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PSAT Reading Study Guide & Testing Strategy

18 min readjanuary 12, 2021

Jane Zhao


PSAT ✏️

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PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10: Reading Section

Welcome to the PSAT reading guide! Here, we'll go over what this section tests and provide you with some strategies to help you earn that AMAZING score!! 🎉

What are the PSAT Sections? 🤔

There are 4 sections on the PSAT, which are:
  1. Reading Test 📚
  2. Writing and Language Test 📝
  3. Math Test - Calculator 🧮
  4. Math Test - No Calculator ➗
Depending on the individual, students will find the reading section to be more difficult or less difficult. But don't worry, we'll guide you through the process!

Logistics 📊

The Reading section measures a range of reading skills such as Command of Evidence and Words in Context (we'll go into these later). There are a total of 47 multiple choice questions to be answered in 60 minutes. This amounts to about 76 seconds per question, not counting the time it takes for you to read the passages.
Information graphics, such as tables, graphs, and charts, accompany some passages. 📈
The Reading Test always includes 4 single passages and 1 pair, with 500-750 words per passage or paired set. You will see:
  • One passage from a classic or contemporary work of US or world literature.
  • One passage or a pair of passages from either a US founding document or a text in the Great Global Conversation they inspired (i.e. the US Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela).
  • A selection about economics, psychology, sociology, or some other social science.
  • Two science passages (or one passage and one passage pair) that examine foundational concepts and developments in earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics.
In summary, the passage types are:
  • US and World Literature: 1 passage; 9 questions, making up 20% of the test
  • History/Social Studies: 2 passages, or 1 passage and 1 pair, making up 40% of the test
  • Science: 2 passages, or 1 passage and 1 pair, making up 40% of the test

Types of Questions for PSAT Reading❓

In this section, you'll have a passage/passages on one side of the page and questions on the other side. Keep in mind that you may have to flip a page back and forth to refer back to the passage and/or read the question.
There are six categories of questions on the PSAT Reading section:
  1. Command of Evidence
  2. Words in Context
  3. Analysis in History/Social Studies and Science
  4. Information and Ideas
  5. Rhetoric
  6. Synthesis
Let's learn more about each section!

Command of Evidence

Questions testing this skill ask you to:
  • Find evidence in a passage (or pair of passages) that best supports the answer to a previous question or serves as the basis for a reasonable conclusion.
  • Identify how authors use evidence to support their claims.
  • Find a relationship between an informational graphic and the passage it’s paired with.
Here's a Command of Evidence question you may see on the test:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-tkGqG1pTN83j.png?alt=media&token=f3ccf6d5-7d03-40ae-b7ab-8d22b1dbb42e

Courtesy of Khan Academy.

Words in Context

Questions testing this skill focus on important, common words and phrases that you'll find across subjects and ones that you'll use throughout your future. You will be tested on your ability to:
  • Use context clues in a passage to figure out which meaning of a word or phrase is being used.
  • Decide how an author's word choice shapes meaning, style, and tone.
Here's a Words in Context question you may see on the test:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-w4Ox8k4Bw9nW.png?alt=media&token=2dff8a0f-543f-455d-98d6-70fa0a223bb5

Courtesy of Khan Academy.

Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science

Questions testing this skill assess your reading skills required to succeed in the fields of history, social studies, and science. For example, a passage about an experiment may ask questions that require you to:
  • Examine hypotheses.
  • Interpret data.
  • Consider implications.
Here's a potential question you will see on the test that assesses this skill:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-zpBKDPHW8ij2.png?alt=media&token=3dc68e45-1223-4581-b246-a37095ba4db6

Courtesy of Khan Academy.

Information and Ideas

Questions on information and ideas focus on the informational content provided in the passages. You will be assessed on your ability to:
  • Understand explicit and implicit meaning of text and extrapolate, or extend, beyond thee information and ideas in a text to new and analogous situations.
  • Find the evidence within a passage that best supports a particular conclusion.
  • Determine the central idea(s) or theme(s) in a passage.
  • Summarize a passage or its key information and ideas.
  • Trace cause-effect, compare-contrast, or sequential relationships in a passage.
  • Determine the meaning of a word or phrase as it is used in context.
A question testing Information and Ideas may look like:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-ktAjYC61CPUy.png?alt=media&token=3f343a84-d065-42d4-bb34-6998c13df744

Courtesy of CollegeBoard.

Rhetoric

Questions testing rhetorical analysis of text ask you to analyze the way an author uses word choice, structure, and other techniques to create a desired effect. You will have to consider rhetorical concerns like:
  • How an author's selection of words and phrases shapes the meaning and tone of a passage.
  • How a passage is structured.
  • The effect of point of view or perspective on the content and style of a passage and the way in which the passage is written.
  • The main purpose of a passage or a particular paragraph in a passage.
  • An author’s construction of an argument.
Try out this PSAT question that testes your rhetoric skills:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-6L7DjFHtwKrz.png?alt=media&token=0e8c69a6-40f6-4d73-bbea-a8b1df149e2a

Courtesy of CollegeBoard.

Synthesis

Questions testing synthesis skills ask you to draw connections between two sources. You will be asked to:
  • Analyze two different but related passages to answer questions that require close reading skills, command of evidence, an understanding of the author’s craft, and other skills covered in Information and Ideas and Rhetoric.
  • Analyze quantitative information in an accompanying graph, table, chart, or other graphic. They’ll need to interpret the data (though no mathematical calculations will be necessary) and relate those data to the information and ideas presented in the passage.
See if you can answer this Synthesis question:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-K254XOHZxlGY.png?alt=media&token=bc96498f-3e4f-4d72-9792-ace2c692db4c

Courtesy of CollegeBoard.

Standards are taken from the PSAT website.

Testing Strategy for PSAT Reading 💡

Here are some basic strategies you can use to help you!

1. Break it Down

  • Engage with the text: Actively read the passages to help you better understand the information.
  • Annotate passages and questions: Write notes to yourself in the margins. Cross out "fluff," or those filler sections, circle or box important terms or phrases, and mark out places you need to reread or come back to.

2. Manage Your Time

  • Pace yourself: Check the clock to make sure you're on track. Take a few practice tests beforehand and determine which passages are the easiest and hardest for you. Some people prefer to knock out the harder ones and leave the easier ones for the end, or vice versa.
  • Answer EVERY question: There is no penalty for guessing, so take advantage of this!!
  • Bubbling: If you're the type of person to run through the test and then go back through to bubble, give yourself adequate time to bubble everything. Don't be rushed when you're bubbling, as this can lead to careless mistakes.

3. Keep Moving

  • Move on: You won't know everything, and that's completely okay! Take a breather and skip questions you don't know. Save them for later and finish the ones you do know.

PSAT Reading Practice Passage! 📝

Here's a brief, 5-question sample passage from CollegeBoard's sample questions. The passage content is categorized under US/World Literature, so note how difficult you find this type of content! Find the answer key at the bottom.

Reading Passage

This passage is adapted from Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome, originally published in 1911. Mattie Silver is Ethan’s household employee.
Mattie Silver had lived under Ethan’s roof for a year, and from early morning till they met at supper he had frequent chances of seeing her; but no moments in her company were comparable to those when, her arm in his, and her light step flying to keep time with his long stride, they walked back through the night to the farm. He had taken to the girl from the first day, when he had driven over to the Flats to meet her, and she had smiled and waved to him from the train, crying out, “You must be Ethan!” as she jumped down with her bundles, while he reflected, looking over her slight person: “She don’t look much on housework, but she ain’t a fretter, anyhow.” But it was not only that the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth. The girl was more than the bright serviceable creature he had thought her. She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will.
It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most intensely the sweetness of this communion. He had always been more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty. His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder: that at his side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was a creature to whom he could say: “That’s Orion down yonder; the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones—like bees swarming—they’re the Pleiades...” or whom he could hold entranced before a ledge of granite thrusting up through the fern while he unrolled the huge panorama of the ice age, and the long dim stretches of succeeding time. The fact that admiration for his learning mingled with Mattie’s wonder at what he taught was not the least part of his pleasure. And there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to him once: “It looks just as if it was painted!” it seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul....
As he stood in the darkness outside the church these memories came back with the poignancy of vanished things. Watching Mattie whirl down the floor from hand to hand he wondered how he could ever have thought that his dull talk interested her. To him, who was never gay but in her presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference. The face she lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw him, always looked like a window that has caught the sunset. He even noticed two or three gestures which, in his fatuity, he had thought she kept for him: a way of throwing her head back when she was amused, as if to taste her laugh before she let it out, and a trick of sinking her lids slowly when anything charmed or moved her.
1. Over the course of the passage, the main focus of the narrative shifts from the
A. reservations a character has about a person he has just met to a growing appreciation that character has of the person’s worth.
B. ambivalence a character feels about his sensitive nature to the character’s recognition of the advantages of having profound emotions.
C. intensity of feeling a character has for another person to the character’s concern that that intensity is not reciprocated.
D. value a character attaches to the wonders of the natural world to a rejection of that sort of beauty in favor of human artistry.
2. In the context of the passage, the author’s use of the phrase “her light step flying to keep time with his long stride” (line 5) is primarily meant to convey the idea that
A. Ethan and Mattie share a powerful enthusiasm.
B. Mattie strives to match the speed at which Ethan works.
C. Mattie and Ethan playfully compete with each other.
D. Ethan walks at a pace that frustrates Mattie.
3. The description in the first paragraph indicates that what Ethan values most about Mattie is her
A. fitness for farm labor.
B. vivacious youth.
C. receptive nature.
D. freedom from worry.
4. Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?
A. Lines 1-7 ("Mattie...farm")
B. Lines 7-14 ("He had...anyhow")
C. Lines 14-16 ("But it...hearth")
D. Lines 18-22 ("She had...will")
5. The author includes the descriptions of the sunset, the clouds, and the hemlock shadows (lines 51–54) primarily to
A. suggest the peacefulness of the natural world.
B. emphasize the acuteness of two characters' sensations.
C. foreshadow the declining fortunes of two characters.
D. offer a sense of how fleeting time can be.

Answer key 🔑

CollegeBoard generally provides detailed explanations to justify the correct answer to a question, which we've included below. When you grade your practice, be sure to read the explanations! They'll help you understand how you should be approaching a question and help you improve! We've also included the question difficulty, passage complexity, and objective of the question, all courtesy of CollegeBoard.
1. C
  • Choice C is the best answer. The first paragraph traces the inception of Ethan's feelings for Mattie: Ethan "had taken to the girl from the first day" (line 7) and saw her as "like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth" (line 16). The second paragraph (lines 23-58) focuses on "their night walks back to the farm" and Ethan's elation in perceiving that "one other spirit...trembled with the same touch of wonder" that characterized his own (line 35). In other words, the main focus of the first two paragraphs is the intensity of feeling one character, Ethan, has for another, Mattie. The last paragraph shifts the focus of the passage to Ethan's change in perception; he sees Mattie in a social setting interacting with other men, wonders "how he could have ever thought that his dull talk interested her" (line 62), interprets her seeming happiness as "plain proof of indifference" toward him (line 65), and sees betrayal in the "two or three gestures which, in his fatuity, he had thought she kept for him" (line 69).
  • Choice A is not the best answer because while Ethan acknowledges that Mattie "don't look much on housework" (line 13), the first paragraph also notes that Ethan "had taken to the girl from the first day" (line 7), and there is thus no support for the notion that Ethan's "reservations" about Mattie lasted for any length of time or ever constitute the main focus of the narrative.
  • Choice B is not the best answer because while Ethan does exhibit ambivalence about his sensitive nature, seeing it as a "mournful privilege" (line 35), the main focus of the narrative does not shift to his recognition of the advantages of having profound emotions. Indeed, in the last paragraph Ethan's profound emotions give him only grief, as he sees Mattie seemingly rejecting him.
  • Choice D is not the best answer because while the second paragraph (lines 23-58) does discuss in depth the value Ethan attaches to natural beauty, nothing in the passage signifies that he has rejected natural beauty in favor of human artistry. The closest the passage comes to this is in lines 54-58, in which Mattie is said to have likened a natural scene to a painting.
Question Difficulty: Medium
Passage Complexity: Higher
Objective: Students must describe the overall structure of a text.
2. A
  • Choice A is the best answer. The author uses the phrase mainly to introduce a topic discussed at length in the second paragraph (lines 23–58)—namely, the growing connection Ethan sees himself forming with Mattie over the course of many evening walks during which they share similar feelings for the wonders of the natural world. In the context of the passage, the phrase evokes an image of two people walking eagerly and in harmony.
  • Choice B is not the best answer because while the phrase literally conveys Mattie’s attempts to keep up with Ethan’s pace, the phrase relates to times of leisure during which Ethan and Mattie walked arm-in-arm (see lines 1–7) rather than times of work. Moreover, the phrase is used primarily in a figurative way to suggest shared enthusiasm (see explanation for choice A).
  • Choice C is not the best answer because while the phrase literally describes Mattie’s attempts to keep up with Ethan’s pace, the context makes clear that Mattie and Ethan are not in competition with each other but rather enjoying times of leisure during which the two walk arm-in-arm (see lines 1–7). The phrase is instead used primarily in a figurative way to suggest shared enthusiasm (see explanation for choice A).
  • Choice D is not the best answer because while the phrase could in isolation be read as conveying some frustration on the part of Mattie, who had to expend extra effort to keep up with Ethan’s pace, the context makes clear that Mattie is not annoyed with Ethan but is instead enjoying times of leisure during which the two walk arm-in-arm (see lines 1–7). The phrase is instead used to suggest shared enthusiasm (see explanation for choice A).
Question Difficulty: Easy
Passage Complexity: Higher
Objective: Students must determine the main rhetorical effect of the author’s choice of words.
3. C
  • Choice C is the best answer. Lines 7–14 mention many of Mattie’s traits: she is friendly (“smiled and waved”), eager (“jumped down with her bundles”), easygoing (“she ain’t a fretter”), and energetic (“like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth”). However, the trait that appeals most to Ethan, as suggested by it being mentioned last in the paragraph, is her openness to the world around her: “She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will” (lines 18–22).
  • Choice A is not the best answer because the passage suggests that Ethan does not actually view Mattie as particularly well suited to farm labor. When first seeing Mattie, Ethan thinks to himself, after “looking over her slight person,” that “she don’t look much on housework” (lines 12–13).
  • Choice B is not the best answer because the passage suggests that Mattie’s youth is not what Ethan values most about Mattie. Although the passage does note that “the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth” (lines 14–16), the narrator goes on to note that “the girl was more than the bright serviceable creature [Ethan] had thought her” (lines 16–18), indicating that Ethan values something more in Mattie than simply her vivacity.
  • Choice D is not the best answer because although Ethan acknowledges that Mattie “ain’t a fretter” (line 13), there is no evidence that Mattie’s freedom from worry is what Ethan values most about Mattie. The first paragraph lists several positive traits that Mattie has, with the most emphasis being placed on her openness to the world around her (see explanation for choice C).
Question Difficulty: Easy
Passage Complexity: Higher
Objective: Students must characterize the relationship between two individuals described in the passage.
4. D
  • Choice D is the best answer. Lines 18–22 explain that Mattie “had an eye to see and an ear to hear: [Ethan] could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will.” In other words, Mattie is open, or receptive, to ideas and experiences. These lines thus serve as the best evidence for the answer to the previous question.
  • Choice A is not the best answer because lines 1–7 only describe Ethan and Mattie’s living situation and indicate that Ethan enjoys walking with her in the evenings. They do not indicate which quality of Mattie’s Ethan values most. These lines thus do not serve as the best evidence for the answer to the previous question.
  • Choice B is not the best answer because lines 7–14 only indicate Ethan’s first impression of Mattie. Mattie comes across as generally friendly and enthusiastic in their first encounter, but it is not these qualities that Ethan values most. These lines thus do not serve as the best evidence for the answer to the previous question.
  • Choice C is not the best answer because lines 14–16 only convey that there was something special about Mattie beyond her friendliness and enthusiasm. They do not indicate what quality of Mattie’s Ethan values most. These lines thus do not serve as the best evidence for the answer to the previous question.
Question Difficulty: Easy
Passage Complexity: Higher
Objective: Students must determine which portion of the passage provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question.
5. B
  • Choice B is the best answer. Lines 48–51 indicate that “there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew [Ethan and Mattie] together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow.” In the context of the second paragraph (lines 23–58), which focuses on the connection Ethan and Mattie establish through their shared interest in and sensitivity to nature, the descriptions primarily serve to emphasize the acuteness, or intensity, of the characters’ sensations. According to the passage, Ethan and Mattie do not merely appreciate nature or see it as pretty or calm; rather, they experience a powerful “shock of silent joy” when in the presence of natural beauty.
  • Choice A is not the best answer because there is no indication that the descriptions are included primarily to emphasize the peacefulness of the natural world. Some readers may see “the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow” (lines 51–54) as evoking a peaceful, harmonious scene. However, Ethan and Mattie do not merely appreciate nature or see it as pretty or calm; rather, they experience a powerful “shock of silent joy” (line 50) when in the presence of natural beauty.
  • Choice C is not the best answer because there is no evidence in the passage that the descriptions are included primarily to foreshadow Ethan’s and Mattie’s declining fortunes. In fact, there is no evidence in the passage of decline for either character apart from the agitation that Ethan experiences over his relationship with Mattie.
  • Choice D is not the best answer because there is no evidence in the passage that the descriptions are included primarily to offer a sense of time as fleeting. In fact, the speed at which time passes plays no particular role in the passage.
Question Difficulty: Medium
Passage Complexity: Higher
Objective: Students must analyze the relationship between a particular part of a text and the whole text.

Final Words 🎉

That's everything you need to master the reading section of the PSAT! Be sure to keep practicing and drilling and go ACE that test with confidence! Even though you are MORE than your scores! 💖
I know you'll do great! 😉

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