The PSAT/NMSQT offers a double opportunity, one for each part of its name. On the one hand, students get to experience a Preliminary SAT (PSAT) in a real, proctored test environment, complete with challenging time limits and perhaps test anxiety. The scores students receive from their PSATs can help them calibrate their review when preparing for standardized tests required as part of the college application process—the SAT and the ACT. On the other hand, there is the “NMSQT” aspect of the exam to consider—the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Success on the PSAT can do more than presage success on the SAT; it can allow students to begin the process of being named prestigious National Merit Scholars. Financial aid from colleges and universities often accompanies the great honor that comes with being named a National Merit Scholar, a designation that can remain significant on one’s resume as well as add a special feature to one’s college applications.
The PSAT’s Critical Reading section can turn out to be the most trying part of the test for students to whom reading does not come easily. Altogether, forty-eight Critical Reading questions are asked on each exam; thirteen of these questions are Sentence Completion questions, while thirty-five are Passage-Based Reading questions.
The presence of Sentence Completion questions may surprise students, especially those more familiar with the ACT than the SAT. Whereas the ACT’s Reading section only asks passage interpretation questions, the PSAT’s Critical Reading test lines up neatly with the SAT’s, which also includes Sentence Completion questions. This makes PSAT scores a particularly valuable resource in preparing to take the SAT, as one can see whether one should spend time focusing on one question type, the other, or both. Each Sentence Completion question presents the test-taker with a sentence that is missing one word, and five answer choices that each represent a word that might be inserted into the sentence. To correctly answer the question, the test-taker must select the word that best completes the sentence. The use of the word “best” may represent unwanted ambiguity for many students: what if multiple answer choices seem to make sense in the sentence? How are they to narrow it down to a single “best” choice? Certain Sentence Completion questions hinge on subtle shades of tone and connotation, meaning that it is important to practice differentiating between words and paying attention to the contexts in which they are appropriately used as you prepare for your PSAT.
The other question type, Passage-Based Reading, forms the majority of the PSAT Critical Reading section. These questions are associated with a provided prose passage of varying lengths; you might see passages as short as one hundred words, the length of a short paragraph, and as long as eight hundred and fifty words, roughly the equivalent of three to four pages of a published paperback. The passage may be an excerpt from literary fiction, or it may concern topics in humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences. Expect to see a wide variety of disparate passages on your PSAT; don’t assume that if you can understand novel excerpts well that you are fully prepared for this section! Furthermore, each PSAT Critical Reading section includes a pair of passages that students are asked to analyze together, often in terms of comparing and contrasting their content and style. No matter what passages are asked about, Passage-Based Reading questions may be relatively straightforward and ask students about the main idea, supporting ideas, and details of the passage; on the other hand, they may require students to make inferences, identify causes and effects, and correctly describe tone, purpose in context, and analyze the passage in other ways. Expect a variety of questions of different types and difficulties to appear on any one exam.
If you are concerned about your ability to answer either of these question types when taking the PSAT, Varsity Tutors’ free PSAT Critical Reading resources can help you review in an efficient and effective manner. In particular, if you are struggling with one question type or a particular concept, our PSAT Critical Reading Help page can provide you with tools to investigate and master your weakest areas of understanding. On the PSAT Critical Reading Help page, you will find PSAT Critical Reading content broken down by question type and concept tested. You can select the category on which you want to focus, however broad or narrow it may be. You can then read through model problems complete with revealed answers and full explanations and take note of any patterns or recommended approaches used in solving the questions correctly. After working through some of these model problems with the help of the explanations, you try answering some problems in the same category on your own by taking some of our free PSAT Critical Reading practice tests and diagnostics. Reach for your best possible scores on the PSAT with the help of Varsity Tutors’ free PSAT resources!