Is the PSAT Easier Than the SAT? How Does It Compare?
In regard to level of difficulty, the tests are nearly identical, with one caveat: the SAT is longer and forces students to move a bit more quickly in the math sections. The SAT thus tests students’ mental endurance and speed a bit more than the PSAT. More on that below.
As for the content, you might find that a given version of the PSAT is easier than a given SAT, or vice versa. But the tests assess the same skills (reading, writing and language, and math) and the questions within each section are formatted along the same guidelines.
However, there are some key differences between the PSAT and SAT that all high school students should be aware of.
The first and most important distinction is their respective purposes. The PSAT—whose official title is the PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test—might seem like nothing more than a warmup for the real thing. Indeed, one of its main purposes is to help students assess their level of proficiency heading into the SAT.
But the PSAT/NMSQT also serves a unique function. It can qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which provides a range of scholarships to high school students. While acing the PSAT could earn you some money to put toward college, it will not help you get into college.
The central purpose of the SAT is, of course, college admissions.
When to Take the PSAT/NMSQT vs. SAT
Students typically take the PSAT/NMSQT in 10th or 11th grade and the SAT in 11th or 12th grade. While the SAT is offered seven times per year (in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June), the PSAT is offered just once a year.
It is never too early to start preparing for these tests. If you are interested in experiencing the unique pressures of test day, you might also be interested in taking the PSAT 8/9 (for 8th and 9th graders) or the PSAT 10 (for 10th graders), neither of which are attached to National Merit Scholarships or college admissions.
Sections and Timing
The PSAT/NMSQT runs for 2 hours and 55 minutes, including breaks. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT/NMSQT does not include an essay section. The timing of each section breaks down as follows:
Reading: 60 minutes (48 questions)
Writing & Language: 35 minutes (44 questions)
No-Calculator Math: 25 minutes (17 questions)
Calculator Math: 45 minutes (31 questions)
If you choose to not write the optional SAT essay, the SAT runs for 3 hours and 15 minutes, including breaks. If you do choose to write the essay (many schools do require it), you’re locked in for 4 hours and 7 minutes, including breaks.
That time difference is not insignificant. One factor that might make the SAT just a tad harder than the PSAT is pacing and endurance:
Reading: 65 minutes (52 questions)
Writing & Language: 35 minutes (44 questions)
No-Calculator Math: 25 minutes (20 questions)
Calculator Math: 55 minutes (38 questions)
Essay: 50 minutes
As you can see, the math sections on the SAT will force you to move a bit more quickly, completing 58 questions in 80 minutes (82 seconds/question) as opposed to the PSAT’s 48 questions in 70 minutes (87 seconds/question).
Regarding the content of each test, the biggest difference—really, the only substantive difference—is that the SAT includes an optional essay section and the PSAT does not.
First, what they have in common: on both the SAT and PSAT/NMSQT, there is no penalty for guessing. So please, don’t leave any questions blank on either test. As the saying goes, you make none of the shots you don’t shoot.
The PSAT/NMSQT is scored on a 320 to 1520-point scale. Your total score is the sum of two tests: the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing test and the Math test, both scored out of 760.
The SAT is scored on a 400 to 1600-point scale. Your total score is the sum of the same two tests, both scored out of 800.
As mentioned earlier, one of the main purposes of the PSAT/NMSQT is to help students assess their level of proficiency for the SAT: a student who scores a 1200 on the PSAT/NMSQT will likely score around a 1200 on the SAT. Because the PSAT/NMSQT is a bit shorter, be careful not to assume that a perfect score on the PSAT is the equivalent of a perfect SAT score. A 1520 on the PSAT/NMSQT is a fairly good predictor of a 1520 on the SAT, but not necessarily a 1600.
Currently, the PSAT/NMSQT varies in cost from school to school. The test is administered through participating high schools, and the College Board bills those schools per student. Your school might cover all or part of the costs of the test. So, make sure to follow up with an administrator at your school to determine what you will have to pay to take the PSAT/NMSQT.
The SAT currently costs $47.50 without the essay and $64.50 with the essay. Low-income students are eligible for fee waivers. Apply for a waiver here.
Other than the SAT’s optional essay, the skills tested on the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT are identical. That means preparing for one will prepare you for the other. As I’ve written earlier, these tests require regular practice, much like a foreign language.
Ready to start your PSAT or SAT prep? Schedule a free practice test and consultation today!
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.