How to Succeed on the PSAT Writing and Language Exam

The PSAT Writing and Language Exam is a 35-minute, 44-question grammar and reading comprehension test that is made up of four passages, each of which has 11 questions.

Content Overview

The College Board assures that the Writing and Language test always includes questions about:

  • Sentence order
  • Structure
  • Usage
  • Punctuation
  • Content
  • Word choice
  • Interpreting graphics

Test-Taking Strategies

You have 8 minutes and 45 seconds to complete each of the four passages. Most students do not have trouble completing the work in the appointed amount of time. More often than not, students go too fast on this portion of the exam and make unnecessary errors.

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

  1. Read an entire paragraph for full meaning and context and then go back and address the questions pertaining to that paragraph. This helps with a couple of things: picking the correct tense, verb form, word choice, and the content questions that ask whether the author succeeds at a specific task. 
  2. Look for the most direct sentence. The test makes the assumption (this is College Planning Partnerships’ view) that most students write essays that are too long. The test is looking to see if you can spot what can be removed to create a more succinct sentence. If you’re ever down to two choices, and you really don’t know which one is correct, the best guess is the shortest answer
  3. The test is filled with redundanciesEvery year we go to Block Island for two weeks in August, and all winter long I look forward to our annual  vacation. 
  4. The test is filled with irrelevant sentences. Look to take them out. For example, the paragraph is focusing on the migration patterns of Canadian Geese. And then out of the blue it’ll introduce a sentence about migrating beluga whales, and dart back to the discussion of Canadian geese. The test does this over and over. Be on red alert for sentences that interrupt the paragraph.
  5. The best topic sentence refers to the last paragraph and introduces the upcoming paragraph. 
  6. Logical sequence questions: The test will ask where best to place a sentence in a paragraph. Look closely at the sentence that you’re asked to position in the passage. Look at the first word of that sentence. If that sentence starts with the word plastics, find a sentence in that paragraph that concludes with the word plastics. That’s where it goes. If a sentence ends talking about snowflakes, the next sentence is likely to begin with snowflakes. 
  7. The test is in love with the transition word ‘however.’ However is used to express contrast. Make sure to read sentences above it to see if that sentence contrasts or contradicts what’s just been stated. 
  8. Colons are always tested. Easiest way to check to see if the colon is the correct choice: look to its left, and if it’s a complete sentence it’s the right choice. What follows the colon can be a list, a fact, or an explanation of what preceded the colon. 
  9. Semicolons are always tested. The semicolon joins two complete sentences. Test day, look to the left of the semicolon and then look to the right of the semicolon to see if they are both complete sentences. If they are, the semicolon is the correct choice.
  10. Misplaced modifiers: Slathered in mustard and relish, I enjoyed the hotdog. Make sure that the introductory clause modifies what follows. The person was not slathered in mustard and relish. The sentence should read: I enjoyed the hotdog slathered in mustard and relish.