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Plan Your Approach to Passages on the PSAT/NMSQT

Thirty-five questions in the critical reading sections of the PSAT/NMSQT are based on passages, which is test-speak for a few paragraphs, usually sliced from a longer work, that are dropped into an exam so you can answer reading-comprehension questions about them.

You should plan your approach to passage-based questions and map the way to your goal, a high score in critical reading. Follow these steps:

  • Work on the passages in order. Don’t waste time flipping through the whole section. Start with the first passage and continue to the end. However, you may find that some passages are harder for you than others. If you run into a passage that may as well be written in Lithuanian (unless, of course, you know Lithuanian), skip it. You can always go back to the passage, time permitting.

  • For pairs, work on each passage separately and then on comparison/contrast questions. Generally, paired-passage questions divide into three parts: (1) questions about the first passage; (2) questions about the second passage; and (3) questions that compare or contrast the passages. Treat these as three distinct tasks.

  • Read the introduction first. A few sentences precede each passage or pair of passages. The test-writers always include directions that say something like “read the passage and answer Questions 9 through 12.” (What do they think you’re going to do? Shred Questions 9 through 12?)

    But look at those sentences anyway, because sometimes you find a golden nugget — identification of the source material. Occasionally, that information tips the scales toward one answer and away from another.

  • Read the questions. Don’t waste time glancing at the answer choices. Just look at the question stem, the part that sits above the A, B, C, D, and E choices. As you read, underline key words. Check out these questions, with the important words underlined:

    • In the context of Line 4, what is the best definition of “play”?

    • The tone of the passage may be characterized as . . .

  • Read and annotate the passage. Yes, some people advise you to read only a few lines here and there, just enough to find an answer. But on the PSAT/NMSQT, an answer isn’t good enough. You must bubble in the answer, and for that task, spotty reading doesn’t suffice (meet your needs).

    As you read, keep the questions in mind. When you run across something important, underline it. Working from the example in the preceding bullet point, underline “play” so you can find it quickly when you’re ready to answer the question about its meaning. Also underline and write a marginal note near any words that indicate the author’s tone. Don’t write much — maybe a quick “t” for “tone.”

    Underlining too many words is as useless as underlining none at all. The goal is to guide yourself to important ideas. Use your pencil sparingly (in a limited way).

  • Return to the questions and read the answer choices. Some answers leap out at you, especially if you’ve annotated the passage properly. For example, you may have underlined words that reveal irritation and opposition. When you see antagonistic as an answer choice in a tone question, you can confidently bubble it in.

  • Return to the passage as needed. Not every answer is obvious at first glance. Fortunately, the test-writers frequently direct you to a line or set of lines. Reread to find the answer.

  • Use the process of elimination. Of the five answer choices, you may see one or two that flash a neon “WRONG!” sign in your brain. Put a slash through those answers and concentrate on what’s left.

  • Look for specifics. Most PSAT/NMSQT questions provide two answers that could be correct. Your job is to go for the best answer, which is frequently the more specific.

    The answer to every passage-based question must be supported by something stated or implied in the passage. Think of yourself as a detective; without evidence, you’re sunk.

  • Keep an eye on the clock. With only a few minutes left, hit the questions that can be answered fast — vocabulary in context, a factual question attached to a specific line, and the like. Be sure to get to those questions before the proctor calls time.

  • Guess appropriately. Before test time, learn techniques for how to beat the odds by guessing.

The preceding bullet points outline a good, all-purpose approach — the test-prep equivalent of a suit from a department store. A little tailoring, though, may be a good idea. Think about your skills and academic habits. Are you a slow reader? Do you tend to agonize over particular types of questions (main idea or inference, perhaps)? Alter (change) these steps until you achieve a good fit.

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