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The difference between the SSAT, PSAT and SAT

Nov 2, 2020

Starting in elementary school, students are faced with a deluge of seemingly never-ending standardized tests, from state exams to national tests like the SSAT, PSAT, and SAT. How are these tests similar and different? Does studying for one help prepare students for another? Here are answers to common questions about three popular national exams — the SSAT, PSAT, and SAT — to help you guide your child through some of the major exams they’ll take in their K-12 years.

What is the SSAT?

The SSAT, or the Secondary School Admissions Test, is a test administered by the Enrollment Management Association that students in grades 3 to 11 take to gain admission to private schools. It’s administered at three levels: elementary, for students in grades 3 to 4; middle, for students in grades 5 to 7; and upper, for students in grades 8 to 11. Students take the test that corresponds to their current grade, not the grade to which they’ll be applying.

Why are there only 3 levels of the SSAT when students from grades 3 to 11 can take it?

Even though each level of the SSAT is taken by students across three different grades, students’ scores are calculated by comparing students’ performance only to that of other students of the same grade. By calculating scores within each grade, the SSAT helps admissions officers determine how advanced each student is compared to test-takers of the same grade. Since different school districts have different curricula and educators with different teaching styles, the SSAT is intended to help admissions officers compare students’ academic skills across school districts.

How does the SSAT compare to the PSAT and SAT?

Like the PSAT and SAT, the SSAT tests students’ verbal, reading, and math skills. However, since this exam is not designed by CollegeBoard — the organization that sponsors the PSAT and SAT — it tests some of these skills in different ways. For example, the verbal section of the SSAT consists entirely of vocabulary and analogy questions, which do not appear on the PSAT and SAT. Preparing for and taking the SSAT will help students get used to taking long exams under time pressure, but taking the SSAT will not directly prepare students for the PSAT or SAT, due to differences in content presentation across these exams.

Is it beneficial for my child to study for the SSAT if they are not applying to private schools?

In addition to being a good way to build test-taking stamina and time management skills, there are many other benefits of studying for the SSAT, even if students are not applying to private schools. For example, preparing for the SSAT will help students build good study habits and a solid foundation in core subjects: the verbal sections help improve students’ grammar and vocabulary, the reading section helps students develop critical thinking skills, and the quantitative section allows students to apply their mathematical knowledge to real-life situations and gives students the opportunity to think critically about how to navigate challenging problems.

What are the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT/NMSQT?

The PSAT, or the Preliminary SAT, is a test administered by CollegeBoard that students in grades 8, 9, 10, and 11 take for two main reasons: to earn a National Merit Scholarship and to prepare for the SAT. Students take different versions of this test depending on their grade. The PSAT 8/9 is designed to test the same skills and knowledge as the PSAT 10, PSAT/NMSQT, and SAT at a level that’s appropriate for students in grades 8 and 9. The PSAT 10 is geared towards students in grade 10, and the PSAT/NMSQT is designed for students in grade 11 who are competing to earn a National Merit Scholarship. We would recommend that students take this test for the first time in grade 8, as this will allow students the most time to prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT.

What are the similarities and differences between the PSAT and the SAT?

The SAT is slightly more difficult than the PSAT overall; however, CollegeBoard makes the PSAT to help prepare students for the SAT, so the content, structure, and style of questions on the two exams are very similar. For example, both tests have Evidence-Based Reading/Writing and Math sections, and neither test penalizes wrong answers. That being said, in addition to difficulty level, there are a few other key differences between the tests, as summarized in the chart below.

SAT Testing FAQs chart

Students can opt out of taking the PSAT and not go to school for a day. Is this advisable?

We highly recommend that students take the PSAT, especially if they are in grades 10 or 11. Students in grades 8 and 9 can opt out of the test; however, it would be beneficial for them to take the exam, as it will give them a head start on high school standardized tests.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is one of two standardized college admissions tests in the U.S. (the other is the ACT). The purpose of the SAT is to put students’ academic skills in context with those of students across the U.S. and abroad. While some schools have test-optional policies (especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic), most colleges require applicants to submit either SAT or ACT scores, so it’s important for students to take preparing for this exam seriously.

On average, how long do students prepare for the SAT? 

Most students take two to three months to prepare for the SAT/ACT and about the same amount of time to prepare for each SAT II Subject Test. Their exact timeline depends on factors such as how much time they can commit to test prep weekly, their academic skills, and the difference between their starting score and goal score. If students prepare by themselves, they should give themselves a longer time frame to study, as it may take longer for them to learn new topics and develop test-taking strategies on their own as compared to preparing with an expert.

Do students have to take both the SAT and the ACT?

No, colleges only require one of these exams and view both tests equally.