SAT vs. PSAT: Key Differences & Essential Insights

04/07/202418 minute read
SAT vs. PSAT: Key Differences & Essential Insights

Are you a parent or an academically motivated high school student trying to navigate the world of standardized testing? Our blog post, "SAT vs. PSAT: Key Differences & Essential Insights," is here to help. This comprehensive guide breaks down the key differences between the SAT vs. PSAT, explaining their distinct purposes, difficulty levels, and testing formats. You'll get a helpful overview of each test, the SAT and PSAT, and you’ll learn why taking the PSAT, can be a strategic move, offering practice for the SAT, scholarship opportunities, and valuable feedback on academic skills. Whether you're aiming for top colleges or simply want to reduce test anxiety, this post provides essential information to help you make informed decisions about your testing strategy.

As admissions strategists, we know that students and guardians understand how crucial standardized tests can be in the college admissions process.

And, while many families are largely familiar with the SAT, the role of the PSAT, on the other hand, is often a source of some doubt and confusion, especially because both the PSAT and SAT are standardized tests for high school students and published and scored by the same entity, the College Board.

By the end of this post, you'll have a clear understanding of each test and their differences, and you'll learn exactly how the PSAT dovetails with preparation for the SAT.

You’ll also learn the reasons why the PSAT offers some meaningful benefits for high-school-age students, even though not used for college admission, and when and how students can take the PSAT.

What Is the SAT?

The SAT is a widely used, respected, and accepted academic skills assessment. It complements other academic indicators, such as GPA and course rigor, in holistic admissions processes at many US colleges and universities, especially those that are more selective and competitive.

What some people may not realize is that the SAT is part of a larger suite of assessments, all published by the College Board, that includes various versions of the PSAT (Pre-SAT) alongside the SAT.

A rival standardized test, the ACT, is also widely used and accepted for college admissions, but the SAT tends to be used by more students. Both the SAT and ACT have made recent shifts from paper and pencil formats to digital, online test platforms. Today the SAT is officially a digital test, while most students who take the ACT can choose the format they prefer, online or pen and paper.

Unlike the online ACT, the digital version of the SAT resulted in a test that is a bit shorter and introduces adaptive features — adapting the challenge level of some test items in real time, based on an automated assessment of a student’s initial responses and proficiency levels.

The digital SAT continues to be divided into three main sections, as with the old paper version:

  1. Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
  2. Math
  3. Optional Essay

Excluding the optional Essay test, students receive two summative scores each time they take the SAT, a Reading/Writing Score (50%) and a Math Score (50%). The maximum in each of these categories is 800 points, making the maximum overall score 1600.

On a national scale, the equivalent of a “good” SAT score might be deemed a score that falls in the 75th percentile — not a score of 75% or higher, but a score high enough to earn a ranking in the top 25% of all scores across a national pool of SAT test takers.

When it comes to getting a “good” SAT score in the context of applying to Ivy League schools or other top US colleges and universities, a test taker will typically need to rank in the very highest percentiles, among the top 8% or better nationally.

To learn more about SAT scores, percentiles, and college admissions, check out What Is a Good SAT Score for Top Universities in 2024?

When to Take the SAT

Most students take the SAT in the spring of their junior year or the fall of their senior year. It's essential to prepare thoroughly, as a strong SAT score can significantly enhance your college application. This means retaking the SAT is a common practice, helping students score in a higher range over time.

To learn more about when to take the SAT, about strategies for retakes, and how to boost scores, check out How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

How to Know if the SAT Is Required for Admissions

While standardized test scores have typically been a crucial component of a student’s college application, especially for top-ranking schools, many colleges and universities have abandoned that requirement or, in the wake of the pandemic, have adopted temporary or indefinite test-optional admissions policies.

While a SAT score is not required for test-optional schools, many of them recommend including test scores when applying for admission. As strategists, we also typically recommend including test scores due to the competitive nature of admissions at most of the best colleges and universities.

Keep in mind that many top-ranked schools are requiring test scores, including several Ivy League schools currently reinstating test requirements, shifting away from provisional test-optional policies.

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What Is the PSAT?

While you may still see some references to the PSAT standing for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, the College Board, which publishes and scores the test, points out that references to aptitude testing have been removed from both the SAT and PSAT acronyms.

“Today, ‘SAT’ has no meaning as an acronym. The SAT acronym originally stood for ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test,’ but as the test evolved, the acronym’s meaning was dropped… ‘PSAT’ stands for ‘Preliminary SAT,’ but it has no meaning on its own, and you won’t see it as a stand-alone term.”


Compared to the SAT, more families have questions about the PSAT, no doubt because PSAT scores are never required when applying to college, making the PSAT less relevant to the college admissions process.

The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) serves as both a practice test for the SAT and a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

As a practice test for the SAT, the PSAT is slightly shorter and less challenging than its SAT cousin, making it an excellent low-stakes way for a younger student to get a feel for the SAT format.

Aligned with its SAT practice function, the PSAT comes in multiple versions, such as the PSAT 8/9, and the PSAT 10 — intended for students who want to start practicing in lower grade levels — alongside the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test)

Like the SAT, the PSAT is also now officially offered in a digital format that’s shorter than the older version of the PSAT, has more time per question, and comes with a built-in calculator.

The PSAT also stands out for its exclusive ties to the National Merit Scholarship program. This program offers chances for academic honors and distinction, with top winners eligible to earn cash scholarship awards as well.

To compete in this competition students need to meet the following criteria:

  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT
  • Be enrolled in a US high school or be a qualifying US citizen enrolled at a high school abroad
  • Be on a satisfactory academic trajectory in high school and bound for college

When to Take the PSAT and How

Students typically take the PSAT in their sophomore and junior years. Junior year scores are the ones considered for National Merit Scholarships.

The College Board also offers the PSAT 8/9, adapted to younger test takers, in grades 8 and 9, described by the College Board as designed “to establish a starting point in terms of college and career readiness as students transition to high school.”

The regular PSAT is administered to high school juniors only once per year, typically in the fall.

The PSAT 10 is typically offered in the spring, coinciding with the second half of a student’s sophomore year.

The PSAT 8/9 may be offered in the spring, fall, or both.

Registering for the PSAT

The PSAT is administered only by local schools or school districts working in conjunction with the College Board.

You should check with your school principal or guidance counselor, no later than early September, for more information about test registration and dates.

No test offered at your school? You may want to inquire at other schools in your area and see if you can test at a different school site that does facilitate PSAT test taking.

SAT vs. PSAT: Key Differences

The SAT and PSAT have a lot in common, but there are some key differences outlined below.

After highlighting the differences between the two tests, we'll explore why and when it can make sense to study for and take the PSAT, on a runway to taking the SAT for college admissions.

SAT vs. PSAT: Key Differences
PurposeUsed for college admissions May be used to qualify for some merit-based scholarshipsProvides practice for the SAT Serves as a way to qualify for National Merit Scholarship or other merit-based programs
Length, Content, and DifficultyAbout 15 minutes longer and slightly more challenging than PSAT Two main sections are Math and Evidence-based Reading/Writing + an optional EssayContent and difficulty are similar to SAT but adapted to students in 10th grade Two main sections are Math and Evidence-based Reading/Writing No essay
ScoringScores range from 400 to 1600 The Reading/Writing component and Math component are both scored on a scale from 200 to 800, giving the SAT an overall score scale from 400 to 1600 Scores range from 320 to 1520 While PSAT scores correspond directly to SAT scores, the PSAT overall is slightly less challenging than the SAT, so the minimum and maximum scores are 320 and 1520.
Test Availability, Registration, and SchedulingSAT is typically offered seven times each school year Students register using the centralized College Board online registration platformThe PSAT is offered one time each school year, in October The PSAT 10 is typically offered to sophomores in the spring The PSAT 8/9 is typically offered in the fall and/or spring, to 8th and 9th graders

Comparing Test Structures: SAT vs. PSAT

In terms of academic content and structure, the SAT and PSAT are closely aligned, as shown in the table below.

Comparison of SAT vs. PSAT Structure
Reading65 minutes, 52 questions60 minutes, 47 questions
Writing35 minutes, 44 questions35 minutes, 44 questions
Math — No Calculator25 minutes, 20 questions25 minutes, 17 questions
Math — Calculator55 minutes, 38 questions45 minutes, 31 questions
Total3 hours, 154 questions2 hours 45 minutes, 139 questions

Crimson Insights: Why Take the PSAT?

1. Test Practice

Taking the PSAT allows you to become familiar with the test format and question types, which can help reduce test anxiety and improve your performance on the SAT.

If you haven’t had many experiences taking timed tests in group settings, then taking the PSAT is a great low-stakes opportunity to get some practice. As of 2024 the PSAT is only offered in a digital format, further aligning it with the format of the regular SAT test whose score you’ll use when applying to college.

2. Scholarships

High-scoring individuals can open doors to recognition and scholarship opportunities.

High scores on the PSAT can qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship Program and other scholarship opportunities, which can be a significant financial boost for college.

By scoring well enough to qualify as a semifinalist at your state level, you can add that distinction to your college application resume and vye for a spot as a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, with opportunities to earn a scholarship of up to $2,500.

Students who earn a semifinalist spot do need to satisfy other important requirements in order to become a scholarship finalist, however, so be sure to stay engaged up to the end!

“Only Finalists will be considered for the National Merit® Scholarships. Approximately half of the Finalists will be Merit Scholarship® winners. Winners are chosen on the basis of their abilities, skills, and accomplishments—without regard to gender, race, ethnic origin, or religious preference. Scholarship recipients are the candidates judged to have the greatest potential for success in rigorous college studies and beyond.”

- National Merit

3. Academic Preparation

Get early feedback on academic skills critical for SAT tests and college admissions.

The PSAT provides detailed score reports. These reports provide valuable feedback on your strengths and areas for improvement for the kinds of academic concepts and skills assessed on the SAT.

Because the PSAT is “low risk” — in the sense that your scores are not sent to colleges, only to your high school, district, and state — it’s a way to get feedback and assess your SAT readiness without worrying about any downside if you get a score in the lower ranges.

If you wind up seeking assistance from a personalized SAT tutor down the road, your PSAT score report may equip your SAT tutor to make a better support plan.

4. Vocational Exploration

Establish a foundation for long-term college and career planning.

By taking the PSAT, you gain access to college planning resources and tools that can help you make informed decisions about your future.

This kind of exploration can help students identify high school electives and extracurricular activities aligned with a larger vocational interest and passion.

Your score feedback may also help jump start introspection and ideation for long-term career goals.

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Who Should Take the PSAT?

High-Achieving Students

For students in high school or approaching 9th grade, the PSAT is not required, but certainly worth some consideration as a way of building proficiency to achieve a truly high-range SAT score on the road to applying to top-ranking schools.

A strong PSAT performance could also help you spotlight academic readiness if and when you find yourself competing for high-caliber pre-college programs or similar merit-based extracurricular opportunities while still in high school.

Students Seeking Test Practice

If you’re looking for ways to get acquainted with the SAT — both its format and the academic content — then you could benefit in this way from taking the PSAT. The PSAT offers a low-stakes assessment providing great practice for taking the SAT when a junior or senior in high school.

Students Looking for Early Academic Feedback

If you want to identify your strengths and weaknesses before taking the SAT, the PSAT could serve as a practical diagnostic tool for many students. The feedback you get from taking the test and reviewing your results could potentially assist you with various steps of your high school and college admissions journey:

  • Helping you map out academic study and review for SAT preparation
  • Informing you on what courses to take in high school, be it for timely academic remediation or for confirming readiness for accelerated courses or programs, including college bridge courses

Students Seeking to Boost Their Admissions Profile

Students in a position to score in a high range on the PSAT/NMSQT can take the PSAT in the hope of gaining distinction as a National Merit Scholar of notable rank, further highlighting academic aptitudes and achievement in the run up for applying to competitive colleges.

How to Decide Whether to Take the PSAT?

  • Assessing Goals and Priorities: Consider your college aspirations and whether you're interested in scholarship opportunities. If so, the PSAT is a valuable step in your journey.
  • Consulting with Guidance Counselors: A school guidance counselor or Crimson Education Strategist can provide more personalized advice based on your academic performance and college plans, helping you decide if the PSAT is right for you.
  • Evaluating Your Test Prep Needs: Think about how the PSAT fits into your broader test preparation strategy. Taking the PSAT can be an integral part of your plan to achieve a high SAT score.

What Makes Crimson Different

Final Thoughts

In summary, the SAT and PSAT serve different but complementary purposes. The SAT is a critical component of college admissions and roughly on a par with its rival the ACT, for this purpose. The PSAT, on the other hand, while not used for college admissions, can provide numerous benefits, from reducing test anxiety and jump starting test prep, to potentially opening doors to merit-based scholarships and extracurriculars.

We encourage you to share this post with other students and parents who might find it helpful. If you have any questions or need further advice, request a free feedback session, for questions about standardized testing or to learn more about how Crimson Education resources and services help students aiming for top schools exceed expectations!