The Differences Between the PSAT and the SAT

The Differences Between the PSAT and the SAT

By Dr. Steve Warner, Get 800

If you have been reading this blog, then you are probably familiar with what the SAT is. In case you are not, here is a link to one of my articles that gives detailed information on this: Overview of the Math Sections of the SAT

Today we will discuss the PSAT and how it is different from the SAT.

First, did you know that the “P” in PSAT stands for preliminary? Most people incorrectly think that it stands for practice. 

Also, almost twice the number of test takers take the PSAT compared to the SAT. This is because the PSAT determines eligibility and qualification for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Note that unless you get a score high enough to qualify for National Merit (which is a very high score), the PSAT is essentially meaningless. The PSAT is not used for college admissions. It is however a decent way to get an idea of how well you would perform on the SAT.

In addition to College Board Blue Book tests, almost all of my students take the PSAT to gauge how well they are going to do on the SAT.

There are a few major differences between the PSAT and the SAT and this post will shed some light on these differences.

Long SAT or PSAT

Test Length and Structure

The PSAT consists of 4 sections. There is a 60 minute reading section with 47 questions, a 35 minute writing and language section with 44 questions, a 25 minute math section with 17 questions where a calculator is not allowed, and a 45 minute math section with 31 questions where a calculator is allowed. This gives a total testing time of 60 + 35 + 25 + 45 = 160 minutes, or 2 hours and 40 minutes.

The SAT is longer than the PSAT. It consists of 5 sections, one being optional (the essay). For the required sections, there is a 65 minute reading section with 52 questions, a 35 minute writing and language section with 44 questions, a 25 minute math section with 20 questions where a calculator is not allowed, and a 55 minute math section with 38 questions where a calculator is allowed. You are given 50 minutes for the optional essay section. This gives a total required testing time of 65 + 35 + 25 + 55 = 180 minutes, or 3 hours. With the optional essay, the total testing time is 3 hours and 50 minutes.

So although the PSAT is supposed to prepare you for the SAT, one thing that it may NOT prepare you for is the amount of endurance necessary to get through the SAT, especially if you are taking the optional essay. The SAT is the first, and maybe only test that you will ever take that requires this kind of time commitment. Fatigue alone can be responsible for causing a decrease in score from your PSAT to your SAT.


The PSAT is graded out of 1520 points with reading and writing scored between 160 and 760, and math also scored between 160 and 760.

The SAT is graded out of 1600 points with reading and  writing consisting of a total of 800 points, and math also consisting of a total of 800 points.

Note that the two scales are similar, but the maximum possible PSAT score is lower than the maximum possible  SAT score. This is due to the fact that the PSAT is a bit easier than the SAT.

You can essentially use your PSAT score as an estimate to what you might get on the SAT. But this is not entirely accurate, as you might have guessed from the difference in the maximum scores.

In other words, suppose a student were to score a 500 in math on their PSAT. Does that mean that if they had taken the SAT instead that day that they would have scored a 500? The answer in general is no – they most likely would have scored a bit lower than that. A rough estimate is about 5% lower.

So, in other words, after taking your PSAT, to get your approximate SAT score take away 5 percent. This is equivalent to multiplying your PSAT score by 9.5.

For example, a student that scored 1200 on their PSAT would have received approximately 1200(9.5) = 1140 on their SAT.

Note that there is no statistical data to support the accuracy of this computation. After all, nobody takes a PSAT and an SAT on the same day. This is just my own personal way of estimating what I believe is happening. The College Board seems to support my belief because 1520/1600 = .95, or equivalently, 95%.

Other than this small score discrepency all other aspects of scoring the PSAT and the SAT are the same. Multiple choice questions and grid ins are handled the same way, and the raw score is computed in the same fashion. For more details on how this is done, see this article titled Overview of the Math Sections of the SAT.

Just one comment on the scaled score – although for most students the scaled score is handled almost identically on both the PSAT and SAT, the strongest students may be penalized a bit more heavily on the PSAT. For example just one wrong question on the math section of the PSAT could drop your scaled score down 50 points. This could really hurt if you are applying for a National Merit Scholarship.

Final Note

As mentioned in the section on scoring above, if you decide to take your SAT without any preparation, then it is more likely that your score will go down about 5% from your PSAT than go up. So whether you use a tutor, take a prep course, or prepare on your own, please prepare. With good preparation you can show a significant increase in score from your PSAT to your SAT.