Is The SAT Harder Than The PSAT? (4 Key Differences)

Aria Miller
Published by Aria Miller
Last Updated On: February 24, 2022

The PSAT and the SAT are the most important tests for high school students. Maybe you're about to take the PSAT and wonder whether it will influence your college admissions or your future SAT score. We'll answer that question and cover the differences between the PSAT and SAT in this article.

PSAT vs SAT: Differences in Purpose

Though the SAT and PSAT may be similar, these two tests are used for entirely different purposes. Students either miss this difference or interpret it the wrong way. The PSAT doesn't affect your college options, but it's still an essential test.

What is the PSAT?

PSAT Information

The PSAT is a standardized qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship and is frequently called the PSAT/NMSQT, which stands for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The National Merit Scholarship is typically around $2,500, but you'll need a high score to even qualify.

You'll generally need to score at least 200 points on your PSAT test just to qualify and around 215 points to get the National Merit.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you'll only be eligible to apply for the National Merit Scholarship if you're in the junior year of high school and the top 1% of the test-takers in your state [1].

Note that PSAT/NMSQT scores have nothing to do with college admissions. A college board is usually only interested in your SAT score.

The PSAT Is a Really Good Test Prep—and a Scholarship Opportunity

Students usually think the SAT is more important than the PSAT because only the SAT score influences their college admissions. This might be true, but the PSAT will help you determine how much additional test prep you'll need to nail the SAT.

The PSAT is often seen as the preliminary SAT test. Your high school may require you to take it or leave it optional. We'd advise you to take it, as it could be a good practice test for the actual SAT. It will give you insight into the questions you can expect on the real college admission test.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized national test that helps a college board assess and compare their applicants. Much like the PSAT test, it consists of 4 sections. The only difference is it also has the “optional essay” section, but more on that later.

Unlike the PSAT or PSAT/NMSQT, the College Board SAT test can’t get you the National Merit, even if you’re in the top 1% of students who took the test.

The SAT Is the Real College Entrance Test

The SAT consists of two sections: math and evidence-based reading and writing. There’s a third section that includes the optional essay.

Here’s a quirk about the SAT test: all questions have multiple choice answers. The only exceptions are 17 in-grid questions in the math units. Because the PSAT should resemble the SAT, it follows the same pattern. Most questions are multiple-choice, which does give you a bit of room for lucky guesses.

However, not many students take their chances. You shouldn’t either. Though your test scores may not be the most important thing, your dream college will probably require you to submit yours and compare you to other applicants based on how well you did. Visit this link to learn how many times can you take the SAT.

Is the PSAT Test Easier Than the SAT?

Exam Papers on Table

Based on most high school students’ experience with both tests, the SAT is generally harder than the PSAT. There are three key differences between the two tests and they influence the level of difficulty of each. We’ll go through them one by one.

  • Subject coverage

The SAT and PSAT/NMSQT cover more or less the same subjects. Both have a writing and language section and two math sections. You’re allowed to use your calculator during only one math section on both tests. This section is usually labeled with “CALC” and lasts longer than the one without the calculator (55 minutes on the SAT and 45 minutes on the PSAT).

However, the PSAT is slightly more manageable than the SAT because students usually take it a year before, mostly in their 10th high school grade. Thus, the subjects' range and depth the PSAT covers are narrower than the range and depth the SAT covers.

Recommended Article: What Are the Easiest SAT Subject Tests to Self-Study? 

  • Essay

The PSAT/NMSQT has no essay section, while the SAT has an optional essay section. This makes the PSAT slightly easier than the SAT. Most students who take the essay on their SAT usually do so because it's part of a college board's requirements. If you take the SAT essay, you'll get an additional 50 minutes to write it, which increases the test duration to 230 minutes in total.

This means you'll be working on your SAT test for almost 4 hours! That's a huge bite. It'd be wise to decide whether you'll take the optional essay early on so that you can work on increasing your attention span and building endurance ahead of time.

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Test Length and Time

Without the essay, the SAT is only 15 minutes longer. With the essay, though, you're looking at extra 50 minutes. We've already briefly discussed the duration of the SAT. Together with the optional essay, the length of the test is 230 minutes in total. If you choose not to take the essay, you'll have 180 minutes to finish.

You'll also have limited time per each section. You get 100 minutes for writing and language sections. The time is split between writing (35 minutes) and reading (65 minutes). You also get 80 minutes in total for the two math sections, 25 minutes for the math with the calculator section, and 55 minutes for the math without the calculator section.

The PSAT test is shorter. The total duration of the test is 165 minutes. The time is again split between several sections. In total, you get 95 minutes for writing and language sections. The time is split between writing (35 minutes) and reading (60 minutes).

For the two math sections, you get a maximum of 70 minutes split between math with the calculator (25 minutes) and without the calculator (45 minutes).

When it comes to the number of questions you’ll get, the SAT test is a bit more comprehensive. It contains a total of 154 questions, while the PSAT has only 139 questions[2]. The majority of these questions are multiple-choice.

The SAT has 58 math questions and 96 writing and reading questions:

Reading 52 questions
Writing 44 questions
Math (no calc) 20 questions
Math (calc) 38 questions

Overview of the SAT questions

The PSAT has 48 questions in the two math sections and 92 writing and reading questions:

Reading 48 questions
Writing 44 questions
Math (no calc) 17 questions
Math (calc) 31 questions

Overview of the PSAT/NMSQT questions

Keep in mind that you can also write an essay if you’re taking the SAT. If you do, you’ll have one additional question to answer.

  • Scoring

You’ll get a score for both tests—but not on the same scale, which makes comparing your scores a bit harder. The SAT is scored on a 400-1600 scale, while the PSAT is scored on a scale from 320 to 1520.

The PSAT/NMSQT scores are based on your scores in two sections: evidence-based reading and writing and math (with and without the calculator). You can get a maximum of 760 points for each section, while each subsection can get you up to 38 points. When it comes to the SAT test, each section can contribute a maximum of 800 points.

The level of difficulty is similar but, generally, the PSAT/NMSQT is slightly less challenging. This means the score you get on your PSAT test could be somewhat higher than the score you’d get on the SAT.

Which Test Should I Take: the PSAT or the SAT?

Take both. Comparing PSAT vs SAT is like comparing apples to oranges. Both tests are important but for different reasons.

The PSAT Will Help You Get the Right Score

Getting into the college you want isn’t exactly easy. The SAT is a complex and comprehensive test, so you want to come prepared. Most students take the PSAT to practice writing the SAT. Look at the questions, learn what they’re about, and learn how to work under pressure.

Besides that, your PSAT score is a good indicator of your future SAT score. Though converting your PSAT score to a score you’d get on the SAT is a bit tricky, the percentage of your correct answers on the PSAT could tell you how ready you are for the SAT. Hopefully, though, you’ll be able to take the SAT a few months later and get an even better score with a bit of good ol’ test prep. You can find great SAT prep books here.

4 Tips On How to Prepare for Both the PSAT and SAT tests

Studying and writing on a table

To get the scores you need for your dream college, you need a plan. How will you achieve your goals? Here are several things you should consider before taking both tests.

1. Develop a healthy study schedule.

Don’t work harder—work smarter. Instead of studying day and night a few weeks before the test, spread your study sessions across a few months. Students usually do better on tests if they let their brains absorb the study material.

To make sure you’re on the right track and meeting your deadlines, make a study schedule. Plan out your milestones and when you need to hit them.

Then work your way back from there—how much work do you need to put in to get to those milestones? How many hours of studying per day? Ideally, you’d want to study for no longer than 60 minutes a day for the SAT, as you’ll have other schoolwork to do during your test prep.

2. Enroll in a review course.

Students often enroll in SAT review courses because it gives them structure and discipline. Their study plan is all mapped out and they get the help of professional tutors who know their stuff. You might consider enrolling in a course yourself, especially if your dream college has strict or rather ambitious requirements.

3. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice taking the tests. You can easily find examples of both the PSAT and SAT online and try them out for free. This will give you a chance to understand the questions better when you encounter them on the actual test.

“Prepare! Find out as much information as you can about the test. Knowing the format, number and types of questions can help a student mentally if you know what to expect and have prepared for it.”


- Buffy Ruffin, Coordinator of the Learning Assistance Center[3]

4. Take breaks.

A good rule of thumb many students use during their SAT prep is studying for up to 35 minutes in one take. Much like spreading your studying across a few months, taking frequent breaks helps your brain refocus and learn faster.

Take a longer break (15 minutes) every hour and use it to stretch your body—or even squeeze in a quick exercise.

Wrapping Up:

To answer a common students’ question: yes, the SAT is slightly harder than the PSAT. And that means you should take them both. Think of the PSAT as a prep test that will help you get a better final score on the SAT and choose the college you want to attend. Don’t get tricked by the seemingly easy multiple choice questions as that’s the advantage all the other students will have too.

Your goal is to get better scores, as it’s precisely the other students your college will compare you to when reviewing your submission.


  1. https://www.studypoint.com/ed/national-merit-scholarship-qualifications/
  2. https://blog.collegeboard.org/difference-between-sat-and-psat#:~:text=The%20Difference%20Between%20the%20SAT%20and%20PSAT-Related%20Assessments%3A%20Content,the%20students%20taking%20the%20exam.&text=The%20PSAT-related%20assessments%20do%20not%20have%20an%20essay%20section
  3. https://www.mometrix.com/blog/20-testing-experts-share-their-favorite-test-taking-tips/

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