PSAT Reading: Science Passages

The PSAT Reading Test will contain either two single Science passages or one single Science passage and one set of paired Science passages. Science passages differ from other passage types because:

  • They often contain a lot of jargon and technical terms.
  • They can utilize unfamiliar terms and concepts.

While Science passages can be tricky due to unfamiliar language, you will never need to employ knowledge outside of the passage when answering questions. Use the following strategy when approaching Science passages on the PSAT:

  • Locate the central idea in the first paragraph.

  • Note how each paragraph relates to the central idea.

    Does the paragraph…Explain? Support? Refute? Summarize?

  • Don’t be distracted by jargon or technical terms.

    Unfamiliar terms will generally be defined within the passage or in a footnote.

Let’s look at the following example of an abbreviated Science 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.


When you encounter more than one theory or idea, paraphrase each in as few words as possible in your Passage Map.

Sample PSAT Reading Practice Question: Science

Questions 1-2 are based on the following passage.
This passage is adapted from an essay about the characteristics of lunar eclipses.
Many people are aware of the beauty of a solar eclipse, but are surprised to learn that lunar eclipses are often just as spectacular and are both more common and easier to observe. The filtering and refraction of light from the Earth’s atmosphere during a lunar eclipse creates stunning color effects that range from dark brown to red, orange, and yellow. Each of these light shows is unique since they are the result of the amount of dust and cloud cover in the Earth’s atmosphere at the time of the eclipse. While total solar eclipses last only for a few minutes and can be seen only in a small area of a few kilo- meters, total lunar eclipses can last for several hours and can be seen over much of the planet. In fact, the beauty and stability of lunar eclipses make them a favorite of both amateur and professional photographers. Lunar eclipses generally occur two to three times a year and are possible only when the Moon is in its full phase. When we see the Moon, we are actually seeing sunlight reflected off the surface of the Moon. When the Earth is positioned in between the Moon and the Sun, however, the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon and a lunar eclipse occurs. To better understand this process, it’s helpful to imagine the Earth’s shadow on the Moon as a pair of nested cones, with the Earth at the apex of the cones, and the Moon at their bases. The outer, more diffuse cone of shadow is called the penumbral shadow, while the inner, darker cone is the umbral shadow.
1. According to the passage, the colors of a lunar eclipse are the result of
(A) the penumbral shadow.
(B) the stability of lunar eclipses.
(C) filtering and refraction of light.
(D) the sunlight reflected off the moon.
2. In lines 26-27, the phrase “pair of nested cones” serves to
(A) offer support for a previous statement.
(B) describe the diffraction of light through the atmosphere.
(C) explain why lunar eclipses are favorites of photographers.
(D) provide a concrete example to help readers visualize a phenomenon.

¶1: lun ecl more common than solar ecl (central idea), created by light filt & refract
¶2: info about how lunar ecl occurs

Step 2: Examine the question stem
What keywords are in the question stem? “The colors of a lunar eclipse”
Step 3: Predict and answer
Look at the Passage Map notes. Where does the author discuss how lunar eclipses are created? The first paragraph
What are the colors the result of? “Filtering and refraction of light” (lines 4-5)
What answer choice matches this prediction? Choice (C)

Step 2: Examine the question stem
What clue is in this question stem? A phrase from the passage and a line reference
Step 3: Predict and answer
Read around the cited line reference. What does the author state before introducing this phrase? “To better understand this process, it’s helpful to imagine …” (lines 24-25)
What answer choice matches this? Choice (D)

PSAT Reading Question Explanations

For practice question #1, use the Passage Map to find where the author mentions color. Because the author mentions both “filtering” and “dust,” you know that the right answer will include those. Choice (C) mentions “filtering” and is, therefore, correct.
For practice question #2, ask “Why did the author choose those words—what are they doing?” Could you picture how an eclipse worked? Predict that the phrase helps the reader understand the concept. Choice (D) matches exactly.
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