PSAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Sequence, Organization, and Structure in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #151 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain (1882)

Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth--something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice. Very well. I have a few things in my mind which I have often longed to say for the instruction of the young; for it is in one’s tender early years that such things will best take root and be most enduring and most valuable. First, then I will say to you my young friends--and I say it beseechingly, urgently-- Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.

Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any, also to strangers, and sometimes to others. If a person offends you and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. That will be sufficient. If you shall find that he had not intended any offense, come out frankly and confess yourself in the wrong when you struck him; acknowledge it like a man and say you didn’t mean to. 

Go to bed early, get up early--this is wise. Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another. But a lark is really the best thing to get up with. It gives you a splendid reputation with everybody to know that you get up with the lark; and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time--it’s no trick at all.

Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training. Some authorities hold that the young ought not to lie at all. That of course, is putting it rather stronger than necessary; still while I cannot go quite so far as that, I do maintain, and I believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art until practice and experience shall give them that confidence, elegance, and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable. Patience, diligence, painstaking attention to detail--these are requirements; these in time, will make the student perfect; upon these only, may he rely as the sure foundation for future eminence. 

But I have said enough. I hope you will treasure up the instructions which I have given you, and make them a guide to your feet and a light to your understanding. Build your character thoughtfully and painstakingly upon these precepts, and by and by, when you have got it built, you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.

The third paragraph best captures the author’s __________.

Possible Answers:

point of view

emphasis on humor



opinion on animals

Correct answer:

emphasis on humor


The third paragraph appears right in the middle of the passage and compared to the other paragraphs offers relatively little practical or serious advice. Because it offers comparably little it is unlikely that the third paragraph is being used to capture the author’s point of view. Although an animal is mentioned, the author makes no reference to his opinions on animals so that answer choice can be eliminated. Likewise, the author expresses neither his frustrations nor his misgivings. This leaves only the answer choice “emphasis on humor” which is the correct answer. The author uses the description of how to train a lark to wake up late in order that its trainer can sleep in late to humor the audience and solidify the comedic tone of the passage.

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Sequence, Organization, And Structure In Humanities Passages

"Not Just Brains Can Be Smart: Why You Should Educate Your Body Too" by Megan Simon (2013)

Several years ago, a communications professor of mine was discussing the unequal opportunities that are available to African American students in America. Many students, she said, were told by society that the only way they could succeed and go on to a higher education was if they excelled at athletics. Discouraged from the hope of excelling in an intellectual field, they resorted to “selling their bodies.”

This comment, although obviously well-meant and addressed towards an unacceptable situation of racial inequality, disturbed me in a way that I was not able to articulate at the time. Reflecting upon it, however, it becomes obvious why I find this type of attitude deeply concerning. I am a dancer. The primary instrument in my field is the human body. I use my body everyday to gain creative, academic, and professional success. Am I selling myself?

Let’s say that I am. But now think about other professions, like literature or mathematics. Novelists, what do they do? They sell their words. Mathematicians? They sell their reasoning. And this exchange is socially acceptable. We strive to sell our brains, to place them on the open market. When it comes to the body, on the other hand, things become dirty, cheap—comparable to prostitution.

Academia does the best that it can to separate the mind from the body, to keep pure intellectualism free from the superficiality of the physical body. So proud are we of our human ability to think and reflect that we value the abstract world of reason more than corporeal one around us. We think that by doing so we remove physical limitations and supersede physical prejudices. But limitations and prejudices exist just as much in the realm of the mind as that of the body.

How is dance affected by this fierce devotion to the mind/body dichotomy? It has been forced to fight its way into academic institutions, even more so than the other arts. Visual arts and music are clearly products of the creative mind, but dance is tainted by its association with the body. Before gaining academic legitimacy, it has had to prove that it can be notated, theorized, and philosophized.

While I recognize the great value in these more mind-based approaches to dance, it worries me that so few people recognize the existence of a physical intelligence. Dancers know that movement communicates in a way that is not possible to articulate with words and logic. They know that they can train their bodies to be aware and communicate more effectively, that they can discover new approaches to movement and physical being, and that they can create a bodily discourse. I believe that everyone realizes the power of this communication on some level, but it is so often relegated to the role of interesting afterthought—If you are bored by the actual content of the presidential debates, here’s how to analyze the candidates’ gestures! We have an attitude that if we can’t come up with a consensus of how to describe it in words, it must not be worth studying. And with this attitude, we exclude so much of the world from the ivory tower.

I understand what that communications professor was trying to say. No one should think that their mind is not worthy of higher education. No one should be excluded from that type of intellectual endeavor. But focusing on training the body, whether it be athletics or dance or even everyday, physical communication, should not be seen as a less desirable alternative. The mind and the body could not exist without one another. It is past time that we threw away this arbitrary separation and embraced the entire human experience.

The purpose of the third paragraph is __________.

Possible Answers:

to discuss social norms of the professional market

to reevaluate what defines an intellectual pursuit

to condemn prostitution as a social practice

to compare dancers to mathematicians and novelists

to compare the idea of selling one’s body to the idea of selling one’s brain

Correct answer:

to compare the idea of selling one’s body to the idea of selling one’s brain


This paragraph compares dancers with other professions and discusses social norms. The most specific answer, however, is that it compares the ideas of selling one’s body vs. brain. The comparison of professions is part of this wider purpose.

Example Question #1 : Evaluating Evidence And Examples

Adapted from Walden by Henry Thoreau (1854)

Still we live meanly, like ants; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not, but whether we should live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.

The underlined sentence functions as __________ in context.

Possible Answers:

a counterpoint to a critic’s rebuttal

a concrete example of how the reader can simplify

an authorial aside only loosely related to the passage’s main topic

a use of figurative language to emphasize the author’s point

a transition into the ideas discussed in the next paragraph

Correct answer:

a concrete example of how the reader can simplify


The underlined sentence is, “Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.” Its position as the last line of the first paragraph may make it seem like “a transition into the ideas discussed in the next paragraph,” but as the second paragraph begins on an entirely new point, this isn’t the best answer. It is related to the author’s discussion of simplicity, so we can’t say that it is “an authorial aside only loosely related to the passage’s main topic.” No critics are mentioned in the passage, so we can’t claim it to be “a counterpoint to a critic’s rebuttal.” While it is emphasizing the author’s point, it’s not using figurative language to do so, so “a use of figurative language to emphasize the author’s point” can’t be correct either. This leaves us with one answer choice, the correct one: the sentence is functioning as “a concrete example of how the reader can simplify.” This is especially visible in that it directly follows the author’s exhortation of “Simplify, simplify.”

Example Question #152 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Swift" in Volume III of Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets by Samuel Johnson (1781)

In Swift's works, he has given very different specimens both of sentiment and expression. His Tale of a Tub has little resemblance to his other pieces. It exhibits a vehemence and rapidity of mind, a copiousness of images, and vivacity of diction, such as he afterwards never possessed, or never exerted. It is of a mode so distinct and peculiar, that it must be considered by itself; what is true of that, is not true of any thing else which he has written.

In his other works is found an equable tenor of easy language, which rather trickles than flows. His delight was in simplicity. That he has in his works no metaphor, as has been said, is not true; but his few metaphors seem to be received rather by necessity than choice. He studied purity; and though perhaps all his strictures are not exact, yet it is not often that solecisms can be found; and whoever depends on his authority may generally conclude himself safe. His sentences are never too much dilated or contracted; and it will not be easy to find any embarrassment in the complication of his clauses, any inconsequence in his connections, or abruptness in his transitions.

His style was well suited to his thoughts, which are never subtilized by nice disquisitions, decorated by sparkling conceits, elevated by ambitious sentences, or variegated by far-sought learning. He pays no court to the passions; he excites neither surprise nor admiration; he always understands himself, and his readers always understand him. The peruser of Swift wants little previous knowledge; it will be sufficient that he is acquainted with common words and common things; he is neither required to mount elevations nor to explore profundities; his passage is always on a level, along solid ground, without asperities, without obstruction.

Johnson praises Swift for all of the following in the second paragraph EXCEPT __________.

Possible Answers:

the simplicity of Swift's style

the economy of Swift's metaphors

the vividness of Swift's images

the trustworthiness of Swift's authority

Correct answer:

the vividness of Swift's images


Johnson never mentions Swift's imagery in this paragraph, though he does mention the "copiousness of images" found in A Tale of a Tub in the first paragraph.

Example Question #231 : Humanities Passages

Passage adapted from J.R Hamilton's "When You Know What is Best, Ask For It By Name" San Francisco Call, April 16, 1912.

If a man has anything he is proud of, he gives it a name whether it be a baby or a pair of boots. And the more he is proud of it, the more he talks about it.

Nameless things are seldom good and never reliable. If you want to cut down your cost of living the very best way to do it is to learn to ask only for standard articles.

When you know the name of a good maker of shirts or shoes, of furniture or pianos, of hardware or underwear, fix that name definitely in your mind and remember it when you come to buy.

Do not allow strange things to come into your home any more than you would allow strange people.

The brand and the trademark and the copyright are the letters of introduction from the maker to you. In this way he vouches for their respectability and guarantees their good behavior in your home.

There is a name for every good product that is made. And most of these names are known by every man and woman in America. Manufacturers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to standardize these names in your mind. From the lining of a dress to laundry soap; from a cleanser to a baking powder; from a suit of clothes to a kit of tools; you could call every standard article on the market by name if you would only remember to do so when you come to buy.

It is through your carelessness that lies and adulterations creep in. The standard is set by good men, but the standard is only maintained by you.

It is time for you to forget the generic name of every article, and remember only the standard name of its quality.

In the advertising news of this paper today you will find many of these standard names and brands of quality. This article is written for the sole purpose of reminding you to use those names. It is only fair that you should do as much for these good manufacturers as they are doing for you. It is only right that you should help in this great standardization of good products that is going on throughout America.

Begin now to ask by name for everything you buy. And you will find your satisfaction growing greater day by day and your optimism extending even down to your pocket book.

What is the primary purpose of the first sentence?

Possible Answers:

To introduce the concept that names, and the process of naming, as important.

To describe the effects of being boastful.

To encourage people to talk about their achievements.

To list things of which he is proud.

Correct answer:

To introduce the concept that names, and the process of naming, as important.


Throughout the rest of the article, the author discusses the importance of purchasing name brand items instead of generic, or nameless, items. In the first paragraph he is laying the groundwork for this argument. He compares naming a baby, which most people would agree is very important, to naming a pair of boots. By introducing the general, and broadly accepted, practice of naming as a necessary, positive, and virtuous process the author sets the stage for his subsequent argument about the inherent value of name brand consumer products.

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