The SAT Prep Black Book
SAT Sentence Completion
The General Process For Answering Sentence-Completion Questions When We Know Enough Of The Words To Be Certain
This fairly simple process will let you answer Sentence Completion questions with total accuracy as long as you follow it faithfully.
1. Read the sentence and the answer choices with an open mind.
Many SAT-prep tutors, authors, and courses recommend “pre-forming” your answer, but I don’t like that advice. “Pre-forming” is exactly what it sounds like: you read the sentence without looking at the answer choices, decide what you think the answer should be on your own, and then look for that answer. The problem with this is that you might misread or misunderstand the sentence, and then talk yourself into a wrong answer. Instead, I prefer to read the sentence and the answer choices, and then think about both the sentence and the answer choices as part of a system. (To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the pre-forming approach. If you could execute that approach flawlessly, you would answer every single question correctly. In my experience as a tutor, the problem with pre-forming is that it makes it more likely that test-takers will make mistakes, and less likely that they’ll be able to catch those mistakes after they make them.) So read the sentence and the answer choices without trying to jump the gun.
2. Look for an answer choice that restates the key elements of the sentence.
Again, just like with the Passage-Based Reading questions, the whole key to the Sentence-Completion questions is to find an answer choice that restates an idea in the text. If you know enough of the words in the sentence and you know the meaning of the correct answer choice, this part should be fairly straightforward. (If you don’t, then you’re reading the wrong thing right now—this is the process for situations where you know the words. We’ll talk about what to do when you don’t know enough of the words later on.)
3. Make sure you’re absolutely certain that the answer choice you like restates an idea from the sentence.
This is where most test-takers make mistakes. Remember, again, that this whole section of the SAT is all about restating ideas that are on the page. In order for the correct answer to be valid, it must mean exactly what the phrase from the sentence means. A lot of students aren’t precise enough with this, though, and they end up losing points when they don’t need to. As one example, I had a student who recently chose the word “elaborate” to restate the word “instructive.” She explained that a lot of things that are instructive are also complicated, which is true; the problem is that the two words aren’t synonyms, even if many things are both instructive and elaborate. It’s possible to be instructive without being elaborate, and it’s possible to be elaborate without being instructive, so “elaborate” was the wrong answer to restate “instructive.” Note that this student absolutely knew the meanings of “elaborate” and “instructive,” and still talked herself into a wrong answer anyway because she ignored the unwritten rules of the test when she should have known better. This is the kind of thing you have to keep yourself from doing if you want to score high. It’s way more important than memorizing words—no matter how big your vocabulary is, you’ll run into trouble if you don’t force yourself to be very precise with the meanings of the words you know.
4. Re-read the sentence, substituting the answer choice you like for the blank (or blanks).
This is a very important part of the process, and one that a lot of people overlook. The correct answer must fit exactly into the sentence, in a way that is grammatically acceptable. If it sounds awkward, it’s not right, and you’ve misread or misunderstood something somewhere along the way. If it’s a two-blank question, the words in the answer choices for both blanks have to fit exactly. If one fits great but the other one doesn’t, then the whole answer is wrong.
Like I said, the process is pretty straightforward if we really know enough of the words. Basically, as long as you read carefully and force yourself to be very precise when you think about what the words mean, you can’t go wrong.
The real difficulty can arise when we don’t know enough of the words to be sure of the correct answer right away. Let’s talk about some strategies we may find helpful in those situations.