PSAT : Format and content


Here I go with the 4th post in my series of posts on the PSAT test. This post is focused on the format of the test and the kind of questions you can expect in the test. If you’d like to read my earlier posts on the PSAT, the links to access them are right at the end of this post.

This post is long as there is a lot to cover.

Coming to the actual test, here goes : the new PSAT/NSQT includes a Reading test, a Writing and Language test and a Math test. The total duration of the test is 2 hours and 45 minutes, and the maximum score possible is 1520. And remember from now on, there is rights only scoring i.e. there is no penalty for guessing. The entire test focuses on what you’ve been learning in high school and what you will need to succeed in college.

The key skills being judged in the PSAT are :

  1. Understanding usage of words in context. The words used are likely to be everyday words from high school or the workplace, words that should normally be a part of your vocabulary. So don’t worry, you don’t have to learn some new outlandish words just for this test ! However, there is a greater emphasis on the meaning of words in extended contexts, and on how word choice shapes meaning, tone and impact.
  2. Command of evidence. This skill is tested in the Reading as well as the Writing and Language part of the test. The idea is to interpret what you read, synthesize the information and use the evidence provided to answer the question.
  3. Math. Practical usage of  Math that you’ll rely on in all sorts of life situations.
  4. Problems based on real life context.  Questions asked are all directly based on school and college work. This skill is evaluated across all the sections.
  5. Analysis in Science and in History and Social Studies. Application of reading, writing, language and math skills to answer questions in science, history and social studies context.

Let’s look at the different sections of the test more closely :

The Evidence Based Reading test

This is the longest single section of the test – 60 minutes / 47 questions long. It evaluates how you think, how you absorb knowledge and how you use this information. It does not require you to memorize long, unfamiliar words. Questions :

·       Are multiple choice based

·       Are based on passages provided (usually 5 reading passages or paired passages), from US World literature, Economics, Sociology, Social Sciences, US Founding documents or other aspects of History, and Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry or Physics.

·       May use info graphics, however will not require any Math skills.

·       Do not require prior topic specific knowledge

Essentially, you read the passage and go through the info graphics, if any, and then answer questions. There could be direct questions on content mentioned in the passage and the info graphics, or there could be questions on implications that can be drawn by the reader of the passage.

Evidence based reading measures a variety of reading skills like :

Command of Evidence

The skills checked for include fluency, comprehension, alphabetics and vocabulary. Questions will ask you to :

·          Find evidence in a passage that best supports the answer to a question or serves as the basis for a reasonable conclusion

·          Identify how authors use evidence to support their claims

·          Find a relationship between an informational graphic and the passage it’s paired with

Words in Context

Questions will ask you to :

  • Explain the meaning of a word or phrase being used in the passage, in the context it is being used in the passage
  • Decide how the choice of words in the passage shape their meaning, tone and style

Analysis of Information

The passages are from the fields of Science, Social Studies and History. Questions will ask you to :

  • Examine hypothesis
  • Interpret data
  • Consider implications

The Writing and Language test

This section of the test is 35 minutes long and covers 44 questions. As in the other sections of this test, this section also focuses on skills you’ve used repeatedly in high school.  You will read specially written passages (with errors deliberately inserted in the passage), identify the errors in the passage and have to correct these errors so as to improve the passages. It’s the same proofreading skill you use before you submit an essay in school !

Questions :

·       Are multiple choice questions

·       May use info graphics, however will not require any Math skills.

·       Do not require prior topic specific knowledge

Some questions may require you to study a single sentence. Other questions require reading the entire passage and interpreting an info-graphic e.g. you might be asked to choose a sentence that corrects a misinterpretation of a scientific chart or that better explains the importance of the data.

The skills measured are :

Command of Evidence :

Questions that test command of evidence ask you to improve the way passages develop information and ideas. For instance, you might have to identify the words in a passage that sharpen an argumentative claim or add a relevant supporting detail.

Words in Context

Some questions ask you to improve word choice. You’ll need to choose the best words to use based on the context in which they are being used. Your goal will be to make a passage more precise or concise, or to improve syntax, style, or tone.

Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science

You’ll be asked to edit passages based on these topics so as to improve the passages.

Expression of Ideas

Some questions ask about a passage’s organization and its impact. You may be asked which words or structural changes improve how well it makes the passage makes its point and how well the sentences in the passage work together.

Standard English Conventions

This is about the building blocks of writing: sentence structure, usage, and punctuation. You’ll be asked to edit the passage and change words, clauses, sentences and / or punctuation. You will need to be familiar with verb tense, parallel construction, subject-verb agreement, and usage of the comma.

The Math Test

This is a 70 minute section, covering 47 questions.  One portion of the Math test has questions where you aren’t allowed to use a calculator (Math Test – No calculator – 25 minutes long), whereas in the 2nd part (Math Test – calculator – 45 minutes long), you can use a calculator. In some questions where use of a calculator is permitted, you could perhaps come up with the answer faster on your own. It may be better to skp using the calculator at such times. This aspect of the test judges whether you are using the right tool to answer the question.

Like with the rest of the PSAT, this section also tests you on practical day-to-day application of Math skills and knowledge that you would have gained in school. This part of the test needs you to use the Math that you would rely on most in all sorts of situations, the kind of problem solving and modeling that you would normally do in your personal life, or in science, math or social studies courses in high school and college and perhaps even in your work life.  Questions are :

  • Mostly multiple     choice, but some questions may need you to come up with the answer instead of selecting it from multiple options (grid in questions)
  • Possibly multiple questions on a single scenario
  • May require multiple steps to arrive at the solution

The key aspects of Math covered in this section are :

Problem Solving and Data Analysis, which will test your quantitative math skills

The Heart of Algebra, which is all about linear equations and systems, and

Passport to Advanced Math, which as the name suggests, focuses on more complex equations and the mental manipulation resolving them requires !

Additional topics in Math, which includes geometry and trigonometry.

So what does the Math test measure ?

Fluency in Math

How quickly and efficiently you can solve a problem. Efficiency in this case is recognizing the strategic information provided and using the most appropriate approach to come up with the correct solution

Conceptual understanding of Math

This will include the concepts of basic Math, relations and operations

Real world application

Where you analyze a real-life situation, convert it into a mathematical problem, determine the key pieces of information required and come up with the solution

From the information on the time available in each section of the test and the number of questions, it is clear that speed is of the essence. You must quickly read the test and mark off passages / aspects that help you answer the question.

Do you have more information on the PSAT that does not feature here but would be useful for people to know? Please do comment and share your knowledge and experience.

As this post topic was suggested by SAT prep tutors who are listed on our, I thought it was only fair that they be acknowledged. So all parents in California, remember that has quite a comprehensive list of SAT preparation tutors available in your neighborhood. To see tutors in your area, go to and select “college prep”. An experienced tutor can always add value to your child’s PSAT / SAT preparation.

For factual information, this post has referred to

In case you missed the earlier parts of my post on the PSATs,  here are some quick links :

Part 1:Basics of the PSAT

Part 2:The PSAT selection process

And lastly

Part 3:More on the PSAT – some questions answered

Happy reading !

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