The PSAT at a Glance

Soon many juniors will begin their college testing process by sitting for the PSAT. Below are short descriptions of the sections and some general strategies to help students score their best.

Test Taking Tips

  • Get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast!
  • Wear a watch to track your time. Some testing rooms have the clock on the back wall, or no clocks at all.
  • There is no guessing penalty on the PSAT, so answer all of the questions.


  • Passages: 5
  • Questions: 47
  • Time Allotted: 60 minutes
  • Strategies:
    • Start with the passage that seems the most interesting to you; save the 19th century passage for last, since these tend to be the hardest.
    • For the paired passages, read Passage 1 and answer those questions. Next, read Passage 2 and answer the rest of the questions.
    • Some questions will be paired: a question will ask for evidence to support the previous question. For these questions, look at the evidence first, and use that to choose the correct answer.

Writing and Language

  • Passages: 4
  • Questions: 44
  • Time Allotted: 35 minutes
  • Strategies:
    • The PSAT emphasizes on making choices in context, and it is important to read the whole passage.
    • Mouthing the words as you read can help you determine what sounds right.
    • Simple answers are good answers. Choose answers with fewer commas and simple sentence structure


  • Questions:
    • 17 without a calculator (13 multiple choice, 4 grid-in)
    • 31 (27 multiple choice, 4 grid-in)
  • Time Allotted:
    • 25 minutes without a calculator
    • 35 minutes with a calculator
  • Strategies:
    • Math on the PSAT is mostly word problems. Try drawing pictures or listing information given to you in the lengthy questions to help make it make sense.
    • The math test increases with difficulty as you move through the section, but it resets when you get to the grid-in questions. If you are low on time, guess on the last few multiple choice questions, and get points from the easier grid-in questions.

Some families aren’t sure if they should sign up for the PSAT. The most common justification for taking the PSAT is the fact that it is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. While this is indeed a potential benefit for a small subset of testers, the PSAT is also a low-stakes opportunity for a student to experience the type of standardized testing that your student will have to navigate as part of their admissions process, which is wholly different than anything they’ve done in school. Through this experience, students can get an idea of what the SAT will look like and begin to determine whether it’s worthwhile to explore the ACT as an alternative.

SAT or ACT? – Shedding Light on the Tests

The biggest challenge that students who take the SAT will face is the relative newness of the test: there are fewer practice tests, fewer certainties, and a certain lack of sophistication in the test prep process. The ACT has stayed more or less the same for years, giving students more material to review, but many families aren’t familiar with this test. So which test should we take?


Students with strong verbal skills will likely excel on either test; however, the ACT demands fast, superficial reading while the SAT aims for deeper reading. The SAT reading material is generally more difficult–many tests include a classic literature passage (think Jane Eyre or Charlotte Brontë) or other dense reading material–but students get significantly more time to complete the test. On the ACT, passages are modern and three out of four passages are straightforward with questions that mainly ask for fact recall, but many students find the timing difficult.

Grammar and Language

Both tests have similar grammar sections. As with all aspects of the ACT, the timing is more difficult on the English test, but it is a good fit for students with a good understanding of punctuation rules. The SAT Writing and Language test has slightly more emphasis on tone matching, vocabulary, and word choice, which can be difficult for some students. Due to the similarities between the two tests, the grammar section is usually not a deciding factor for most students.


While there is significant overlap on the math tests, there are some key differences in terms of timing, content, and approach for each test. The ACT Math favors students who can remember a lot of math, from Pre-Algebra and Geometry to Algebra 2 and even a little Pre-Calculus, and perform that math quickly and accurately. Good mental math skills can save time on the ACT, but they are a must on the SAT, which now includes a portion of the test to be completed without a calculator. The SAT provides some formulas, gives students more time, and focuses mostly on Algebra. Data analysis appears in the math section in the form of statistics questions on the SAT Math, which many students haven’t seen yet. In general, the questions are more context driven, asking students to interpret the meaning of a linear equation instead of simply solving it. Many students find that they need more practice with the somewhat more abstract math and multi-step word problems on the SAT, but it is not insurmountable. Students with a strong, fundamental understanding of Algebra 1 and 2 who need a little more time to demonstrate their potential should consider the SAT; students with a surface-level understanding of Geometry and Algebras 1 and 2 who can move quickly through math problems might find that the ACT is a better fit for them.

Data Analysis

Both tests will ask students to analyze graphs and data for trends, extrapolate data, predict outcomes of additional experiments, and evaluate experiment design, but in slightly different ways. The SAT has incorporated these skills into each section of the test. Reading and Writing and Language passages will include graphs at the end; the math test will have data tables and ask questions about random sampling and statistics. There is less science content on the SAT, which benefits some students, but it requires students to be more flexible in moving from reading comprehension to data analysis and back. The ACT has a separate Science test, which is daunting to students at first, but can be learned. Students who are good at reading graphs will do well on the ACT Science test, but the Science section should not be the only reason that a student chooses the SAT.


Overall, the ACT has difficult timing and straightforward questions but it also moves quite quickly. For this reason, students with extended time often find the ACT to be a better fit. Please note, however, that the ACT is notoriously stringent in evaluating student applications for extended time. The SAT, while generous with timing, focuses on whether or not students truly understand a concept.  While the test styles can be generalized and simplified, this decision must be made on a case-by-case basis. A great first step is to take a diagnostic test of each. Open Door Education proudly offers free proctored tests every weekend; to sign up, visit our website or call us directly. We are here to help families make this important choice and we are always happy to discuss a student’s testing options.