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Kristin Fracchia

PSAT vs SAT

Update: This post has been updated to reflect the changes in the PSAT and SAT beginning in the 2015-2016 school year. Click the links to learn more about the new PSAT exams and the Redesigned SAT.
 

The PSAT is basically an SAT with smaller teeth and a less overwhelming purpose (it can get you scholarships, but it doesn’t get you acceptance into college). All of the same basic SAT topics show up, minus a bit of the higher-level stuff, especially in math.

It has the same type of questions as the SAT, the instructions are all the same, and even the timing on each section is very similar. There are a few important differences in length, scoring, and content between them, though. Take a look at the chart below to get an idea.
 

The Timing of the PSAT vs the SAT

 

PSAT SAT
Total Length 2 hours 45 minutes 3 hours (or 3 hours 50 minutes with the optional essay)
Reading 60 minutes 65 minutes
Writing & Language 35 minutes 35 minutes
Math 70 minutes (including a calculator and a no calculator section) 80 minutes (including a calculator and a no calculator section)
Essay None 50 minute analytical essay (optional)

 

The PSAT is only just a little bit shorter than the SAT (without the essay anyway), so you’ll need to bring the same level of stamina to the PSAT as you will to the SAT. Pacing on both tests (in terms of the amount of time you have to answer each question) is comparable as well, so you aren’t going to get more time to answer questions on the PSAT.
 
 

PSAT Scoring vs SAT Scoring

 

PSAT SAT
Reading & Writing Score Range 160 to 760 200 to 800
Math Score Range 160 to 760 200 to 800
Total Score Range 320 to 1520 400 to 1600

 

The reason the PSAT is scored out of 1520 instead of 1600 is because it is an easier test. The idea is that you’ll be able to better predict your SAT scores using your PSAT results this way.

Although, honestly, this probably creates more confusion than it is worth. And I am willing to bet if you score a perfect 1520 on the PSAT, you sure are going to set your sights higher for the SAT!

Just like the SAT, there is no penalty for wrong answers on the PSAT, so make sure you bubble in an answer for everything.
 

PSAT Content

The skills that the SAT tests are almost exactly the same that you’ll need to dominate the PSAT. Even the types of questions are the same. In both tests, you’ll see these:

Math:

  • Multiple choice
  • Grid-in (Write your own answer)
  • A no-calculator section

 

Reading:

  • Reading comprehension of both fiction and non-fiction (including one text from “U.S. Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation”)
  • Long-ish passages of 500-750 words (including one paired set of passages)
  • Informational graphics questions
  • Words in context questions
  • Command of evidence questions

 

Writing and Language:

  • Expression of ideas (rhetorical) questions
  • Standard English conventions (grammar) questions
  • Informational graphics questions
  • Words in context questions
  • Command of evidence questions

 

That means that studying for the PSAT is a good way to get ready for the SAT while you are a junior (and the PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10 for younger grades can help you get ready even earlier). The scores and subscores you receive can help you determine what you need to study and how long you need to study for the real deal. So don’t brush it off as a test that doesn’t matter! It’s important practice that will save you valuable study time later on.
 

Difficulty

The PSAT is a tad easier than its big brother, but the difference is pretty minimal. It’s all toned down slightly, though. Questions that would be on the easy end of SAT math show up more frequently on the PSAT. You might get 5 questions on PSAT math that are as easy as the first 2 questions of an SAT math test, for example. And the most difficult PSAT questions don’t quite reach the difficulty of the hardest SAT math questions.

The higher end of SAT math topics might still show up on the PSAT, but they’ll be more straightforward. You’ll see easier “Passport to Advanced Math” questions, for example, and you may see only one very basic trig question. Or you might get a graph of a parabola that simply asks for an intercept and requires no algebra.

So don’t freak out if you’re going to take the PSAT and are just taking Geometry 1: the test mostly asks for basic number skills, algebra, and basic geometry, nothing more.
 

How to study for the PSAT

While you should definitely check out the College Board official resources for the PSAT, because the content is so similar, using SAT study material is also a perfectly good way to study for the PSAT.

The PSAT will give you a leg-up on test day (and probably a Wednesday morning you don’t have to spend in class). And if you think you can score in the top range, you can also benefit from the Student Search Service (colleges will come looking for you and your awesome test scores) and the National Merit and other scholarship programs, which can earn you some scholarship money along with a pretty sweet feather in your cap. So give it your all!
 

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About Kristin Fracchia

Kristin makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of train running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.


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