PSAT Writing & Language Test: Passage Types & Topics

Instructor: Katie Maxwell

Katie earned her High Distinction BS in Secondary Education/ English in 2006 and has over ten years of experience working in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. As a nonprofit consultant Katie now provides clients nationally with curriculum design and development services.

The PSAT Writing and Language Exam can feel daunting, but don't get overwhelmed: in reality, this section tests you on skills you use regularly! With a little practice and understanding of what the test covers, you'll be more than prepared.

No one truly enjoys taking big tests, and more still feel incredibly nervous about taking an exam with as much pressure as the PSAT, but try to relax: you're more prepared for the Writing and Language Test than you think!

Ever since elementary school, you have been reviewing and proofreading your own written work and likely gained even more practice by reviewing and editing the work of your classmates. By this point in life, it's likely you even notice typos in the newspaper or magazines, online, or on business signs around your town. This is a low-pressure way to think about the PSAT Writing and Language Test: you are simply reading text for errors and fixing them. If you're armed with an understanding of what to expect and have done a little practice, you should feel confident on the day of the test.

As with any exam, the Writing and Language Test is designed to test your skills. You don't need any prior knowledge of the topics presented in the passages, and all questions are multiple choice. The passages may be presented in an informational, argument, or narrative nonfiction style, and will cover a variety of subjects, including social studies/ history, humanities, and science. You will specifically be tested in the following five areas:

  • Command of Evidence tests your ability to improve the passage with evidence or strengthen the author's argument. This test will likely include arguments and persuasive writing passages with questions asking you to evaluate the evidence presented.
  • Words in Context is basically a fill-in-the-blank exercise in which you read the surrounding words and choose the best word to strengthen the meaning or tone of the text.
  • Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science asks you to use your editorial skills to make improvements to nonfiction reading passages in one or more of these content areas.
  • Expression of Ideas asks you to assess the impact of the text and make improvements to word choice, idea organization, and/or sentence structure to strengthen the passage.
  • Standard English Conventions will test your overall command of written language and the grammatical conventions of English.

One more thing to keep in mind: some passages in this exam will be accompanied by an informational graphic like a graph or a chart. When you come across these questions, you'll be asked to analyze the information in the chart and synthesize this into the passage. This exercise shows that you can connect the information and strengthen a piece of writing with additional information.

General Test-Taking Strategies

  • Take a deep breath and try to relax before you start.
  • Open the test booklet and skim the questions to get an overview of the whole exam.
  • When you come to a question you don't immediately know the answer to, make a light mark next to this number on your answer sheet and come back to it at the end. Make sure to erase the mark on the side after you answer the question!


Now that you know what skills to bring to the front of your brain on the day of the test, let's look at a couple of example questions and discuss what kind of strategies can be used to help you do your best.

Read the following passage:

Passage 1

Now read the last sentence of the passage again and take a look at the bolded section. Does the subject of this sentence changes and the verb occur agree? In the actual exam, the correlating question will provide you with a series of choices to keep the sentence as is (if you believe what you see is grammatically correct) or change it to correct the error:


b) occur, they are

c) occurs, they are

d) occurs, it is

With any question on the test, the first strategy is to simply identify whether you have the knowledge to answer the question. Perhaps you immediately noticed that because the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural. Perhaps you also knew the answer couldn't be 'b' or 'c' because there is a disagreement between the singular antecedent 'any one' and the pronoun 'they.' So, feeling like a rock star, you choose answer 'd' and move on to the next question.

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