If you’re planning to go to college, you’ve probably heard of College Board, and you’ve probably heard of the standardized exams that are offered through them. College Board has several level-based exams meant to measure academic ability at different levels. The collection of tests is known as the SAT Suite of Assessments and is comprised of four exams: the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9.

High school juniors and seniors take the SAT, juniors and sophomores typically take the PSAT/NMSQT, and sophomores take the PSAT 10. There is also a PSAT 8/9 meant for 8th graders and freshmen to measure their progress towards college readiness. Which test you take depends entirely on your grade level and where you are in your college planning process.

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For example, Juniors can either take the SAT or the PSAT/NMSQT depending on their goals. Think of the PSAT as the JV SAT. The SAT is varsity, the real thing, and your scores could be sent to the colleges you apply to. You’re probably wondering: how do I know which test is better for me to take? Lucky for you, I’m going to break it all down here! We’ll go over the purpose of each test, the similarities, and the differences.

What is the PSAT/NMSQT

You’ve probably worked it out that the PSAT is the practice, or “preliminary”, version of the SAT (hence the P in the acronym), but why is it paired with “NMSQT”? This test is used as a qualifying benchmark for the National Merit Scholarship, which is one of the highest honors a high school student can achieve.  Your scores for the PSAT/NMSQT aren’t used in the college admissions process, but they are used in selecting the National Merit candidates who can apply for the scholarship. Even if you don’t qualify for the big one, doing well on this test can open endless doors to financial aide and scholarship opportunities. You’d need a top 1% score on the PSAT/NMSQT test to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.

Typically, high school juniors take the PSAT/NMSQT. It is usually offered through your school in October, but there is also an alternate test date on a Saturday if you’re unable to take the exam through your school. The dates are nationally administered to prevent cheating, since the scores are used to determine qualifiers for the National Merit Scholarship. You can only take this test once a year, but you can take it as a sophomore as well if you’d like a couple shots at it. The other variations of the PSAT for 8th, 9th, and 10th graders are administered at your school’s discretion and are not tied to the NMS. If you’re interested in taking one of these, ask your school counselor how!

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized college entrance exam. Your SAT scores help colleges determine the knowledge and skills that you’ve acquired during high school. Typically, high school juniors and seniors take the SAT.

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It’s a good idea to plan ahead so you have the SAT score you want by the end of your junior year to leave plenty of time to apply for colleges. This will also leave time to keep trying just in case you want to retake the SAT for a better score. The SAT is typically administered 7 times a year with registration dates and test dates published on College Board’s website several months in advance. Some schools also have administered SAT test dates, so check with your school counselor to see if your school offers their own SAT test date.

How is the PSAT Similar to the SAT?

Structure and content wise, the PSAT is very similar to the SAT. The PSAT tests for math, reading and grammar skills in the exact same way as the SAT. Both tests have two main components, Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. Both tests have a calculator and non-calculator section on the math part as well. In addition, the types of questions you see on the PSAT will be almost identical to the SAT, with multiple choice and fill in the blank type questions.

The way the tests are scored is also similar. First of all, there’s absolutely no penalty for guessing on either test! This means that your correct answers help you, but your incorrect answers won’t hurt you, so try not to leave any of those answers blank! You could get lucky and get a couple extra points on a guess!

College Board divides their exams into sections with separate subscores. For example, the Reading section on both the SAT and PSAT is divided into 2 subscores: Command of Evidence and Words in Context. These subscores can help you understand which areas of each subject you excel in, and which subjects need more work.

The Writing and Language section is divided into Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions, and the Math subscores are as follows: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. These subscores are the exact same between the SAT and the PSAT, so you should have a great idea of what the SAT will look like after you take the PSAT. The good news is that if you do well on the PSAT, chances are you’ll crush the SAT too!

How is the PSAT Different from the SAT?

Here’s what you’ve been waiting for: What are some of the key differences between the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT? The biggest difference, we’ve already covered. The PSAT/NMSQT is a preliminary SAT, meant to predict how you’ll do on actual college entrance exams and qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship, but it will not help you snag that college acceptance on it’s own.

A top 1% score on the PSAT would qualify you to enter the National Merit competition if you’re a high school junior. Unfortunately the SAT has no weight for National Merit Scholars, so if you want that opportunity, start with the PSAT. Your SAT score won’t help you here.

There are slight differences in the structure of the test as well, mainly to do with score ranges and timing. While the material on the test is very similar, you’ll see fewer questions and less time allotted on the PSAT than the SAT. The PSAT is a total of 165 minutes and 139 questions, while the SAT is 180 minutes and 154 questions.  

This makes sense, considering the PSAT is considered the preliminary SAT. In the olden days (pre Covid), SAT offered an optional essay that the PSAT did not, but recent College Board developments resulted in doing away with the SAT essay, so you won’t have to worry about that on either test anymore.  

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Also, the scoring scales differ slightly.  The SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600, while the PSAT is scored from 320-1520. This is because the PSAT is slightly easier than the SAT (because it’s meant for younger students with less schooling under their belts). The score you get on the PSAT should correlate to the score you get on the SAT, though.

There may be a slight difference in scores because of the different scales, but they should be relatively close. In the SAT Suite of Assessments, the tests are meant to get slightly harder with each one to account for academic growth as you move on from one grade to the next. Therefore, yes, the PSAT is slightly easier than the SAT.

The last major difference between the SAT and the PSAT is price. The PSAT is often free for students whose school pays for the tests, but if you’re not one of the lucky few, it won’t break the bank. The PSAT usually costs around $16. This price covers the costs of the test books and grading. The SAT is a bit pricier, but think of it as an investment to your future! The SAT costs $55 and you can take it as many times as you need, up to 7 times a year.

College Board’s Suite of Assessments is meant to unlock opportunities for college ready high school students.

The Takeaway

All in all, the SAT Suite of Assessments is meant to measure a student’s college readiness at different grade levels. The PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT are extremely similar in structure and content, but the PSAT is slightly easier for high school sophomores and juniors.

The SAT is meant to show what you know and have learned in high school to help colleges see your ability. The PSAT is a preliminary SAT, meant for practice, and to determine your eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship.

Your scores on each test should be similar, they are just used for different purposes. Whichever purpose you need it for, the PSAT and the SAT are important resources for you to determine your college readiness and earn those sweet, sweet scholarships.

Kirsten Mann
Kirsten is the Operations Coordinator at Test Geek. She has a 35 on the ACT Reading Test and enjoys sarcasm and pop culture references.

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