PSAT Reading: History/Social Studies Passages

The History/Social Studies portion of the PSAT Reading Test will consist of either two single History/Social Studies passages or one single History/Social Studies passage and one History/Social Studies paired-passage set. History/Social Studies passages are different from other passage types because:

  • The passage will have a clearly stated topic, a well-defined scope, and a specific purpose.
  • There will be at least one primary source passage that uses antiquated language.

Because History/Social Studies passages can be densely written, you should:

  • Identify the topic and scope of the passage

    You can usually find the topic and scope in the first paragraph.

  • Identify the topic sentence of each succeeding paragraph

    What does this paragraph accomplish? Does it provide evidence to support a previous statement? Or does it introduce questions about an earlier claim?

  • Summarize the purpose of the passage

    Some common purposes include: to inform, to refute, to promote, to explore.

Resist the temptation to reread large portions of the passage. Your Passage Map can help you predict and answer questions correctly without having to dive completely back into the text. Doing so will save you time on Test Day!

Let’s look at the following example of an abbreviated History/Social Studies passage and question set. After the mapped passage, the left column contains questions similar to those you’ll see on the PSAT Reading Test on Test Day. The column on the right features the strategic thinking a test expert employs when approaching the passage and questions presented. Note how a test expert can quickly condense the entire passage into a few words and use his or her Passage Map to ask questions that build a prediction for the correct answer.

Sample PSAT Reading Question: History/Social Studies

Questions 1-2 are based on the following passage.
The following passage is an adaptation of an excerpt from Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington.
My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when African Americans in the South will be accorded the political rights which his ability, character and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to African Americans by white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by “foreigners,” or “aliens” to do something which it does not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I have indicated is going to begin. In fact, there are indications that it is already beginning to a slight degree.
1. This passage can best be described as
(A) a description of a state of of affairs intolerable to the author.
(B) a statement of belief about society and how it will change.
(C) a declaration of basic rights and a roadmap to achieve them.
(D) a call to action to correct an injustice.
2. According to the passage, “the political rights” mentioned in line 4 will come about through
(A) increased political pressure on those denying the rights.
(B) additional laws mandating those rights.
(C) peer pressure designed to embarrass anyone denying those rights.
(D) a natural evolution of society.

¶1: author believes rights will come (purpose)
¶1 cont.: change will begin soon, when S doesn’t feel forced

Step 2: Examine the question stem

What are the keywords in the question stem? There are none; it’s about the passage as a whole.

Step 3: Predict and answer

Look at the Passage Map notes. What is the author’s purpose for writing this passage? Change will happen.

Step 2: Examine the question stem

What clues are in the question stem? The quoted phrase and line number.

Step 3: Predict and answer

According to the passage and your notes, how does the South feel? Forced.

So, when will “the political rights” come about? When the South stops feeling forced.

What answer choice does this match? Choice (D


PSAT passages often use primary source material, which means the language can be antiquated to modern readers. In some instances, we have modified this language. Don’t let that distract you from making a Passage Map that focuses on the central ideas.

PSAT Reading Practice Questions Explained

For practice question #1, use your Passage Map to identify the author’s topic, scope, and purpose. The author’s topic is his belief, the scope is gaining rights, and the purpose is to express hope for change. Choice (B) is correct.

For practice question #2, go to the cited lines and use your Passage Map to determine how those lines relate to the passage as a whole. Predict that these rights won’t be given due to force and won’t happen until the South doesn’t feel forced. Choice (D) matches your prediction.

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