easier than the SAT test.

The PSAT test is meant to serve as practice for the SAT test. When you break down how much time you have per question for each section of the tests, you’ll notice that you have a little more time to answer math questions on the PSAT test than you do on the SAT test.

Since the PSAT test is shorter overall and consists of less questions, your mind may be under less pressure than when taking the SAT test.

When taking the PSAT test in 10th grade, some students feel like the test is pretty difficult because it may cover material they haven’t yet learned in high school. Alternatively, the SAT test is often taken in the 11th grade; so students have had more time to learn concepts and prepare, leading to an easier experience overall.

The bottom line is the difference in level of difficulty is minimal and depends on your grade level and testing experience. Taking either test will help you prepare for the other.

SAT Test Sections – Time Per Question

  • Reading: 1 minute 15 seconds per question
  • Writing and Language: 47 seconds per question
  • Math with No Calculator: 1 minute 15 seconds per question
  • Math with Calculator: 1 minute 26 seconds per question
  • Optional Essay: 50 minutes to answer one question

PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 Test Sections – Time Per Question

  • Reading: 1 minute 15 seconds per question
  • Writing and Language: 47 seconds per question
  • Math with No Calculator: 1 minute 28 seconds per question
  • Math with Calculator: 1 minute 27 seconds per question

PSAT 8/9 Test Sections – Time Per Question

  • Reading: 1 minute 18 seconds per question
  • Writing and Language: 1 minute 15 seconds per question
  • Math: 1 minute 34 seconds per question

8. How You Sign Up

Each test involves a different process in terms of signing up and payment.

How to sign up for the SAT test

Students can register for the SAT test by setting up an account on the College Board website. In some cases, students have to register by mail.

The SAT test currently costs $52 ($68 for the test with the essay). There are fee waivers for students in specific situations. See the College Board website for more information.

How to sign up for the PSAT test

To register for the PSAT test, students should contact their high school counselor. They will help you sign up for the upcoming tests. If you are homeschooled or your school does not offer the PSAT test, you will need to arrange to test at another high school.

The standard cost for the PSAT test is $17, but fees for the PSAT test vary from school to school. Some high schools do not charge students to take the test.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, the PSAT and SAT tests are very similar in terms of content, but there are some key differences that students should know before signing up.

We recommend that students take both tests in order to maximize their scholarship opportunities and strengthen their college applications.

Need help preparing for upcoming tests?

At KD College Prep, we offer in person and online test prep programs for students in grades 7-12. We have nearly 30 years experience preparing students for college admissions tests, and our students account for 40% of the National Merit Semifinalists in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

If you need help creating a testing plan or advice on which tests to take, contact us to set up a free consultation with one of our directors.

Emily Gunter is a marketing and communications specialist at KD College Prep.