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What’s the Difference Between the SAT, ACT, & PSAT?

Last updated September 29, 2022

Curious about the difference between the PSAT, SAT, and ACT? While these standardized exams are intended to measure a student’s readiness for college, they don’t always perfectly or fairly capture their abilities, skills, or intelligence. A student’s test scores have long been a crucial part of their college applications, but many colleges and universities have gone test-optional or test-blind in response to COVID-19. This means that many will no longer take a student’s test scores into consideration when reviewing their applications.

There are definitely pros and cons to this: a pro is that colleges will now take a more comprehensive and in-depth look at a student’s application beyond their test scores. A con is that they may not consider or acknowledge a student’s high test scores, which may be a strength of their application.

The exams listed below may be optional for you to take as you prepare for college. Regardless of which you decide to take, here are some things you should know about them - how they’re structured, how much they cost to take, how they’re scored, and more. Here are the differences between the SAT, ACT, and PSAT.

PSAT

The PSAT is the practice version of the SAT. You can take it in the 10th and 11th grade. If you score well on your PSAT during your Junior year, you can also qualify for the National Merit Scholars program, which helps students fund their college education through scholarships. The PSAT is offered each year in October with registration through your school counselor. The test costs $16, but many school districts administer it for free. If your school doesn't offer it for free, the fee can be waived if you qualify for a fee waiver. Visit your school counselor to see if you qualify for one.

There are 3 tests within the PSAT: the Reading Test (60 minutes), Writing & Language test (35 minutes), and the Math test (70 minutes). You have a total test time of 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete it. You can get a score between 320 and 1520; the average score is between 920 and 1050. Scores are typically released online 4-6 weeks after taking the test.

Some schools may even offer the PSAT 8/9, which is taken by eighth and ninth graders to prepare them to learn about college and career readiness in high school.

SAT

The SAT is offered seven times a year; test dates are typically on the weekend. While it typically costs $60 to register for the exam, fee waivers are available to eligible students. These waivers cover both the cost of taking the exam and the cost of sending your scores to schools. Registration deadlines for the SAT are typically about a month before the test, so be sure to register early.

There are three required sections within the SAT: Writing and Language, Math, and Reading. You have a total test time of 3 hours. You can get a score between 400 and 1600; the average SAT score is between 1050 and 1060. Learn more about understanding and interpreting your SAT score here.

We recommend taking the SAT if:

  • You need a bit of extra time when reading. The SAT passages are slightly shorter than the ACT passages.
  • You can work through math problems without a calculator (since 1/2 of the SAT math section must be completed without a calculator).
  • You can explain your answers with evidence.

Studying for the SAT? Check out our list of free study resources!

person filling in a bubble on a scantron

ACT

The ACT is offered five times a year; test dates are typically on the weekend. The test costs $63 without the essay, $88 with the essay, and fee waivers are available based on income. These fee waivers cover both the cost of taking the exam, as well as the cost of sending your scores to schools. There are four required sections within the ACT: English, Math, Reading, Science, and the optional Essay section. Many schools don’t require the essay, so check admissions requirements of schools you are applying for. It could save you $$ and time! You have a total test time of 2 hours and 55 minutes, or 3 hours and 35 minutes with the essay. You can get a score between 1 and 36; the average ACT score is 21.

We recommend taking the ACT if:

  • You do well with time management.
  • You are comfortable with geometry and trigonometry.
  • You can analyze and interpret graphs and charts.

If you are having trouble deciding which test to take, talk with your counselor or a trusted educator about what test would be best for you based on your educational goals. You can also text #Hello to 33-55-77 to chat with one of our advisors.

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