Because the PSAT/NMSQT is the precursor (forerunner) of the SAT, the exam you take in order to convince schools that you’re ready for college-level work, the passages in the critical reading sections reflect the variety and reading level of typical college freshmen courses. Here’s what to expect:

  • Passages ranging from 100 to 850 words. Generally you find two short passages, 100 to 150 words long, in each of the two critical reading sections. Short passages show up right after the sentence completions and may be separate or paired. Either way, the short passages merit a total of four questions. Longer passages may also be paired or appear solo. Expect six to twelve questions for longer passages.

  • Content from many disciplines. In this context, a discipline is a branch of learning, not the branch a cranky teacher would like to thwack on the heads of unruly (disorderly) students. You may run across science, social science, history, autobiography, biography, and fiction. Expect mostly modern writing, but generally each PSAT/NMSQT includes at least one and often a couple of older works from the 19th or early 20th century.

  • Varied purposes and styles. Some passages make an argument for a specific point of view, some tell a story, and others simply give information. The style may be flowery, terse (using as few words as possible to make a point), pompous (emphasizing the writer’s importance), or something else.

  • Questions that follow the order of the passage. In every other section of the test, questions appear in order of difficulty — the easiest first and the hardest last. Passage-based questions, however, move along from line to line.

    The first question asks about something at the beginning of the passage, and later questions concern material appearing towards the end. Questions that apply to the whole passage (tone or purpose, for example) pop up anywhere.

The questions are the usual, standardized-test fare (diet). The test-writers quiz you on the facts, what is implied but not stated, the meaning of words in the context of the passage, the author’s purpose and attitude, and so forth.

The questions aren’t the kind you ask in real life, when you say something like “Why didn’t George mow the lawn?” when George parks the lawnmower and turns on the television. Instead, PSAT/NMSQT questions are fancied up for the academic crowd, so that a normal query (question) becomes

George’s abandonment of the lawnmower may best be interpreted as which of the following?
(A) a strategy for avoiding manual labor
(B) a statement about human existence
(C) a plea for help
(D) a character flaw
(E) a rebellion against societal norms

Because this question is illustrating terminology and not working off a real passage, there is no correct answer to it. Your experience with human nature might push you toward Choice (A) — which brings up an important point. Life experience is great, but on the PSAT/NMSQT, stick with the passage. Everything you need to know is there, and no answer is correct unless you find evidence for it in the passage.

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