7 Strategies to Ace the SAT Sentence Completion Problems

By | April 19, 2008

1. For the first few questions, go with your intuition – The SAT Sentence Completion questions, unlike the rest of the Critical Reading or Writing Sections are presented in order of perceived difficulty; in other words, the easiest questions come first, followed by moderately difficult questions, and finally, the “hard” questions. What this means is that if you have a hunch about the first few questions (#’s 1, 2, and 3), you’re probably right.

2. This also means that your intuition may deceive you on the last few questions of the Sentence Completions – Well that’s not entirely true. If you have a strong command of SAT vocabulary, the last few questions may actually be the easiest. It’s not that the sentence structure of the last questions is difficult; it’s simply that they have more “difficult” words, both among the answer choices and the sentence itself. If you’re struggling with one of the last few questions, don’t cross-off a word because you don’t know it (in fact, if you don’t know a word, you should never cross it off).

Take a look at the following “difficult” sentence completion question from the CollegeBoard’s Official SAT Study Guide Practice Test #, Section 2; this is sentence completion question #8, out of eight questions.

Actors in melodramas often emphasized tense moments by being _______, for example, raising their voices and pretending to swoon.

(A) imperious

(B) inscrutable

(C) convivial

(D) histrionic

(E) solicitous

Those of you who have a strong vocabulary will recognize that the question is, in fact, not difficult at all. If you know that histrionic is a word related to acting, meaning “overly theatrical or dramatic,” then you could easily figure out that the correct answer is (D). But those of you who are less knowledgeable may have been tricked into thinking that histrionic had something to do with history, perhaps, and crossed it off entirely. Further, you may have been tempted into thinking that the correct answer was (C) convivial because it has to do with being festive and sociable, and reasoned to yourself that festive people can be dramatic people, and therefore selected it as the correct answer. This brings me to my next point.

3. Don’t be too smart for the sentence completion questions. All the questions on the SAT are self-sustaining questions, meaning you don’t need to think beyond the limits of what’s given. In fact, this will probably get you into trouble. If you find yourself justifying an answer through extended reasoning, like in the problem above, you may read too into it and lead yourself to select an incorrect answer. In fact, if you find yourself justifying an answer by adding another factor to the given facts, it’s probably the incorrect answer. Look at the following example:

Recognizing that the new line of tools broke or bent out of shape when stressed, the manufacturer assigned scientists to improve their _______.

(A) vulnerability

(B) density

(C) resilience

(D) solvency

(E) volatility

While the answer is clearly (C) resilience, meaning ability to return to original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched, if you were “too smart for the test,” you may have chosen (B) density by justifying to yourself, “perhaps if the tools were more dense, they would be less susceptible to break or bend.” Another trap about this problem is the use of scientists. By focusing on the noun scientists, you may have fallen into the trap of choosing either (B) density or (D) solvency because of the association of these words to science.

4. Instead, you should focus on the descriptive words – usually adjectives or verbs, but can also be a descriptive noun. In the example above, the descriptive words were bent out of shape when stressed. That’s the clue that tells you that the manufacturer wants to improve their resiliency. See if you can figure out the descriptive words in the example below:

Because the pandas had already been weakened by disease and drought, a harsh winter would have had _______ consequences for them.

(A) erratic

(B) informal

(C) catastrophic

(D) unforeseen

(E) moderate

If you correctly identified the descriptive words as weakened by disease and drought, then you probably correctly identified the answer as (C) catastrophic.

5. Look to the other clause for help. Keep in mind that all the sentence completion questions are compound sentences (with two clauses). This will help you to identify the descriptive words. The key descriptive words will usually be in a separate clause from the blank(s). The clauses will usually be separated with a comma, but could also be separated with a semicolon (;) or a colon (:). Look on the other side of these punctuation marks for clues.

6. If there is more than one blank in a given sentence, it may help to tackle one at a time. Chose one of the blanks, and then select the plausible answers that correspond to that blank. Then from among your answers, chose the one that also works with the other blank. A good strategy that often works for me is starting with the second blank and choosing from the second column of the answer choices. Then going back and seeing which one of those has a choice in the first column that works for the first blank. With this strategy, you’ll often find that problems with two blanks are easier than when there is just one.

7. Know your vocabulary. The fact of the matter is that the more vocabulary words you know, the better you’ll do on all the Critical Reading sections. The SAT Critical Reading Sections are mostly a test of Vocabulary – In fact, 1/3 of the all Critical Reading questions relies heavily on vocabulary, even the Reading Passages. If you follow the strategies above and study your SAT vocabulary, you should find the sentence completion problem fairly easy to solve.

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Topics: SAT Critical Reading, Sentence Completion Questions | 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “7 Strategies to Ace the SAT Sentence Completion Problems”

  1. aaa Says:
    January 21st, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    I’ve found your guides very helpful and that your strategy bases on truly genius perspective of analyzing the problems. I really appreciate your work. thank you.

  2. Doodoo Says:
    September 24th, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks for the tips! Very insightful.

  3. puntooo Says:
    September 19th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    thank you so much!
    your tips are so plausible and practical .

  4. Daniel Says:
    December 11th, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    cool beans

  5. Justaboy Says:
    June 2nd, 2015 at 6:02 am

    Thanks for the great tips!

  6. SATTutor Says:
    December 2nd, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Very helpful guide, I shall use it to supplement my teaching

  7. SincereStudent Says:
    December 2nd, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Terrible guide…some tips can easily backfire


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