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Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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10 Hardest PSAT Reading Practice Questions

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Overview of the PSAT


The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is a standardized exam administered by the College Board and co-sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation Corporation (NMSC). The PSAT is usually taken by millions of sophomore and junior high school students every year in the Fall. Lasting around three hours, the PSAT, much like the actual SAT, consists of two sections: Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (sub-divided into the Reading Test and Writing Test), and Math. Unlike the actual SAT, scoring on each section of the PSAT is from 160-760, with the highest overall score being 1520. 


Each subsection will test a particular set of academic skills and will vary by length, with the Reading Test consisting of around 47 questions and lasting 60 minutes. The Reading Test consists of questions relating to either a passage or a pair of passages taken from previously published academic and scholarly materials related to literature, humanities, and the sciences. This section is designed to test a student’s reading comprehension, contextual vocabulary, and analytical interpretation skills. 


How Will My PSAT Score Impact My College Chances? 


In general, taking the PSAT is not mandatory by any means for college admissions. However, your PSAT score can have important implications during the admissions process. Because of the almost identical format, content, and scoring of the PSAT in relation to the actual SAT, performing well on the PSAT can signal that you are ready to perform well on the actual SAT exam. 


Moreover, the PSAT is used as a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship competition, which will award different levels of recognition based on their scores: Commended Students and Semifinalists. If you are selected as a Semifinalist, you will have the chance to compete for a National Merit Scholarship through an application process. The Finalists are designated as National Merit Scholarship recipients and are awarded aid to offset the cost of the award winners’ college tuition. 


Consequently, performing well on the PSAT and being designated as either a Semifinalist or a Finalist can be an impressive mark on your application, and will be viewed positively by the Admission Committee. Receiving scholarship money (typically around $2500) is also a plus, especially with the cost of higher education increasing at a rapid rate. 


For more information on how your PSAT score can potentially affect your admissions chances, feel free to check out the College Admissions Calculator. 


10 Hardest PSAT Reading Questions


The Reading Test will consist of around 5 passages pulled from previous publications related to humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences. After reading through each passage, or pair of passages, the exam will then ask you to answer a series of 8-10 multiple choice questions aimed at testing your knowledge, analysis, and comprehension of various aspects of the passage. In general, we recommend reading each passage completely and thoroughly (taking around 5 minutes in total to read and make notes) before moving onto the questions. Excerpted here are passages from previously administered PSATs, along with some of the more challenging questions associated with the passages. 


The passage below is excerpted from a previously administered PSAT. We can see just by looking at the passage information above and skimming through that it is a social science type passage (political science), most likely written by an academic. After identifying the passage type, we can get to work reading through the passage and taking notes. 


After reading through, it’s important that we either write down or take a mental note of some of the basic points the author of the passage has made. The main idea of the passage can be best summed up as: “Over the last few decades, there has been a greater move toward democratization and democratic ideals in countries around the world, which can be attributed to a number of social, economic, and political factors.” His tone throughout the passage can be summed up as optimistic, and he is clearly someone who sympathizes with democratic movements. 


Now we move on to the questions: 


The answer to question 10 is A. 


The first two paragraphs of the passage fit the structure of discussing the main subject of the passage (that democracies around the world are increasing). The first sentence of the third paragraph (“What caused this transformation”) indicates the shift of the focus of the author toward discussing the reasons behind the increase. By paying close attention to the author’s language through devices like rhetorical questions, it is easy to pick the right answer. 


The answer to question 11 is B. 


In this case, the PSAT is testing a student’s knowledge of vocabulary in context. For these types of questions, you should go back to the line from the passage in question, and re-read it taking note of the word in question (“put”). Test out the Answer Choices (mentally of course), and see which one would make the most sense. In this case, “stated” most closely matches “put” in this context. 


Questions 14-15 are two-part questions that relate to a similar area of the passage. For both questions, the exam writers are asking about aspects of the last paragraph of the passage. 


The Answer to Question 14 is A. Just by going back to the last paragraph in the passage, we can locate the support for this: “Even autocracies are less autocratic today…… With far fewer repressive regimes in the world, one might have expected the holdouts to be places where freedom and political competition and increasingly suppressed. But in fact, the opposite is true”. 


The Answer to Question 15 is D. This question asks us to support the answer to the previous question using support from the passage. The supporting evidence will most likely be found in the last paragraph. In general lines, 65-77 provide support to the author’s main contention in the last paragraph that societies under autocratic regimes are somewhat surprisingly becoming less autocratic and more democratic. Lines 73-77 represent a subset of this support. 


Next, we move on to a different passage. We can see that in contrast to the previous passage, this is a natural science-focused passage. For test-takers who do not enjoy science type subjects (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), it may seem intimidating tackling a science passage, but in general, just by reading through the passage, taking notes, and doing what we did before in other passages, we can attack this one too. 


In general, this passage focuses on the research of one particular scientist (Frohbert) as it relates to hibernating bears and their fat levels during hibernation, and the implications of that research for one day solving certain health issues affecting the human population. 


Now, we can move onto the questions. 


The Answer to Question 21 is D. Question 21 can seem confusing at first since the passage does not seem to directly state the central rationale behind Frohbert’s research study involving hibernating bears. However, the last sentence of the paragraph (“It’s not yet clear how the bears keep their arteries flexible, but Fröbert hopes to find some protective molecule that could stave off hardened arteries in humans as well”) directly implicated Frobert in the scientific goal of disease prevention in human beings. 


Again, Question 25 may seem tricky, since at least directly, the last few paragraphs of the passage seem to preclude any discussion on Frohbert’s theory on why bears’ arteries do not harden during hibernation. Yet, like in Question 23, the last sentence of the passage provides the support: “It’s not yet clear how the bears keep their arteries flexible, but Fröbert hopes to find some protective molecule that could stave off hardened arteries in humans as well”. Consequently, using our knowledge of the passage gleaned from answering some of the past questions related to the passage, we can successfully answer the other questions. 


Question 28 is different from all the previous questions in that it asks us to interpret the graph below the passage. Again, for those not scientifically inclined, it may seem intimidating at first, but just by knowing some basic information about the graph, what it is measuring, and how it relates to the information in the passage, we can conquer this question. 


We can see that this graph is measuring cholesterol levels in bears, with special attention placed on their hibernation versus active status. Most likely, the information on this graph relates to the research by Frohbert (line 42-68) in which he and his colleagues studied the cholesterol levels in captured hibernating bears. We can see that all 7 of the bears possess cholesterol levels well above the maximum level in humans, both in their active and hibernating states. We can safely cross out Answer Choice C for that reason.


We can see that for 6 out of 7 of the bears, their cholesterol levels noticeably increased from their active state to their hibernation state. Only 1 out of the 7 bears had their cholesterol levels remain the same. For that reason, we can safely pick A as the Answer Choice. 


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Finally, we come to our last passage, which is a double passage. For at least one of the passages and associated set of questions you will review on the PSAT, the test writers will ask you to read a series of two passages both related to a similar subject area and answer questions related to how both passages interact with one another. 


We can see that this double passage is a humanities/social science typeset, with Passage 1 excerpted from Henry David Thoreau’s mid-19th-century treatise “Civil Disobedience”, while Passage 2 is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay on a similar topic “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written in 1963. Although the two writings are separated by over a century and differ in subject matter, we can safely assume that they will cover similar themes. 


As we have done previously, we should take time to read and take notes on both passages, paying close attention to how they are similar, and in what ways they differ from each other. 


In Passage 1, Henry David Thoreau lambasts the American government as an inhumane collective bent on destroying the individual and encourages resistance to it based on philosophical grounds. In Passage 2, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. justifies his refusal to follow Jim Crow laws that enforce segregation and perpetuate racism by separating the realm of laws between “just” and “unjust” ones that differ based on their respective morality. 


It is important to note that while Henry David Thoreau lambasts the American government on mostly philosophical grounds, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. does the same by appealing to moral, religious grounds. 


Now we move onto the questions. 


Question 35 asks us about a perceived similarity between the two passages (each passage’s primary purpose). 


The Answer is A. Just by having gone through each passage beforehand, and noting similarities, and differences, we know that both relate to the topic of the individual and the government/law, although each author justifies his refusal to follow by appealing to different grounds. 


Similar to Question 35, Question 36 asks us about a perceived similarity between the authors. In general, for these question types, the answer will most likely be somewhat general/vague, as opposed to the extreme language in some of the other answer choices (notably “fail”/ “incapable”). 


The Answer is C. Each author describes the failure of the law/government in certain regards in relation to the individual and the perceived immorality of certain aspects of the law/government and justifies their refusal by appealing to different grounds. C comes closest to capturing this shared sentiment. 


Finally, we come to the last question. 


In this question, the exam asks us which scenario in the answer choices would come closest to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would advocate for Henry David Thoreau based on what we know of both authors. 


The last paragraph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s letter provides the support we need to directly answer this question: 


In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist [by refusing to comply with the Supreme Court ruling]? That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. (lines 74-84). 


Consequently, the answer best supported is C. 


Final Tips


If you’re a high school student preparing to take the many college entrance exams your junior year, preparing for the PSAT may seem like a huge undertaking in addition to juggling AP/honors classes and extracurriculars. However, with proper preparation and studying, you can be prepared for whatever College Board throws at you on your PSAT date in the Fall. 


You can prepare for the summer before you take the PSAT by drilling previous test questions and taking full-length practice exams. College Board has released a number of previously administered PSATs online in pdf for free, and other test prep materials are available for purchase online. If you prepare for the PSATs in the summer, you can be mentally ready to tackle the PSAT during the Fall, and not have to deal with balancing studying for the PSAT along with your other schoolwork. 


Outside of test prep, another good way to prepare yourself for the PSAT Reading Test is to read up on scholarly and academic-style articles to improve your reading speed and comprehension. Reading and annotating daily articles in publications like The New York Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Scientific American, National Geographic, and similar sites can help you tackle the type of reading passages that will appear on the PSAT, and will also help you become a more informed reader, which can help in other pursuits. 

Finally, feel free to check out CollegeVine’s other PSAT resources available online for free.


Short Bio
Alan is a graduate of Duke University (Class of 2019) where he majored in history and minored in environmental science.