Cracking the SAT

Part II

How to Crack the Critical Reading Section

Chapter 5

Sentence Completions

SAT Sentence Completions are sentences from which one or more words have been removed. Your job is to find the missing word or words based on context. This chapter will lead you through a series of steps that will help you accomplish this task with the most accuracy and the least stress. You’ll learn how the test writers try to trap you and what techniques you can use to avoid those traps.

How will you find the magic word to fill in the blank? By finding the clue that ETS has left for you in the sentence. Each sentence completion contains one or more clues that will tell you what goes in the blank or blanks. All you have to do is find the clues, and you’ve cracked the question.

Before we begin, take a moment to read the following set of instructions and answer the sample question that follows. Both appear here exactly as they do on the real SAT. Be certain that you know and understand these instructions before you take the SAT. If you learn them ahead of time, you won’t have to waste valuable seconds reading them on the day you take the test.

ETS’s answer to this sample question is E.

Sentence completions appear in each of the test’s Critical Reading sections. The questions will be arranged in groups of five, six, and eight sentences (thought not necessarily in that order). Regardless of the number of sentence completions in a section, the questions will follow a rough order of difficulty: The first third will be easy, and the last third will be the most difficult.

Let’s begin with an easy question. Try the following example. The answer choices have been removed so you can concentrate solely on the sentence. Read the sentence and write down your own word or phrase for the blank.

  1. Alan is known for his ------- disposition due to his frequent friendly, light-hearted joking.

Here’s How to Crack It

What word did you come up with? Probably something like joking or humorous. How did you decide that was the word you needed? Because of the clue. The clue in this sentence is friendly, light-hearted joking. It tells you that Alan is constantly making jokes, so he’s probably a humorousguy.

Now that you have decided on the kind of word or phrase that goes in the blank, look at the following answer choices. Cross off the answers that aren’t close to yours (ones that don’t mean joking or humorous). Put a ? next to any words you don’t know: you can’t eliminate a word if you’re not sure what it means.

(A)   cowardly

(B)   generous

(C)   considerate

(D)   jocular

(E)   suspicious

Answer choice A is definitely wrong. Although Alan could be generous, he doesn’t have to be. Since generous doesn’t match your word (joking or humorous), eliminate answer choice B. The same goes for C. You may not know what jocular means, which is okay. Put a ? next to D and move on. Answer choice E, suspicious, is also wrong, so eliminate it. The only answer left is jocular, which is the correct answer.

Mark It!

Make sure you mark each answer, so you can narrow down your choices and guess if you need to! Remember the easy markings:

Put a check mark next to an answer you like.

Put a squiggle next to an answer you kinda like.

   Put a question mark next to an answer you don’t understand.

Cross out the letter of any answer choice you KNOW is wrong.

Even though you may not have known what jocular meant, notice that you can still get the answer (or, down to a good guess between two or three answers) by POE. By the way, jocular means “characterized by joking, jesting, or good humor.”

You may be wondering why we didn’t just plug each answer into the sentence to see which one sounded right. That’s because all the answers are designed to sound right. Look back to the question we just did. The sentence would sound just fine if you plugged in any one of those answer choices. But only one of them is ETS’s answer.

More importantly, plugging each word into the sentence is how Joe Bloggs would solve the question. Does Joe get all sentence completion questions correct? No way. Joe doesn’t know that ETS has given him a clue in the sentence that tells him exactly what the answer is. He just plugs in choices and takes a guess.

You, on the other hand, know the inside scoop. In each sentence, ETS must include a clue that reveals the answer. If it didn’t, no one would agree on the right answer (there wouldn’t be a right answer), and lots of people would sue.

ETS will put a clue in every sentence to indicate what goes in the blank. Find it! Once you do, use it to determine the missing word or words. Don’t rely on the answer choices—ETS makes them as attractive as possible, so that the Joe Bloggses of the world get caught by trying to find an answer that sounds right. How can you avoid getting caught in the “sounds right” trap?

Cover the answer choices before you begin each sentence completion. (Really do it!) Place your hand or your answer sheet over the five answer choices so that you are not tempted to look at them too soon. Then, read the sentence and underline ETS’s clue. Decide what you think the word in the blank should be, and then use POE to get to ETS’s answer.

Try another example:

  4. Lavender has a ------- effect; its aroma alleviates tension and anxiety.

Here’s How to Crack It

The clue in any sentence completion is always a short, descriptive phrase that tells you what word goes in the blank. What is the clue in this sentence? The last part of the sentence gives you the full picture: alleviates tension and anxiety. The clue tells us that lavender relieves stress (tension and anxiety)—so the word we’re looking for is something like calming or relaxing.


ETS often uses a clue that
can be used in the blank.
Don’t spend brain cells
coming up with your own
word. Recycle the clue!
Remember to use anything
at your disposal to get to
the correct answer quickly
and efficiently.

Now that you have a target word, use POE to find ETS’s answer:

(A)   fragrant

(B)   joyous

(C)   iridescent

(D)   soothing

(E)   painful

The only word that comes close to meaning calming or relaxing is D, soothing. This is ETS’s answer.

Before moving on to another example, make sure you know the steps for answering sentence completion questions. Here’s a handy list for you to review:

1.     Cover up the answer choices.

2.     Read the sentence.

3.     Underline the clue.

4.     Come up with your own word or phrase to go in the blank.

5.     Use POE.

Got it? Now take a look at the following question:

  4. Some developing nations have become remarkably -------, using aid from other countries to build successful industries.

(A)   populous

(B)   dry

(C)   warlike

(D)   prosperous

(E)   isolated

Don’t Peek!

Cover the answer choices
until you come up with
your own word.

Here’s How to Crack It

The clue in this sentence is build successful industries. It indicates that some nations “have become remarkably successful.

Let’s look at each answer choice for a word that’s close to successful:

(A)   Does populous mean successful? No. Cross off this answer.

(B)   Does dry mean successful? Not at all. Cross it off.

(C)   Does warlike mean successful? Nope. Ditch it.

(D)   Does prosperous mean successful? Sure does.

(E)   Does isolated mean successful? Nope. Ditch it.

ETS’s answer must be D.

If you are having trouble finding the clue, ask yourself two simple questions:

1.     What is the blank talking about?

2.     What else does the sentence say about its subject?

Mark It!

Underline the clue!

For example, look back to the question we just did. What is the blank talking about? Some nations. What else does the sentence say about the nations? They were able to build successful industries. This must be the clue of the sentence because it refers to the same thing the blank refers to.

Find and underline the clue in the following sentence. Then fill in the blank with your own word. If you have any trouble, ask yourself these questions:

1.     What is the blank talking about?

2.     What else does the sentence say about its subject?

  1. Shaquille O’Neal is such a physically intimidating basketball player that his opponents focus on his ------- and thus underestimate his surprising quickness.

What is the blank talking about? Shaquille O’Neal. What else does the sentence say about Shaquille O’Neal? He is a physically intimidating basketball player. Therefore, his opponents focus on his large size.

The word you come up with to fill the blank doesn’t have to be an elegant word, or a hard word, or the perfect word. It doesn’t even have to be a word; instead, it can be a phrase—even a clunky phrase—as long as it captures the correct meaning.

In an episode of The Simpsons, a lawyer couldn’t think of the word mistrial, so he asked the judge to declare a “bad court thingie.” Bad court thingie is an accurate enough substitute for mistrial on the SAT. With bad court thingie as your “word,” POE will get you to mistrial.

As we mentioned earlier, you can often just recycle the clue instead of coming up with an entirely new word for the blank. If you can put the clue itself in the blank, you can be sure that you’ve put your finger on ETS’s answer.

Please Recycle

If the SAT gives you a
perfect word or phrase as
a clue, then steal it! The
SAT just told you exactly
what word they want.

Is the blank always the same as the clue? Sometimes the blank is exactly the same, while other times it is exactly the opposite. You must use the rest of the sentence to determine if the blank and the clue are the same or opposite. In other words, you must be on the lookout for “trigger words.”

Very often on sentence completions, the most important clue to ETS’s answer is a trigger word: a single revealing word or expression that lets you know exactly where ETS is heading. About half of all SAT sentence completions contain trigger words. Combining trigger words with your clue makes filling in the blank a breeze.

Common Triggers

Same Direction




in fact

colon (:)

semicolon (;)

Change Direction




in contrast to




Trigger words can either change the direction the sentence is going in or keep it the same. The most common change-direction trigger words are but, though, and although. These words change the direction or focus of a sentence. The most common same-direction trigger words are and andbecause. These are words that maintain the direction of a sentence.

Both types of trigger words provide terrific clues that you can use to find ETS’s answer. To see what we mean, take a look at the following incomplete sentences. For each one, fill in a few words that complete the thought in a plausible way. There’s no single correct answer. Just fill in something that makes sense in the context of the entire sentence:

I really like you, but ___________________________________________.

I really like you, and ___________________________________________.

Here’s how one of our students filled in the blanks:

I really like you, but I’m going to leave you.

I really like you, and I’m going to hug you.

In the first sentence, the word but indicates that the second half of the sentence will contradict the first half. Because the first half of the sentence is positive, the second half must be negative. I like you, but I’m going to leave you. The sentence changes direction after the trigger word but.

In the second sentence, the word and indicates that the second half of the sentence will confirm or support the first half. Because the first half of the sentence is positive, the second half must be positive as well. I like you, and I’m going to hug you. In this case, the sentence continues in the same direction after the trigger word and.

There are two other types of triggers to look for: punctuation and time triggers.

Punctuation triggers are colons and semicolons. Both colons and semicolons are used to indicate that there is more, similar information in the sentence after the colon or semicolon.

The party was depressing: sad and devoid of fun.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a musical prodigy; he was able to play both the piano and the violin by the age of five.

Notice how the information after the colon in the first sentence just says more about how depressing the party was? In the second sentence, after musical prodigy, there is a semicolon followed by an explanation of how he was a musical prodigy: he was able to play music at an early age.

Colons and semicolons are therefore great triggers to notice in a sentence, because they tell you that the blank is going to be similar to the clue.

Dikembe Mutombo is a ------- : he is able to speak nine languages.

The word in the blank must be something along the lines of person able to speak many languages, since that’s the clue after the colon. (By the way, the word for that is “polyglot.”)

The last common type of trigger is known as a time trigger. If time passes, then something changed, and the word in the blank will often be the opposite of the clue.

In Horatio Alger’s stories, the protagonist starts life poor, but always ends up ------- .

A good word for the blank would be rich, since the protagonists starts life poor. Notice how the words starts and always ends up told you that time passed, and that the protagonist couldn’t stay poor forever.

Circle the trigger word (if there is one) and underline the clue in each of the following sentences. Then, write your own word in the blank. If you have trouble finding the clue, ask yourself, “What is the blank talking about?” and “What else does the sentence say about this?” Don’t worry if you can’t think of a single, perfect word for the blank; use a phrase that catches the meaning. Once you’ve finished these questions, go on to Drill 2 and use POE to find ETS’s answer. Answers can be found on this page.

Mark It

Make sure you actually
underline the clue and
circle the trigger. Put
pencil to paper!

  1. The journalist’s description of the crime scene remained ------- , devoid of any bias or emotion.

  6. The candidate was mocked for his ------- response to the question: his long-winded and rambling reply did nothing to clarify his position.

  7. The critic complained that Hollywood directors should stop producing technically slick but emotionally ------- movies and begin creating films filled with authenticity and poignancy.

Here are the same questions, this time with the answer choices. Refer to your notes from Drill 1 and make a choice for each question. Remember to use POE. Answers can be found on this page.

  1. The journalist’s description of the crime scene remained ------- , devoid of any bias or emotion.

(A)   esoteric

(B)   convincing

(C)   dispassionate

(D)   ironic

(E)   predictable

  6. The candidate was mocked for his ------- response to the question: his long-winded and rambling reply did nothing to clarify his position.

(A)   lucid

(B)   meandering

(C)   benign

(D)   partisan

(E)   candid

  7. The critic complained that Hollywood directors should stop producing technically slick but emotionally ------- movies and begin creating films filled with authenticity and poignancy.

(A)   savvy

(B)   vacuous

(C)   opulent

(D)   urbane

(E)   boorish

Need More

For video
instruction, go to

Roughly half of all sentence completions contain two blanks. Many students fear these questions because they look long and intimidating. But two-blank sentence completions are no more difficult than single-blank sentence completions. In fact, they can be easier because you get two chances to use POE. The key is to take them one blank at a time.

To crack two-blank sentence completions, read the sentence, circling the trigger word(s) and underlining the clue(s), keeping in mind that there may be a clue for each blank. Then fill in whichever blank seems easier to you. Once you have filled in one of the blanks, go to the answer choices and check just the words for that blank, using POE to get rid of answers that are not close to yours. Then go back to the other blank, fill it in, and check the remaining choices. You do not need to check both words at one time. If one of the words doesn’t work in a blank, then it doesn’t matter what the other word is. One strike and the answer is out.

When eliminating answers, draw a line through the entire answer choice. That way you won’t get confused and check it again when you are checking the other blank. Even if you do fill in both blanks the first time you read the sentence, check only one blank at a time. It is much easier to concentrate on one word than on a pair of words. Sometimes you’ll be able to get rid of four choices by checking only one blank, and you won’t even need to check the other blank.

Here’s an example of a two-blank sentence completion:

  5. While the ------- student openly questioned the teacher’s explanation, she was not so ------- as to suggest that the teacher was wrong.

(A)   complacent . . suspicious

(B)   inquisitive . . imprudent

(C)   curious . . imperturbable

(D)   provocative . . respectful

(E)   ineffectual . . brazen

Here’s How to Crack It

Let’s start with the first blank. The clue is openly questioned, and we can simply recycle the clue and put questioning in the blank. Now let’s take a look at the first-blank words in the answer choices and eliminate any words that are definitely not a good match for questioning. Eliminate choices A and E because complacent and ineffectual have nothing to do with questioning. All we want to do at this point is eliminate any words that are way off base. Then we can move on to the second blank.

Shoe Store

If you were shopping for
shoes and found a pair
you liked, you’d ask the
clerk to bring you a pair in
your size to try on. Say you
tried the right shoe first. If
it felt horrible, would you
even bother to try on the
left shoe? No, because
even if the left shoe was
comfy, you’d have to wear
it with the right shoe,
which you already know
causes you unspeakable
pain. You would look for
another pair of shoes.
Two-blank sentence
completions are like shoes.
If one doesn’t fit, there’s
no point trying the other
one. Half bad is all bad.

The clue for the second blank is suggest that the teacher was wrong. How would you describe a student who accuses the teacher of being wrong? Bold or rude, maybe? Look at the remaining choices and get rid of any second words that don’t mean something like bold or rude. C is out—imperturbable does not mean bold or rude. Also, D is out, since this student is anything but respectful. ETS’s answer must be B.

Notice that we had to eliminate only one of the words in each answer choice to get rid of the entire choice. Attacking this question using POE also made it easier because we could eliminate four answers without much trouble. If four answers are wrong, the one that’s left must be ETS’s answer.

Every now and then, the clue for one of the blanks in a two-blank sentence completion turns out to be the other blank. What? How can ETS get away with making the clue a blank?

Don’t worry—if ETS has decided to use one blank as the clue for the other blank, you know it has inserted another way for you to find the answer. Let’s look at an example:

  6. Most of Rick’s friends think his life is unbelievably -------, but in fact he spends most of his time on ------- activities.

(A)   fruitful . . productive

(B)   wasteful . . useless

(C)   scintillating . . mundane

(D)   varied . . sportive

(E)   callow . . simple

Here’s How to Crack It

The trigger word in this sentence is but. We gather from the sentence that most of Rick’s friends think his life is one way, but in fact it is another. We cannot tell if his friends think his life is great and busy while it’s really lousy and slow, or vice versa. However, we do know that our blanks are opposites:

Knowing this is enough to get us to ETS’s answer. Let’s look at each answer choice, keeping in mind that we need a pair of words that are opposites:

(A)   Fruitful is positive; productive is positive. Eliminate this choice.

(B)   Wasteful is negative; useless is negative. Cross it off.

(C)   Scintillating is positive; mundane is negative. Keep it.

(D)   Varied is positive; sportive is positive. Cross it off.

(E)   Callow is negative; simple is neutral. A possibility, but not great.

ETS’s answer is C: Rick’s life may look scintillating, but he spends most of his time on mundane activities.

If the clue to one of the blanks is the other blank, look for the trigger word and determine the relationship between the blanks. Then use POE to find ETS’s answer.

Notice in the last example that we didn’t use words to fill in the blanks; instead, we looked for positive and negative. On difficult sentence completions, you may find it hard to determine what the word in the blank is supposed to be. However, you will usually have an idea if that word should be a good word (something positive) or a bad word (something negative). Knowing whether a blank is positive or negative can help you eliminate answer choices. If you are unable to come up with your own word, use + or – to get rid of answers and make smart guesses.


Don’t eliminate words
you’ve never seen before
or cannot readily define.
Or, in the words of Bob
Dylan, “Don’t criticize
what you can’t

Here’s an example:

  8. Ruskin’s vitriolic attack was the climax of the ------- heaped on paintings that today seem amazingly -------.

(A)   criticism . . unpopular

(B)   ridicule . . inoffensive

(C)   praise . . amateurish

(D)   indifference . . scandalous

(E)   acclaim . . creditable

Here’s How to Crack It

A vitriolic attack is something bad (and so is simply an attack, if you don’t know what vitriolic means). The climax of a vitriolic attack must also be bad, and therefore the first blank must be a bad word. Already we can eliminate choices C and E (and possibly choice D). We don’t have to worry about the second word in these answer choices because we already know that the first word is wrong.

A Gentle Reminder

Your aim is to eliminate
wrong answers. Get rid of
as many incorrect choices
as you can, guess from
among the remaining
choices, and then move on.

Now look at the second blank. The first part of the sentence says that Ruskin thought the paintings were very bad; today, amazingly, they seem—what? Bad?

No! The word in the second blank has to be a good word. Choices C and E are already crossed out. We can now also eliminate choices A and D (without bothering to look at the first words again) because the second blank words are bad words. The only choice left is B—ETS’s answer. You’ve correctly answered a very hard question simply by figuring out whether the words in ETS’s answer were good or bad. Not bad!

The good-word/bad-word method is also helpful when you have anticipated ETS’s answer but haven’t found a similar word among the choices. Simply decide whether your anticipated answer is positive or negative, then determine whether each of the answer choices is positive or negative. Eliminate the choices that are different, and you’ll find ETS’s answer.

As you know, the last few questions in each group of sentence completions will be quite difficult. On these hard questions, you will find it useful to remember the Joe Bloggs principle and eliminate choices that you know would attract Joe. Here’s an example:

  5. The policy of benign ------- was based upon the assumption that citizens were better off when the government kept out of their daily affairs.

(A)   regulation

(B)   engagement

(C)   neglect

(D)   democracy

(E)   coercion

Here’s How to Crack It

Joe Bloggs is attracted to choices containing words that remind him of the subject matter of the sentence. The words in the sentence that Joe notices are citizens and government—words relating to politics. Which answers attract his attention? Choices A and D. You can therefore eliminate both.


Eliminating Joe Bloggs
attractors should always
be the first thing you
do when considering
answer choices on a hard
sentence completion. If
you don’t eliminate them
immediately, you run the
risk of falling for them as
you consider the various

What’s the clue in this sentence? It’s the phrase kept out of their daily affairs. By recycling the clue, you can anticipate the correct answer: “The policy of benign keeping out of citizens’ daily affairs was based on.…” Which answer choice could mean something similar to that? Only C, neglect.

Take all the techniques you’ve learned and put them into practice. Don’t forget to underline your clues and circle your triggers! The numbers reflect where in the section each question would appear. Remember that higher numbers go with harder questions. Answers can be found on this page.

  2. Instead of being ------- by piles of papers, some college admissions officers are trying to ------- the application process by utilizing computers to simplify the procedure.

(A)   hindered . . facilitate

(B)   bolstered . . retard

(C)   disappointed . . arrest

(D)   quickened . . accelerate

(E)   offended . . innovate

  5. In National Park Ranger Nevada Barr’s novel Blind Descent, the ------- must rescue the endangered victim of a ------- caving accident.

(A)   adventurer . . secondary

(B)   philanderer . . fictional

(C)   protagonist . . perilous

(D)   globetrotter . . coincidental

(E)   adversary . . hazardous

  6. Most reviews of the novel commented on its ------- tone; at times, the novel seemed less like a novel than like a lecture intended to teach particular morals.

(A)   flippant

(B)   cathartic

(C)   lofty

(D)   didactic

(E)   morbid

  7. The nonprofit organization was searching for a ------- new employee, one who would courageously support the goals of the organization and become devoted to helping other people.

(A)   querulous

(B)   novice

(C)   proficient

(D)   magnanimous

(E)   lavish

·        Cover the answer choices. Learn to anticipate ETS’s answer by filling in each blank before you look at the answer choices. If you look at the answer choices first, you might be misled.

·        Always look for the clue—the key word or words that you need to fill in the blank(s)—and underline it.

·        If you have trouble finding the clue, ask yourself these questions:

·        What is the blank talking about?

·        What else does the sentence say about this subject?

·        Look for trigger words—revealing words or expressions that give you important clues about the meanings of sentences—and circle them.

·        Fill in the blank with any word or phrase that will help you get to ETS’s answer. Don’t worry if you need to use a clunky or an awkward phrase. If you can, recycle the clue. If you can’t come up with any words for the blank, use + or –.

·        Use POE to get to the answer.

·        Attack two-blank sentence completions by focusing on one blank at a time. Use the same techniques you would use on one-blank questions. If you can eliminate either word in an answer choice, you can cross out the entire choice. If the clue for one of the blanks is the other blank, use the trigger word to determine the relationship between the blanks.

·        Never eliminate a choice unless you are sure of its meaning. Don’t eliminate words that you can’t define.

·        If you can’t eliminate any answer choices on a question, skip it.