Students and parents alike are seeking comparisons of the PSAT vs SAT difficulty levels whether or not the PSAT goes on your record. There seems to be a lot of confusion out there about the PSAT and we’ll lay it all out for you below so you can decide between the PSAT vs SAT. (Spoiler alert: the SAT is the best choice for most students.)
After a brief pause, conversations go one of four ways:
So, when a parent or student contacts us asking about PSAT prep, our first response is always the same:
Why are you taking the PSAT?
Every year we get inundated with calls asking for help prepping for the PSAT and whether or not the student should take the PSAT or the SAT. Our first response is always the same:
Why are you taking the PSAT?
After a brief pause, conversations go one of four ways:
I just want to see how I would do on the SAT.
Then why not take a practice SAT?
Let’s take a moment to compare the PSAT vs the SAT…
PSAT vs SAT
The PSAT and the SAT are different in format, duration, and difficulty, so the PSAT is actually not a good indicator of your SAT score.
The PSAT is shorter: it takes 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete the PSAT, compared to the SAT’s 3 hours and 15 minutes (4 hours if you take the test with the optional essay).
You might think that a minimum difference of only 30 minutes is no big deal, but this time difference is more significant than you might think.
One weakness that many students need to work on is their test-taking stamina. Taking such a long test in a single sitting is mentally and physically taxing, which is why we always recommend that our students take multiple proctored practice tests before their test date.
If you want to be technical, this time difference most noticeably affects the Math Calculator section, which is the final section of the test.
Keep in mind that the entire Math section makes up half of your final score on the SAT, and the Calculator section, that you end on, is weighed slightly heavier than the No-Calculator section. 30 minutes is only a little more than half of the total amount of time you have to take the Math Calculator section.
So you can see, even if the difference is only 30 minutes, that 30 minutes could be the difference between acing the math section and failing it.
PSAT vs SAT Difficulty
Furthermore, the PSAT asks fewer questions per section, and the average difficulty of those questions will be lower than on the SAT.
The PSAT will ask fewer questions on challenging topics such as geometry, statistics, and other additional math topics. And, because the PSAT Reading section asks fewer questions over a shorter amount of time without reducing the number of passages, the timing (arguably one of the most important factors in taking the Reading section) will be markedly different from the SAT.
The only exception to these differences is the Language and Writing section, where the number of questions and the testing time are the same in both the PSAT vs SAT.
But if your goal is to predict your SAT score, does it really make sense to take an entirely separate test when only one section is even close to being comparable to the SAT?
We don’t think so.
PSAT scores are best at predicting how you would do on the PSAT.
The best predictor of your SAT score is a practice SAT, which you can take for free, at your convenience, and without having a potentially weak score to freak you out.
I want to be a National Merit finalist.
In our view, this is the only good reason to take the PSAT. It is an excellent goal to strive for: it provides not only a scholarship opportunity but can also be a distinguishing feature on your college application.
However, when considering the PSAT for the National Merit Scholarship, it is important to be realistic.
A high enough score on the PSAT will get you the chance to become a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist, but remember that out of the over 1.4 million students who took this test in 2014, only 16,000 moved on to the Semifinalist level, and only 7,600 of those became Finalists.
To make matters even more challenging, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation chooses Semifinalists based on “a state-representational basis,” meaning that if you live in a densely populated state, such as California or New York, your chances of becoming a Semifinalist are that much slimmer.
Almost all of your competition in those states would be other students with either perfect or near-perfect scores, each vying for a relatively smaller number of semifinalist and finalist slots proportional to the total number of applicants.
Only you or your parents know your abilities, but if you don’t have a history of scoring in the top half-percent on all tests, especially if you live in a highly competitive state, then the PSAT will probably not be a rewarding experience.
That said, if you do think you have the ability to score exceptionally well on the PSAT, you shouldn’t let the difficult odds stop you from pursuing a Semifinalist or Finalist slot.
I want to get on college’s radars.
Instead of taking the PSAT, you should consider letting the College Board send out your SAT results.
This will accomplish the same thing and will avoid you having to prepare for the PSAT, while also allowing your scores to show up to colleges of your choice nearer the time you’ll be applying.
Learn why this is important in our guide, How To Get Into The Ivy League.
But if you are absolutely desperate to get on colleges’ radars earlier and you think the PSAT is the only way to do that, don’t forget that you can take the SAT as early as Freshman year of high school. (Learn more about this method in our SAT FAQ article.) It would, again, achieve the same result by sending out your PSAT scores, while also preparing you for a test that is actually useful in applying to colleges.
My school is making me.
A fun bit of advice:
Sleep through the test. History usually remembers peaceful protesters fondly.
Or you can be an overachiever if you want. We still don’t recommend spending any serious time or money on preparing for the PSAT. Those resources are better spent elsewhere.
Get recommendations on whether or not you should apply test-optional using CollegeVine’s free admissions calculator.
Even after we explain our thought process on the PSAT and why it is not worth investing time or money in for anyone who is not seriously pursuing a National Merit Scholarship, students and parents are still hesitant.
We usually hear some variation of the following two questions:
- What about colleges? Won’t they see my scores?
- Does the PSAT go on your record? Won’t having a bad score hurt my admissions chances?
The short answer is no.
The College Board does not send PSAT scores to colleges, and the scores are not meant to be considered in the admissions process. They will not be included in your transcript unless you or your parents expressly grant permission. What’s more, you are allowed to withhold scores from college admission and athletic offices, even if colleges ask for them.
The only organizations which are guaranteed to see your PSAT scores are your high school, your school district and state (in many cases), and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) which automatically forwards your scores to the National Hispanic Recognition Program, National Scholarship Service, and Telluride Seminar Scholarships.
Even if you decide to participate in the College Board’s Student Search Service, your scores will not be shared with colleges. Your score range may be shared but your actual score will not be.
Do PSAT scores go on your record?
Yes and no, but mostly no.
Yes, if you take the PSAT, you may have a weak score hanging about that your high school and the various other organizations we discussed above can see.
But, no, the PSAT doesn’t “go on your record” as your PSAT scores are not going to be added to your transcripts. Colleges will not be able to see the scores unless you want them to.
Even if you do share your PSAT scores with colleges and those scores are fantastic, those colleges will likely care more about your SAT and ACT scores anyway.
Similarly, having an excellent PSAT score will not be a bonus if you have lackluster SAT and ACT scores.
What Should I Do Instead of Taking The PSAT?
In the battle of the PSAT vs SAT, we think the SAT is the better test for most students.
In our article, PSAT Scores and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Scores: How to Make Sense of Them, we noted:
Powerful Prep has long held that the PSAT and its derivatives are over-hyped and distracting tests. As proxies for real SAT scores, PSAT scores are woefully off and largely unnecessary.
If you’d like to see what you would score on an SAT, then take an SAT in a practice setting. At best the PSAT will give you a ballpark estimate of your score, and at worst it will give you a false sense of security or dread.
We believe so strongly in this that we actually stopped offering PSAT test prep services back in 2015. Now, it is only under very certain circumstances that we will work with students to prepare for the PSAT, such as if the student is a strong candidate for a National Merit. Even then, it’s important that the PSAT studies do not detract from SAT test prep.
TL;DR? Here’s the PSAT vs SAT Recap:
We know you must be busy balancing test prep, extra-curricular activites, and studying. Not to worry! Let’s quickly recap the PSAT vs SAT recommendations we’ve discussed above.
- Among the three different types of PSATs, only the PSAT/NMSQT is worth taking seriously, as it is the only one that can qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship.
- We do not recommend the PSAT to anyone who does not have a serious chance of becoming a National Merit Scholarship Finalist or Semifinalist. We believe in this so much, outside of this circumstance, we have discontinued our PSAT prep services.
- If you are looking to see how you would do on the SAT, take a practice SAT rather than a PSAT. Your results will be more accurate, and it will give you a better taste of what the SAT is like.
- There are better ways to get on colleges’ radars than taking the PSAT. Taking the SAT test is one such option.
- Your PSAT scores do not go on your transcripts and, in most cases, colleges will not see them. A mediocre or even a bad PSAT score is not going to harm your chances at getting into college.
- Lastly, you can find additional PSAT resources at: PSAT Scores and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Scores: How to Make Sense of Them
Your time is precious and limited. The time you could spend practicing for and stressing about the PSAT is better spent practicing for the actual SAT, improving your GPA, or participating in noteworthy extracurriculars.
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