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It’s not just the “P”: Differences between the PSAT and SAT, Part Two


The SAT is longer than the PSAT. MUCH longer. The PSAT comprises 5 sections, four of which are 25 minutes and one of which is 30 minutes. That amounts to a testing time of 130 minutes, or 2 hours and 10 minutes. (There are also 6 minutes of breaks on the PSAT, one 5-minute break after section 2, and one 1-minute break after section 4).

The SAT, on the other hand, comprises 10 sections (yes, 10). There are seven 25-minute sections, two 20-minute sections, and one 10-minute section for a grand total of 225 minutes, or three hours and 45 minutes. With the three 5-minute breaks, the total testing time on the SAT is 4 hours, nearly an hour and 45 minutes or 80% longer than the PSAT.

Add to the above information the fact that the check-in process and information gathering portion of the SAT is much more time-consuming and complex than those of the PSAT, and you see an even greater disparity. All students take the PSAT at their own schools, where teachers and staff know who they are. Although many students do take the SAT at their own schools, many of them do not, either because their school is not an official test center or because a different testing center is closer to their homes. Therefore, on SAT day, IDs need closer scrutiny, students need more time and information to find their testing rooms, and proctors often have to give more information about rules and regulations.

All of this additional administrative time means students are looking at a nearly 5-hour testing day from arrival to departure. (By the way, students are asked to arrive at the SAT test center no later than 7:45; actual testing usually doesn’t start until 8:30 to 9:00. If everything goes smoothly, students are usually released anywhere from 12:30 to 1:00.)

So what’s the point of all of this? Again, the SAT is LONG, much longer than the PSAT and nearly every other test high school students take. Even grueling AP exams and finals rarely exceed 3 hours. Students are not used to exercising their brains on challenging material for 5 nearly uninterrupted hours! For this reason alone, scores on the SAT are likely to be markedly lower than on the PSAT because of the increased fatigue, antsiness, and frustration students are likely to feel.


The vast majority of the material of the material and concepts tested on the PSAT are identical to those on the SAT. In fact, the critical reading and- for the most part- the writing sections on the PSAT are interchangeable with those on the SAT. So, if anyone tells you that the SAT contains harder material than the PSAT, they are wrong, with one or two exceptions, as discussed below.

There are a few math concepts tested on the SAT that are not included on the PSAT, and most of them pertain to Algebra II (basically, the SAT will include more advanced functions questions). The reason ETS and College Board do not test these concepts on the PSAT is that many students may not have covered them in their high school math classes by the time they take the PSAT in October of their junior year.

Despite the fact that the concepts excluded from the PSAT are more advanced, this slight difference will probably not make too much of an impact on a student’s score. After all, it will impact only a small number of questions.


With the exception of the essay, the question types on both tests are IDENTICAL! For instance, on both tests, the critical reading sections are composed of a set of sentence completions followed by a set of passage-based reading questions.

Now, how might the inclusion of the essay on the SAT affect your writing score? Well, if you are a student who has a very good grasp of the grammar rules (i.e., you can identify common errors in other people’s writing and can therefore perform relatively well on the multiple-choice writing questions), but you are not as good at actually writing a well-crafted, cohesive, relatively error free essay in 25-minutes, your SAT overall writing score is probably going to be dragged down by your essay score and so you may see a dip from your PSAT score. If, on the other hand, you’ve never heard of pronoun case and parallelism but have still always managed to be a better than average essay writer, your essay score may actually improve your overall writing score.


The two 25-minute math and two 25-minute critical reading sections on the PSAT will be identical in structure to those on the SAT. The last section on the PSAT- the 30-minute, multiple choice writing section- is a bit longer than the SAT’s 25-minute, writing multiple choice section, and the questions are arranged and numbered a bit differently. But again, the question types and material tested on this writing section are identical to those on the SAT.


While the PSAT and SAT are in most ways similar, even identical, there are nevertheless important differences which make a simple PSAT to SAT score conversion somewhat more complicated than parents and students are led to believe. If you want a very rough idea of your SAT scores based on your PSAT results, you can use the general rule stated at the beginning of this post.

Finally, remember, many students do some kind of formal preparation in between the PSAT and the SAT, whether it be in a classroom course or with a private tutor. As long as you work hard throughout the prep process, and the process is consistent, focused, and conducted by an effective, knowledgeable tutor, there is every reason to be confident that your SAT scores can be considerably higher than your PSAT scores (unless, of course, you scored a 240 on the PSAT…don’t worry, neither did I).


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