Reading Study Guide for the PSAT/NMSQT Exam

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General Information

The PSAT/NMSQT exam Reading Test includes five passages and questions about them. One passage will be from literature and there will be two each from history/social science and science. In addition, one of these passages will actually be two passages with questions asking you to compare and contrast the elements of each. One or two of the five passages will be accompanied by graphic information (a table, chart, or graph), which will be referenced in some of the questions.

Although the questions about each passage are not presented in order of difficulty, they do tend to be in the order that the information is presented in the passage.

Two of the subscores on your PSAT/NMSQT exam Score Report will come partly from the Reading test and here is how they will be determined:

Subscore: Words in Context

  • interpreting words and phrases
  • analyzing word choice
  • text structure
  • point of view
  • purpose
  • arguments

Subscore: Command of Evidence

  • reading closely
  • finding text evidence
  • central ideas and themes
  • summarizing
  • relationships
  • multiple texts
  • quantitative information analysis

Terms to Know

As you prepare, become thoroughly familiar with these terms and be able to use them to answer questions about text.

Author’s Point of View

Point of view can be understood as who the author is. In fiction, the author can write from a first-person, second-person, or third-person point of view:

First-person point of view is when the author uses words like I, me, and mine. We see the story through the author’s eyes, and the author is also a character in the story. First-person point of view is somewhat limited, as we can only know the thoughts of one character.

Second-person point of view is not as common. When using second-person point of view, the author is speaking directly to the reader, using pronouns like you and yours to address the reader directly. If an author decides to use second-person point of view, it is usually because he or she wants to convince the reader of something, or at the very least, involve the reader intimately in the story.

Third-person point of view is when the author is not a character in the story but an outsider. Third-person point of view can be omniscient (all-knowing) or limited. If the narrator is omniscient, then the reader is exposed to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, while if the narrator is limited the reader only gets to enter the mind of one character at a time.

In nonfiction, we don’t usually speak of first, second, and third-person, but it’s still important to consider who the author might be. Is the person a scientist? A lawyer? A teacher?

Author’s Purpose

If you are asked about the author’s purpose, you need to figure out what they are trying to do with a particular passage. Are they trying to persuade the reader? Entertain the reader? Inform the reader? Put yourself in the author’s shoes and try to figure out the intention of the passage.

Main Idea/Theme/Thesis

Some questions in the reading test may ask you about the main idea, theme, or thesis of a passage. In general, all three terms are asking variations of the same thing: “What is the author trying to say?”

Main Idea: The main idea of a passage is generally the most important thought in an informational passage. The author might present some details about different ideas, but what is the most important one?

Theme: The theme of a passage is like the main idea, but it is often a bit more abstract. It might be the lesson to be learned from the passage, such as “family is important.”

Thesis: The thesis of a passage is the side that the author takes in an argument. Sometimes, the author presents two points of view and then supports the one he or she believes in with details. That side of the argument is the author’s thesis.

Structure of Text

Every text is organized in a specific way, and for the PSAT/NMSQT exam reading test, you should be able to analyze a passage and identify how it is organized. There are many different ways that a text may be organized. For example:

Chronological: A chronological text is structured in order of time. For example: First, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Next, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and finally, all the king’s horses and men came but couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together.

Cause and Effect: A text that’s organized by cause and effect describes an action and a consequence. For example: “The man didn’t come to work all week. What happened then? He lost his job.”

Compare and Contrast: A text that’s organized by comparison and contrast discusses the similarities and differences between two or more things. Often, this occurs in two separate passages that are used for one question, but it can also happen within one passage.

Order of Importance: A text organized by order of importance mentions the most important thing, then the next most important thing, and finally, the least important thing. Conversely, it could also mention the least important thing first and the most important thing last.

Problem and Solution: This type of passage would state a problem, for example: “Global Warming is affecting the world’s climate.” Then, it would propose one or more solutions, like: “People must stop using plastic.”

Word Choice

Word choice is all about why the author chose certain words in the passage. How do the specific words that he or she chose create meaning? How do they affect the style and tone of the passage? For example: What’s the difference between the word friend and the word buddy? An author might choose the word buddy over friend to make the tone of the passage more informal and playful.

Literary Terms

Some questions on the PSAT/NMSQT exam reading test may ask you to identify key literary techniques that the author has used. To answer these questions, you’ll need to know what different literary terms mean. Some that come up most often are:

Metaphor: a representation that the author uses to suggest that two things are similar. For example, the sentence “He is a pig,” does not actually mean that the man is literally a pig, but that he shares characteristics with a pig (perhaps bad eating habits or poor hygiene).

Simile: A simile is similar to a metaphor, but makes the comparison even more direct, by using the words like or as. For example: “He eats like a pig.”

Analogy: An analogy uses an example of something that is easy for the reader to understand, to explain something that may be more difficult. For example, a scientist might describe the human heart to a small child by showing the child how a water pump works. Analogies usually are less poetic than metaphors and similes.


Characterization refers to the development of a character throughout a story. The reader gets to know a character through the author’s description of the character, through the character’s actions and words, and sometimes even through the character’s thoughts if the story is told in the first-person point of view, or if the third-person narrator is omniscient.


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