How is the PSAT different from the SAT
Phone Image
How is the PSAT different from the SAT

How is the PSAT different from the SAT

You are probably already familiar with—and thinking about taking—the SAT, the exam you need to take to get to college. But wait a minute. There’s a PSAT, too? And three different versions? Do I really have to take ALL these tests?

Well, the short answer is maybe, depending on your school. However, you will most likely end up taking the PSAT/NMSQT before taking the SAT.

So, what are all these PSAT tests, and what’s on them?


The SAT and all versions of the PSAT (PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10, PSAT 8/9) are standardized tests that measure similar skills in reading, writing and language, and math. The tests share a similar format as well, but the length and content vary based on which grade level it is intended for.

First, beyond assessing the same skills, the tests also feature similar question types. After all, the PSAT exams are meant to prepare students for the SAT. Thus, there will be no surprises when you get to the SAT; you will have seen it all before.

The structure of the exams remains the same, too. You will begin with the Reading test, then take the Writing and Language test before ending with the Math section. The Math section will have calculator and non-calculator portions, with both featuring grid-in questions at the end of each portion.

You are never penalized for wrong answers on either exam. As such, bubbling your entire answer sheet pays off, even if the last 10 questions of every section are Bs (or Cs or Ds—you get the point) all the way down. Be sure to stick with one letter to maximize how many you guess correctly.

Finally, the manner in which the PSAT and SAT are scored, as well as what you will see on your score report, are the same. However, the overall score totals are different due to the fact that there are slightly fewer questions on the PSATs. While the overall score totals are useful for colleges, you should actually be interested in the other scores provided in your report.

Since the point of the PSAT is to prepare for the SAT, the fact that the score reports are the same is important. This data will help you understand your progress over time and areas in need of improvement. The test scores, cross-test scores, and subscores will all help you dial in your focus both in school and in preparation for the SAT.

Each section—Reading, Writing and Language, and Math—has a test score between 10 and 40. These scores provide a general overview of your college readiness in those areas.

The two cross-test scores—Analysis in Science and Analysis in History/Social Studies—are also between 10 and 40. They measure your ability to analyze text and data in those subjects. For example, if you have a particularly low score in Analysis in Science, then it will be a good idea to put in more effort in those classes and spend more time practicing reading passages and math problems focused on science.

Both the PSAT and the SAT have seven subscores that measure different skills. Each subscore is between 1 and 15, but the actual number of questions per skill varies for every test. They cover these skill categories:

  • Command of Evidence
  • Words in Context
  • Expression of Ideas
  • Standard English Conventions
  • Heart of Algebra
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  • Passport to Advanced Math

Delving into your subscores provides you with a detailed look at your strengths and weaknesses, allowing you to tweak your preparation plans to best suit your needs. If you are serious about competing in PSAT/NMSQT or getting your very best score on the SAT, the subscores have the information you need to get there.

Alright, so there are a lot of similarities between the PSATs and the SAT. What are the actual differences?

The differences boil down to difficulty, timing, and score ranges. The difficulty and amount of questions change depending on which grade the PSAT is meant for. The amount of time you have per question remains amount the same. The score ranges for the PSATs are also lower than the SAT because they have fewer questions on them. Refer to the table below to see the exact differences for each exam.


PSAT 8/9





55 minutes; 42 questions

60 minutes; 47 questions

64 minutes; 54 questions

65 minutes; 52 questions


30 minutes; 40 questions

35 minutes; 44 questions

Included with Reading Section

35 minutes; 44 questions

Math, No-Calculator

20 minutes; 13 questions

25 minutes; 17 questions

70 minutes; 44 questions**

25 minutes; 20 questions

Math, Calculator

40 minutes; 25 questions

45 minutes; 31 questions

**Calculator and non-calculator questions are mixed together

55 minutes; 38 questions

Total Time

2 hours, 35 minutes

2 hours, 45 minutes

2 hours, 14 minutes

3 hours, 15 minutes

Total Possible Score Range





*The PSAT/NMSQT will only be offered digitally beginning in Fall 2023, introducing changes that will be coming to the SAT when it goes fully digital in 2024.

The other major differences between the PSATs and the SAT are in the purpose and logistics for each exam, which is discussed in detail in the next section.

The SAT Suite of Assessments

While almost all states in the United States have a standardized test system to measure their students’ academic achievement, the SAT Suite of Assessments focuses on tracking college readiness.  Thus, the exams are intended to provide students with a general progress report of their skills throughout high school as they prepare for college and careers. One major goal of the PSATs is to provide snapshots for students throughout high school


SAT Prep | SAT Prep | SAT Exam | SAT |