PSAT Versus the SAT

Most high school juniors, and many sophomores and freshmen, will be sitting for the PSAT this year on either October 16 or 19.  Short for Preliminary SAT, the PSAT / National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMQST) serves two primary purposes—to provide students a heads up on how they will perform on the SAT and to compete in the National Merit Scholarship Competition.  Just like the college admissions test, SAT, the PSAT is administered by the non-profit organization College Board.  Suitably, the PSAT is essentially a shorter, somewhat simplified SAT.

Why The PSAT Matters

  1. According to the College Board, there are at least five reasons why the PSAT is important:
  2. Identifies knowledge gaps that need to be filled before a student enters college.
  3. Helps identify good candidates for Advanced Placement courses.
  4. Jumpstarts college and career planning.
  5. Prepares students for the SAT.
  6. Allows for scholarship opportunities through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation

What the PSAT Tests

Like the SAT, the PSAT is divided into three main components:

  1. Critical Reading tests how well a student is able to read, comprehend, analyze, and infer from written text.  It is composed of two primary sections, sentence completion and passage-based reading.  A strong vocabulary is necessary to score highly on the Critical Reading section.
  2. Mathematics tests how well a student remembers learned concepts and can leverage those skills to work through new and varied problems.  A thorough working knowledge of numbers and operations, algebra and functions, geometry and measurement, and data analysis, statistics, and probability are required to do well on the Mathematics section.
  3. The Writing section tests how well a student can communicate ideas through the written word.  It is composed of purely multiple-choice questions on identifying sentence errors and improving sentences and paragraphs.  Students will need a firm grasp of English language and mechanics in addition to structured essay writing skills to succeed on the Writing section.

Difference Between PSAT and the SAT

  • Shorter by one hour and 35 minutes or 42%
  • Has two fewer 25 minute sections, 1 Critical Reading and 1 Mathematics
  • Lacks a 25 Minute Essay and 5 more minutes of Writing Skills questions
  • Lacks a 25 minute experimental section that can be either critical reading, math, or writing

Structurally, the PSAT is approximately 3/5 of an SAT.  It is 1 hour and 35 minutes shorter than the SAT, features 2 fewer 25-minute sections in Critical Reading and Mathematics, and completely omits a 25-minute Essay and 25 minute Experimental/ Variable section.  According to the College Board, tested math and verbal concepts on the PSAT are identical to that of the SAT.

However, some professionals argue that math concepts on the PSAT are somewhat easier in that students are unlikely to find difficult Algebra II questions primarily because the College Board recognizes that many students are unlikely to have covered these topics by the time they take the PSAT in October of their junior year.  Additionally, while PSAT problems gradually increase in difficulty throughout a section, the SAT sometimes throws in very difficult questions at random intervals.  This irregularity makes the SAT more difficult in that students must learn to skip difficult problems and move on to what may be easier problems later in the section in order to maximize their scoring potential.  Despite these minor nuances, the best way to practice for the PSAT is to work through full-length SAT practice tests.

Total Duration 2 Hours and 10 Minutes 3 Hours and 45 Minutes
Critical Reading 50 Minutes in Total 70 Minutes in Total
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 20 Minute Section
     Total # of Questions 48 67
     – Sentence Completion      13      19
     – Passage Based Reading      35      48
Mathematics 50 Minutes in Total 70 Minutes in Total
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 25 Minute Section
  • 20 Minute Section
     Total # of Questions 38 54
     – Multiple Choice      28      44
     – Student Response      10      10
Writing Skills 30 Minutes in Total 60 Minutes in Total
  • 30 Minute Section
  • 25 Minute Essay
  • 25 Minute Multiple Choice
  • 10 Minute Multiple Choice
     Total # of Questions 39 49 + Essay
     – Identifying Sentence Errors      14      18
     – Improving Sentences      20      25
     – Improving Paragraphs      5      6
     – Essay Writing N/A      1 Essay
Experimental Section N/A 25 Minutes in Total


Converting A PSAT Score to an SAT Score

The PSAT’s three sections are scored on a scale of 0 to 80 points for a maximum combined score of 240 across all three sections.  Students have the potential to both earn and lose points:

  • Earn 1 point for each correct answer
  • Lose ¼ of a point for each incorrect multiple-choice answer
  • Neither earn nor lose a point for an omitted question or a wrong student-response question

Just add a 0 to your PSAT score to get an approximate SAT score.  For example, if a student’s combined PSAT score is a 240, his SAT score would be a 2400.  Additionally, the PSAT provides percentile ranks that are nationally normed, meaning that students are compared with each other.  Specifically, all 11th grade students are compared with 11th grade students from the previous year,.  For example, if a student’s score report says that she scored in the 99th percentile, that means she scored better than all but one percent of students who took the PSAT in the previous year.  Note that all 10th grade and younger students are compared with the previous year’s 10th graders only.

About the National Merit® Scholarship Competition

One of the most widely espoused figures schools will use to promote their graduates’ level of college-readiness is the number of National Merit Semi-Finalists their junior class had in the annual National Merit Scholarship Competition.  This competition takes place annually every fall, usually October, for high school juniors.  Juniors compete by sitting for what is essentially an abbreviated, practice SAT (PSAT).

Semi-Finalists, the most important designation, represent the approximate top 1% of test takers.  The cut-off score to obtain this designation in Texas in the 2011-2012 Competition was a 219, which translates into an SAT score of 2190; the year before the cutoff was just 215.  National Merit Semi-Finalists generally qualify for scholarships that can range from full tuition at certain public colleges to $5,000 and $10,000 scholarships at prestigious, private universities.  Approximately 15,000 out of 16,000 semi-finalists then go on to be designated finalists.  Lastly, a little over half of the finalists are designed “Merit-Scholarship” recipients, meaning that they get the fancy title and $2,500 cash payment.  Scholarship winners are selected “based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments.”

In addition to the coveted “Semi-Finalist” designation, students may also qualify as a “Commended Student.”  The national cut-off score in the 2011-2012 competition was a 201, equating to approximately the top 5% of test-takers.  Unfortunately, Commended Students, generally do not receive significant benefits.  Hispanic and African American students may also compete in the National Hispanic Recognition Program and the National Achievement Scholarship Program (African Americans).


  1. Know what date your school administers the PSAT
  2. Determine whether your student may qualify for scholarships
  3. Prepare for the PSAT leveraging the voluminous amount of material for the SAT