Test Prep

Your PSAT Score Was Higher Than Your SAT? Check These 5 Possible Reasons Why

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You've checked, double checked and triple checked – but that score report isn't misleading you. Your SAT score really did turn out to be lower than your PSAT score was, and you didn't expect that. But don't be too hard on yourself – there are some pretty straightforward reasons that could explain this situation.

We spoke with Hanna Stotland, JD, an independent educational consultant, to find out what might have happened, along with tips on how to improve your score if you decide to retake the SAT before college applications are due.


1. You Were Overcome With Stress/Anxiety

You were told that the PSAT was just practice for the SAT, so when you took the PSAT, you didn't really feel like you were doing anything to stress about. It was just another day at school.

But on the day of the SAT, all you could think about was how this test score would be seen by all of your top college choices – and this interfered with your ability to stay calm and concentrate during the test.

“Some students, especially those who aren’t worrying about National Merit status, feel less worried about the PSAT than the SAT, and being less worried can translate into better performance,” says Stotland.

So how do you remove stress from the equation when you're taking the SAT -- the test that really counts? It can help minimize your worries by realizing that there are many excellent colleges that don’t require standardized tests at all. But knowing that you can take the test multiple times if you’re disappointed in your score can help, too, says Stotland. Just make sure to take your initial SAT early enough to give yourself that extra time for one or two more retakes.

You can also try some quick exercises on the morning of the test to relax yourself. Make sure you get up at  least an hour or two before the test so you aren't rushing. Try some jumping jacks, push ups or yoga stretches. Meditate with a meditation app, do breathing exercises in the shower and eat a healthy breakfast. During the test, when you feel yourself tense up, keep using those breathing exercises, or do some quick, random doodling to release your anxiety.

2. Your Forgot Certain Skills

When you took the PSAT, you may have been fresh out of a basic algebra class. You knew your stuff, and it was reflected in your high PSAT Math score. But by the time you took the SAT, you'd moved onto a more advanced math class and forgotten some of those simpler math skills. What you need to remember is that the SAT covers the same math skills as the PSAT – so even if you are grinding away in calculus class when you take the SAT, you still have to know how to apply basic algebra, geometry and trig formulas, since the SAT doesn't cover calculus.

3. You Ran Out of Energy

The one major difference between these two tests is that the SAT is a little longer. When you take the PSAT, you're in the test center for two hours and 55 minutes, with breaks. Not too terrible, right? The SAT, however, will keep you there for three hours and 15 minutes, including breaks, but if you take the Writing portion (essay), then you will be there for a total of four hours and seven minutes.

That's more than half a school day of pure concentration, sitting at the same desk. So unless you've taken several full-length practice SATs and tried to recreate the test center environment, you might not have realized how much more energy and focus you would need for the SAT in comparison to the PSAT.

Although the content of the tests will be essentially the same, “it’s always easier to do a shorter test,” Stotland points out. “Some students have a stamina problem. Students who know the material can run out of gas on a longer test, even if they have no trouble on a shorter test. Taking full-length practice tests at home is the best way to build stamina. Treat it like athletic training: Start slow and build up so that you’re used to a concentration marathon by test day.”

4. You Didn't Study

Maybe you didn't take the SAT so seriously because you thought it would be pretty similar to the PSAT, and well, you were quite happy with your PSAT score. So you didn't study, or you studied for a few hours or just a couple days during the week of the test. If your low score comes from lack of preparation, and not test anxiety, then make sure you put in the time and effort before you take the SAT again.

5. You Just Had A Bad Day

Stuff happens, things go wrong, and maybe you were just having one of those bad days on your test date. In that case, sign up for another test date, brush up on your skills, take another practice test and aim for that higher score!

Ultimately, keeping up your confidence is what will help you do the best while taking the SAT. Colleges don't care if you scored lower on the SAT than the PSAT because they don't care what your PSAT score is (outside of your qualification for a National Merit Scholarship).

To that end, Stotland recommends that students try to focus away from the relationship between the PSAT score and the SAT score.

“They are separate things. The relationship that matters is the one among your SAT score, the colleges you want to go to and the rest of your application. Is your SAT where you need it to be for admission, and perhaps merit scholarships, at the schools where you want to attend? If it is, then that is what matters for your SAT score. Your high school record is much more important to college admission than your test scores. Give the PSAT and SAT the amount of mental energy you need to in order to get YOUR best score, and then move on and focus on more interesting things,” she says.