Differences Between the PSAT and SAT

Our last blog post addressed differences between the PreACT and the ACT.  Today we will examine the relationship between the PSAT and SAT as it is fundamentally different that that between the PreACT and ACT.  

There are a few versions of the PSAT that students will take at various points during middle school and high school.  Eighth and ninth graders take the PSAT 8/9.  A variety of talent search programs, including Duke Talent Identification Program (https://tip.duke.edu), use these scores to evaluate student eligibility.  Tenth graders take the PSAT 10.  Note that while some scholarship programs use this score in their searches, the National Merit Scholarship Program does not.  Tenth and eleventh graders take the PSAT/NMSQT.  The National Merit Scholarship Program uses this version of the PSAT to evaluate student eligibility.  For the purposes of this comparison, I am using the PSAT/NMSQT.

Format of the PSAT/NMSQT

Reading: 47 questions, 60 minutes (1min16sec/question)

Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes (48 sec/question)

Math Test – No Calculator: 17 questions, 25 minutes (1min28sec/question)

Math Test – Calculator active: 31 questions, 45 minutes (1min27sec/question)

Format of the SAT

Reading: 52 questions, 65 minutes (1min15sec/question)

Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes (48sec/question)

Math Test—No Calculator: 20 questions, 25 minutes (1min/15sec/question)

Math Test—Calculator Active: 38 questions, 55 minutes (1min27sec/question)

The PSAT/NMSQT is scored on a scale of 1520 total points.  This total score breaks down into two subsections, Math and Verbal, each scored on a scale of 760.  

The SAT is scored on a scale of 1600 total points.  This total score breaks down into two subsections, Math and Verbal, each scored on a scale of 800.

The PSAT’s slightly lower score range accounts for the lower difficulty level and shortened nature of this test.  While the Writing and Language sections are identical in question number and length, the other three sections are extended on the SAT.  The Calculator Inactive math section changes the most from PSAT to SAT as the SAT eliminates almost fifteen seconds per question.  This particular section poses unique obstacles to students who rely on a calculator for basic math computation.

Although the scales of the two tests are not identical, a student’s PSAT score directly equates to his/her predicted SAT score.  For example, if a student scores a 1250 on the PSAT, s/he should score a 1250 on the SAT as well.  Additionally, the PSAT allows students to identify strengths and weaknesses within each subject that can help in SAT preparation.  However, students should take a full-length practice SAT before beginning any SAT prep program, as this is the most accurate way to assess students’ SAT test-taking skills.  

Differences Between the PreACT and the ACT

I always ask students to take a full-length practice ACT before beginning any test prep package. This approach may appear redundant when students already have detailed score reports from their PreACT tests. Success on the PreACT, however, does not always correlate to success on the ACT.  Understanding the difference between these tests along with their respective benefits and limitations is vital to student success with the prep process. (Information regarding the relationship between the PreSAT and the SAT will be discussed in an upcoming blog post.)

The PreACT is intended for high school sophomores, although any high school student can take it.  Schools decide if and when to administer the test and inform students and families of the test date and registration process.  The school will administer the test during a regular school day.  If you have any questions about the testing timeline at your child’s school, reach out to a counselor.  

Because the PreACT is targeted to sophomores instead of juniors, it is somewhat easier than the ACT. Students receive a PreACT score (out of 35) as well as a predicted composite score range and predicted section score ranges for the ACT (out of 36).  Unlike the ACT, the PreACT has no essay section.  The PreACT provides an important introduction to the format and demands of the ACT.  The detailed score report helps students identify general strengths and weaknesses that the student can then work on before taking the ACT.  The included predicted range of ACT scores provides a rough guideline, but does not always predict accurately ACT success.


English: 45 questions, 30 min (40 seconds per question)

Math: 36 questions, 40 min (67 seconds per question)

Reading: 25 questions, 30 min (72 seconds per question)

Science: 30 questions, 30 min (60 seconds per question)

--no essay--


English: 75 questions, 45 min (36 seconds per question)

Math: 60 questions, 60 min (60 seconds per question)

Reading: 40 questions, 35 min (52.5 seconds per question)

Science: 40 questions, 35 min (52.5 seconds per question)

--optional essay section--

In the above breakdown, note the shorter allocation of time per question across all sections, particularly in reading and science.  Students who finish these sections without issue on the PreACT are often surprised to find that they run out of time on those same sections of the ACT. Additionally, the increase in total test time from 2 hrs 10 min to 2 hrs 55 min (longer if the student opts to write the essay) increases fatigue as well as the likelihood of mistakes.

While the PreACT certainly provides a helpful preview of college admissions testing, a full-length practice ACT predicts more precisely performance on the ACT.  The full-length practice test also helps the tutor more accurately assess issues with pacing across all sections which then allows the student to cultivate better pacing strategies from the start.