The SAT Prep Black Book
SAT Sentence Completion
The Sentence Completion Process in Action Against Real Questions
By this point, we’ve seen the process for answering questions when we know enough of the words to be sure we’re right, and we’ve talked about some general strategies we can try to follow in situations where we don’t know enough of the words right away to be certain that we’re right.
Now it’s time to take all of these abstract concepts and apply them to some concrete questions from the College Board’s Blue Book, The Official SAT Study Guide. As I said earlier and will say again (often), the Blue Book is the only substantial printed source of real SAT questions that were actually written by the College Board, which means it is the only substantial source of questions that are guaranteed to follow all the same rules and patterns that the SAT will follow when you take it for real.
You can find the best deal on the Blue Book here: http://www.SATprepBlackBook.com/blue-book.
First, we’ll do the Sentence Completion questions from page 390 in the second edition of the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide, since that’s the first set of Sentence Completion questions from the first practice test in that book. Then, we’ll go through a selection of questions from the Blue Book that students have traditionally had difficulty with, so that you can see the strategies in action in a variety of situations.
To show that we don’t need to know all the words on the SAT, I’ll proceed as though we don’t know some of the words in various questions, when my experience with students would suggest that those words might not be widely known by most test-takers.
Page 390, Question 1
This is a single-blank question in which many students will be able to recognize that the word “foresight” restates the idea of “accurately predict[ing]” something. We can see that the word “predict” has the prefix “pre-” in it, which typically indicates something happening in advance of something else; we can also see that the word “foresight” has the prefix “fore-,” which also indicates the idea of something being before something else. So (A) is correct.
Some students get nervous on this question because they aren’t sure about the words “nostalgia” and “folly,” but there’s no need to worry about them if we’re sure that “foresight” is correct. If you know that one answer choice restates the correct part of the sentence, then it doesn’t matter what the other choices mean: the College Board will never create a question in which two answer choices accurately restate the relevant parts of the sentence.
Some students are also drawn to the word “despair,” because it seems to them like a writer would probably be sad if his books weren’t allowed to appear in his native country. But we have to remember that we’re not just looking for an okay-sounding sentence; we specifically need a word that restates part of the existing sentence. “Despair” doesn’t satisfy that criterion because the sentence doesn’t actually say anything about being extremely sad or upset.
Page 390, Question 2
Here, we want a word that will mean the same thing as “simple and direct.”
Many students will know the meanings of (A), (D), and (E), and will be able to tell that those words don’t mean the same thing as “simple and direct.”
But what about (B) and (C)?
(C) might seem like a word that could be broken up and analyzed. If we did that, we would probably conclude that “-atious” was the suffix (or compound suffix), and that the root was something like “ostent.” But that probably doesn’t help much—it’s unlikely that we might be able to think of any word related to that.
(B) might offer more promise, actually. In this age of camera-phones and social media, many students are familiar with the idea of “candids,” which are un-posed, un-planned photographs. This might be enough of a connection to let them realize that the word “candid” means “simple and direct”—in other words, it refers to something that has no pretense or staging about it.
If a student makes that connection, he should mark (B) and be confident of his choice. If not, and he’s left with more than one or two choices seeming possible, this might be a good question to skip.
Many students miss this question because they choose either “intricate” or “fictional,” even though the students who choose those answers often know what those words mean. While it might be possible in real life (I guess) for photographs to “provide an intricate reflection” or “provide a fictional reflection,” neither “intricate” nor “fictional” actually restates an idea from the rest of the sentence, which means that those choices are incorrect on SAT Sentence Completion questions.
Notice, too, that we don’t need to know what the phrase “bygone social milieu” means at the end of the sentence. Remember that it’s possible for us to answer Sentence Completion questions with total confidence even if we don’t know every single word involved in the question!
Page 390, Question 3
This is a single-blank questions that many, many test-takers will correctly choose to skip. This is a question with a fairly large share of challenging words, and the words that might be easier for test-takers to figure out are, unfortunately, not the correct answer.
We want a word that means “impulsive,” and indicates a willingness to follow “sudden whims.”
Many students will choose to begin by attacking (D) and (E). We can probably tell that (D) will mean something like “lacking passion,” which isn’t going to be the right answer here. (E) also seems like it doesn’t have anything to do with the idea of being impulsive; it seems more related to words like “decoration” or “decorum.”
We may also be able to tell that (C) is vaguely related to words like “eloquent” if we can realize that “-acious” is a compound suffix and the root is something like “loq.” Maybe we figure that out, maybe we don’t.
Even if we do figure out that “loquacious” isn’t a restatement of the idea of being “impulsive,” we’re still stuck with the words “capricious” and “bombastic.” “Capricious” will be a hard word to take apart—its root will seem to be something like “capric” or “capr,” but most test-takers won’t really know what to do with that root. “Bombastic,” on the other hand, is probably easier to take apart—so much easier, in fact, that many test-takers will incorrectly choose it, just because they feel comfortable with the root “bomb.”
Test-takers often like the idea of the root “bomb” restating the idea of something being “impulsive,” because a bomb is a device for creating a destructive impulse of energy. But the rest of the sentence involves the idea of “sudden whims,” and nothing in the idea of a “bomb” should strike us as inherently whimsical.
So if we can realize that “bombastic” doesn’t go with the idea of “sudden whims,” then we might be able to tell that “capricious” is the only choice we haven’t been able to eliminate (assuming we can also work out that “loquacious” is unlikely to be correct). This could be enough for us to be able to see that (A) is correct.
Unfortunately, most test-takers who try to work out an answer here will choose “bombastic” because they ignore the idea of the “sudden whims.” This is one more good example of how critical it is to pay attention to details on the SAT, and not to fall in love with an answer choice just because it kind of seems to work for part of a sentence but not all of it.
For most people, then, skipping this question will ultimately be the best option.
Page 390, Question 4
This is a classic example of a question that untrained test-takers miss all the time, even though they typically know all the necessary words to find the right answer. For most students who get this question wrong, the major issues will be the grammatical complexity of the sentence and the difficulty posed by the word “visceral.”
The key thing here, as always, is to read very carefully, and to remember that all questions in the Critical Reading section of the SAT rely on the idea of restating concepts exactly.
The phrase “that is” in the last line of the sentence indicates that everything after the comma is a restatement of everything before the semicolon. In other words, if we call the first blank “X” and the second blank “Y,” the fact that it was “visceral . . . rather than X” is the same thing as the fact that it was “not . . . rational [but] Y.”
Let’s keep that in mind as we work through this.
For most people, the easiest place to start will be with the second blank, because we can tell that the word in the second blank needs to be the opposite of the word “rational.” The second word in choice (A), though, is a synonym for “rational,” so it won’t work. The second word in choice (B) is unrelated to the idea of being rational, so it won’t work either. (C), on the other hand, offers an antonym of “rational” in its second blank, so it’s okay; (D) works too. (E) offers another synonym of “rational,” so it’s out.
So we can tell that (C) and (D) are the only two choices that offer antonyms of the word “rational” for their second blanks. Now we have to figure out whether “intuitive” or “deliberate” is the right option for the first blank.
We can see that the first blank needs to be the opposite of the word “visceral,” but a lot of test-takers won’t know what the word “visceral” means. It might look like we’re stuck . . . until we remember that the last part of the sentence is a restatement of the first part, as we discussed above.
So the word in the first blank isn’t just the opposite of “visceral.” It must also be the same thing as “rational”! We know that because the first half of the sentence says the decision was “visceral” instead of the word in the first blank, and then the rest of the sentence says the decision wasn’t “rational.” So “rational” and the word in the first blank must be synonyms, because of the College Board’s unwritten rules about things in Sentence Completion questions restating each other.
We probably know that the word “intuitive” refers to something being a gut feeling, while the word “deliberate” refers to something that is carefully considered, or “rational.” So, out of these two options, we want the word “deliberate” for the first blank. That makes (D) the right answer.
Remember that reading carefully and knowing the rules for these questions is more important than memorizing a lot of vocabulary words! Also remember that you can often work around difficult words, just like we could work around the word “visceral” in this question.
This kind of question is the sort of thing you want to focus on during your preparation and testing, rather than something like number 3 on the same page, because the technique that we use to reason through this question will be broadly applicable on all Sentence Completion questions, while the strange words in a question like 3 will probably never appear in positions that matter when you take the test for real.
Page 390, Question 5
This question is a great example of the type of thing that most test-takers will miss, even if they’ve memorized a ton of vocabulary, because the words in the answer choices are fairly obscure and the grammar of the sentence is more complex than usual.
But a well-trained test-taker can easily take this question apart and find the right answer in seconds.
The question talks about the idea of a “transformation” that results in the destruction of something. From years of experience with many, many students, I know that most people will have a difficult time with nearly all the words in these answer choices, with the possible exception of the words in choice (D). In fact, people often make the mistake of choosing (D) just because they know what those words mean, even though “innovation” is definitely a positive idea and the word in the second blank definitely needs to be negative (since it “destroyed” good things like “adaptability”). Let this question be one more reminder of the fact that you shouldn’t pick a choice just because you know what the words mean—they have to mean the right things in the context of the question in order to be right!
But even if we don’t know the rest of the words, we can probably take their suffixes apart. Notice that the sentence talks about something being done to these “business stratagems;” something about them is ultimately changed as the result of a “transformation.” Now notice that some of the answer words in the answer choices sound like words that involve some kind of transformation process being applied.
For instance, (A) has the word “streamlined,” which definitely sounds like it could be used to describe something that has been transformed by streamlining. (B) has “mitigated”—even if we don’t know what that means, the “-ate” suffix there tells us this is probably an adjective made out of some kind of “mitigation” process. So that might seem like it could work, too.
But notice the second words for (A) and (B). (A) has the word “infighting,” which doesn’t really sound like any kind of transformative process. (B) has “jingoism,” and even if we don’t know what that word means, the suffix “-ism” usually indicates a set of beliefs, not a process.
Apart from (D), which can’t be right because “innovation” is positive, there’s only one answer choice that has two words in it that both sound like some kind of process: (C) has both “ossified” and “bureaucratization.” “Ossified” sounds like some kind of transformative process because of the suffix “-ify,” which we also find in words like “classify” or “pacify” or “rectify,” all of which describe the idea of doing some action to something. “Bureaucratization” has that suffix “-ization,” which also sounds like a kind of active, transforming process, like we see in the words “pasteurization,” “ionization,” and “immunization.”
Believe it or not, we can be sure (C) is right if we simply realize that “innovation” doesn’t work and that (C) is the only other choice with two words that could describe a transformation. We don’t even need to know what those words mean.
Now, let me be very clear that this exact type of solution will not be possible on every single Sentence Completion question, for the reasons I described earlier in this section: the College Board uses a wide variety of sentence structures and a wide variety of words, so we have to be flexible in our solutions. Sometimes we’ll look at a question with a lot of unknown words and there just won’t be anything we can do. But sometimes we’ll be able to work out the question mostly by reading carefully and paying attention to suffixes, and that’s what happened here.
This might feel like a strange, unreliable way of answering SAT questions. If it seems that way to you, it means you’re still thinking as a traditional, cramming-oriented test-taker. Just loosen up a little bit and try using these techniques in practice. After a few questions they’ll begin to feel much more natural.
It will probably help to check out www.SATprepVideos.com, where a selection of free videos is available for readers of this book.
In order to help that process along, let’s take a look throughout the rest of the College Board’s book at some other test items that students have often had questions about.