How to Succeed on the PSAT Reading Exam

The PSAT Reading Exam is a 60-minute, 47-question reading comprehension test that is made up of five reading sections. 

Content Overview

The College Board assures that the Reading Test always includes:

  • One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature.
  • One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the Great Global Conversation they inspired (the U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela, for example).
  • 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.

You will be asked questions pertaining to Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Analysis in history, social studies and science, Data in graphs, charts or figures, and Inferences and Suggestions.

Test-Taking Strategies

We suggest you quickly preview the reading passages before you begin reading to see if you want to do them in chronological order, or if you prefer to do them in order of preference. What we’ve noted over the years is that students do better on the sections they like the most. So, if science is your interest, you may want to start there.  

What follows are 10 tips that will help you to increase your scores.  

  1. Never forget that in an evidence based test, the right answer restates what’s been stated in the text. Think of it as an open book test: all of the answers are stated in the text.
  2. Remind yourself that it’s never what you think the text stated, it’s what the text stated. Reading into the text is a good way to find a wrong answer. Can’t stress it enough, the reading section is a literal exam.
  3. When asked what a word means, let the text tell you what it means. “Excellent” could really be “disappointing” or “underachieving.” For example: The excellent coach who has yet to win a game in three seasons is the high school principal’s son. When asked what a word means on a specific line, make sure to read well beyond that line, often to the end of the paragraph. 
  4. When asked what a statement suggests or infers, swap those two words out for stated. Use deductive reasoning here. Based on what was stated, what can you conclude? Remember it’s an evidence based test. 
  5. Coupled questions: The first question in the couple does not have a line-reference and the second question asks you to identify the lines that provide the evidence to the previous question. Read the first question, ignore the answer choices, and look at the question directly below to find the lines that answer the question. Once that’s done, work your way back up to the previous question. 
  6. Line-reference questions: keep in mind to read above and below the lines that are referenced. 
  7. Interpreting charts, graphs, and figures: they’re often very different from what you’re used to seeing in school. Take the time to read them carefully and to figure out what the graph, figure or chart is trying to convey. Students often miss these because they do not fully grasp what the chart, graph or chart was communicating. 
  8. Paired passages: Read the first passage and then answer only questions pertaining to the first passage. Do the same for the second passage, and then do the comparison  questions. After you finish reading the first passage, note the author’s point of view. Do the same after you finish the second passage. Quick tip: The second passage often takes issue with the first passage. 
  9. Rely heavily on process of elimination. There are four answer choices, three of which are wrong. It’s easier to identify two out of four that are wrong than the one that is right. Once you’ve narrowed it down to two possible answer choices, it’s a true or false test. The answer choice is true because it was stated in the text, or it’s false because it was not stated. Process of elimination offers two ways to arrive at the right answer. 
  10. You have 12 minutes for each passage. If after a minute you cannot determine the right answer, pick an answer and move on. There is no penalty for wrong answer choices.