The SAT Prep Black Book

SAT Sentence Completion

A Selection of Challenging Questions

Now let’s talk about some solutions for the SAT Sentence Completion questions that people typically have difficulties with. As always, you’ll need a copy of the College Board’s Blue Book to follow along.

I strongly advise you to follow along with these solutions as a way to continue to improve your performance on Sentence Completion questions.

Page 402, Question 6

This is a two-blank question that a lot of students miss because they don’t bother to consider their answer in the context of the original sentence. Most people who miss this question choose (A), because the idea of “cheapen[ing]” something seems to fit nicely in the sentence for the first blank, and “affordable” definitely works for the second blank.

The problem, though, is that it doesn’t make sense to say that the new method “cheapened” an “industry.” A product might have been cheapened, but the industry as a whole can’t technically be cheapened—the industry doesn’t have a price that could be lowered, which is what “cheapening” would have to mean in this context.

If we go back to the original sentence and imagine saying it with the word “cheapened” in place of the first blank, we can probably feel right away that it’s odd to talk about an “industry” being “cheapened.” But, again, a lot of students don’t catch this mistake because they don’t take the time necessary to go back and fit the word back in the sentence to make sure it’s correct.

So now let’s look at the other choices, and see if we can find some words that could work in the first blank. Industries can be “transformed” or “revolutionized,” and maybe even “stimulated.” It sounds a little odd to talk about “provok[ing]” an industry, though.

Now let’s consider the other words in choices (B), (C), and (E).

For (B), we might not know what “viable” means, so let’s skip it for the moment.

(C) doesn’t quite work. Even if we don’t know “prohibitive,” we probably know words like “prohibited” and “prohibition,” so we can tell that “prohibitive” has to do with making something difficult or impossible. That doesn’t go with the idea of things being “inexpensive” from the early part of the sentence.

(E) doesn’t work either, for the same reason—nothing in the sentence talks about making it harder to access anything.

So now we can tell that (B) is correct, especially if we know what “viable” means, or if we can realize it might be related to words like “vive” in French or “viva” in Spanish, which have to do with living or surviving.

Let this question remind you that you always have to pay attention to small details on the SAT. People choose (A) all the time on this question because they don’t check the details. For most people, missing this question isn’t a matter of vocabulary—it’s a matter of not following the rules of the test.

Page 402, Question 8

This is a question that many people will probably choose to skip. We want a word that means “disloyal,” but most students will be very unfamiliar with every word in the answer choices except, perhaps, “tenacity,” which isn’t the right answer. These particular words will also be fairly hard to take apart in terms of roots and suffixes. It also doesn’t help that the first four answer choices are all negative-sounding words, which makes it hard to eliminate any of them.

So, again, the best thing for most test-takers to do is to skip this question, unless you just happen to know the word “perfidy” for some reason and can tell that choice (C) is correct.

Why am I talking about this question, then?

This question is the kind of thing most people think about when they think about the Critical Reading section of the SAT: a question with difficult, obscure words, and very little context. But this question is actually pretty abnormal, if you compare it to the rest of the questions in the section. The only other question in the whole section that might have similarly difficult words with so little context is number 7, but the remaining 22 questions in the section are nothing like those two.

If you skip 7 and 8, but lock down the other questions on the section, including questions like 6, by paying attention to details with words you actually know—and if you maintain a similar pace on the other two Critical Reading sections—you’ll have a score above 700.

So the reason I wanted to talk about this question is to reiterate that it’s not the sort of thing you should be focusing on in your SAT preparation. There’s much more useful stuff we can learn from questions like number 6 on the same page, and there are many opportunities on the Critical Reading section to answer more questions with less effort in the amount of time we might spend trying to answer this one.

Page 425, Question 5

Lots of test-takers incorrectly choose (D) here. Their reasoning is usually something like this: “Well, I can imagine that it might be possible for some luxurious fabric to be really thin and transparent, so I guess ‘luxurious’ is a good answer—plus, I know what it means.”

But remember that we can’t just pick an answer because we know what it means. We have to check and make sure it’s appropriate to the sentence.

In this case, the word “luxurious” simply does not mean “basically transparent.” It’s true that some luxurious things might be transparent, and some transparent things might be luxurious, but the two terms are not identical. So (D) is wrong.

Now, what about the other choices?

Many test-takers can figure out that (C) probably has something to do with the idea of variation, and that it’s irrelevant to the sentence.

We may also recognize that (E) is related to the word “anomaly,” which is also not appropriate here.

(A) is a bit more of a reach for most people. If we can figure out that (A) is related to the idea of being able to touch or feel something, then we can tell that it must not be correct.

That would allow us to know that (B) must be right, since the other four answers are wrong. We could work this out even if we can’t figure out anything about (B) on its own.

But if we can’t figure out that (A) doesn’t work, or if we don’t recognize that (E) doesn’t work, then we should probably skip this question.

No matter what, though, we shouldn’t pick “luxurious.” We know it’s not the same as the word “transparent.”

Page 458, Question 8

In this question, we want a word that relates to the idea of being “unpredictable” and “given to . . . shifting moods.”

Many of the answer choices will be hard for a lot of test-takers to figure out, but let’s give them a try.

(A) probably reminds us of the word “mercury,” or possibly the planet of the same name. If you’ve ever studied the element mercury in school, you know that it behaves very oddly and is often an exception to a lot of chemical trends. But let’s leave that aside for a moment.

(B) is a word you might recognize from warning labels on household cleaners, or on the sides of trucks on the highway. Neither context really involves something being unpredictable.

(C) is a word we can probably take apart. Its root seems to be related to the idea of being genuine, and the “dis-“ and “in-” prefixes could possibly indicate a few different things (as we noted earlier, prefixes are often less reliable than other parts of a word). But the idea of being genuine probably also doesn’t have much to do with the idea of being “unpredictable.”

(D) looks like it would mean something along the lines of “unable to be placed” or “unable to be placated.” But neither of those possibilities seems like it would mean the same thing as being “unpredictable” or “constantly shifting.”

(E) is a tough word for a lot of people to recognize on paper, though many people say the root of this word out loud when they get sick. The root is “phlegm,” pronounced “flem,” as in the gunk that can coat your lungs when you’re sick. If we can recognize the pronunciation from the spelling, we can probably also tell that nothing about the word “phlegm” specifically involves the idea of being predictable or not.

So if we can put all of that together, we can see that (A) might make sense, while the other answers don’t. In that case, we go ahead and mark (A), and get the question right. But if we end up being stuck with a few answer choices feeling unresolved, then we leave the question blank—remember that we can omit a half-dozen Critical Reading questions on most test days and still score above a 700 on that section of the SAT.

Page 475, Question 3

As we’ve discussed, we’re supposed to realize that, in SAT code, the first blank will mean the same thing as “brief,” and that the second blank will mean “instructive.”

Many people incorrectly choose (B) for this one because they realize that “concise” works great for the first blank without noticing that “elaborate” doesn’t mean the same thing as “instructive” for the second blank.

It’s true that there might be some things that are both “instructive” and “elaborate,” but the two words are not synonymous—not all “instructive” things are “elaborate.” Some are quite simple.

(D) is the correct option here because “succinct” is a synonym for “brief” and “enlightening” is a synonym for “instructive.”

Let this question serve as one more reminder of the fact that it’s very important to pay careful attention to every detail, especially on questions where you know what the words mean! I’ve talked to a lot of people who incorrectly chose (B) for this question, and every single one of them knew what “elaborate” and “instructive” meant, but let themselves pick (B) anyway. Don’t do that.

Page 487, Question 5

This is a difficult question for a lot of test-takers, and many of them choose to answer it incorrectly rather than leave it blank.

From the structure of the sentence and our knowledge of the SAT’s rules, we can tell that the word in the blank needs to restate the idea of being “preoccup[ied] with daily life in rural and agricultural settings.”

Many people choose (B) because they know that the word “prolific” is something that can be applied to writers or other artists who produce a large volume of work. But that word doesn’t fit here, because we’re looking for a word to describe the actual novels, and novels can’t produce large volumes of work. (On top of that, the sentence doesn’t say anything about producing a lot of work anyway.)

(E) might also be attractive to people who don’t pay close enough attention to detail, and for the same reason. It’s true that metaphors are related to the idea of literature, but “metaphorical” doesn’t mean the same thing as being interested in “rural and agricultural settings,” which is what the right answer needs to mean.

The words in (A), (C), and (D) might be a little harder to deal with, though, and this is why I’d recommend that most test-takers skip this question and invest their energy in other questions, where it would be more likely to pay off. These 3 words will be hard to take apart, and most test-takers will be left guessing and probably losing points.

Of course, if we happen to know the word “bucolic,” we’ll know that (A) is correct. But most test-takers won’t know that word—and, even if you do know it, the chances that it will be helpful on a future SAT question are practically zero.

(Many people who prep in the traditional way will see this question and decide they need to learn the words “bucolic,” “lugubrious,” and “sundry.” But the odds are very small that you would ever see those words again in a position on the SAT that actually matters. If you want to learn those words to further your own education, that’s a different story, of course. Just don’t expect them to make a difference when you take the test for real.)

Page 487, Question 6

Unlike the previous question, this is one that most test-takers should invest their time and energy in, because it’s a question we can probably answer correctly by reading carefully and relying on the meanings of words we know.

From reading the sentence carefully and remembering the rules of the SAT, we can tell that the word in the first blank needs to mean “foolish.” The word in the second blank needs to mean something that a person could be “accuse[d]” of for applying “skewed data.”

For the first blank, then, (A), (B), and (E) might all seem like good ideas. That means we need to figure out whether “remonstrance,” “erudition,” or “chicanery” might be the best option for the second blank, the thing that somebody would be accused of for applying skewed data.

If we know the meanings of those words, the answer is pretty clear. But let’s assume that we don’t, and attack the words to try to figure out what they might mean.

“Remonstrance” looks like it might have a meaning similar to “demonstration,” since both words seem to have a prefix stuck on the root “monstr.” (We might also wonder if the word is related to “monster,” but, even if it is, it wouldn’t have anything to do with applying skewed data.)

For “erudition,” we might see a connection to the ides of “rudeness,” or of something being “rudimentary.” “Rudeness” does seem like something that a person could be accused of, so it might look tempting, but the sentence says that a person would be accused of rudeness because he “appl[ied] skewed data,” and that doesn’t really work, unfortunately—the word “rude” applies to somebody who does something impolite, not to somebody who applies bad data.

That leaves us with “chicanery.” This is a word that’s probably pretty hard to take apart. But if we’re reasonably confident that the other four answer choices don’t work, and that the first half of this one definitely does work, then I’d go ahead and mark (E) and get the question right.

This, then, is an example of a question that looks pretty challenging at first but can probably ultimately be figured out by reading carefully and paying close attention to the rules of the test and to the exact meanings of words.

Page 520, Question 7

In this question, we can see that the word in the blank needs to refer to the idea of having “insights . . . beyond ordinary perception.” Many test-takers incorrectly choose (B) for this question because the idea of being a stockbroker seems to be related to the idea of making a profit, but this is yet another example of how important it is to read everything on the SAT very carefully: the word in the blank needs to restate the ideas at the end of the sentence, not the idea of being a stockbroker.

Most students will know the meaning of the word in (A), and will be able to tell that a “mentor” is not necessarily someone who has extra-sensory perception. The same goes for (C): most test-takers will know the word “counterfeit” and will realize that this choice has nothing to do with special insights. (E), as well, is another word that relates to something most test-takers will recognize—in this case, the word “propaganda,” from history classes.

That leaves us with (D), a word we may have a hard time taking apart (students of French will realize that the word means “clear-seeing” in French, which certainly goes along with the idea of having extremely good perception, since sight is one way to perceive things). But, even if we can’t take it apart, we know for sure that the other 4 choices don’t work, and that means (D) must be right.

Page 520, Question 8

This is one more excellent example of the general uselessness of memorizing vocabulary words for the majority of Sentence Completion questions. The correct answer here is the word “discriminating,” because the word “discriminating” originally referred to the idea that a person had very good taste and could separate good things from bad things in a way that the average person would not be able to do. (Of course, the more common use of the word “discriminating” today simply refers to the idea of treating people differently based on their race, gender, age, and so on—in that context, it’s obviously not a positive thing.)

I would be willing to bet that most students who approach Sentence Completion questions as an exercise in vocabulary knowledge would not even bother to memorize the word “discriminating” if they saw it on a list because they would be sure they already knew what it meant. And they would probably end up missing this question as a result.

But if we approach the test correctly, thinking more about the words we know and about the rules of the test rather than simply looking to apply one of the 3,000 oversimplified definitions we might have learned from a flashcard, this question is probably answerable.

We can tell that (A) doesn’t work because the sentence doesn’t refer to the judges as being unknown or difficult to find, which is what “obscure” would mean.

(B) might be a bit more of a challenge for a lot of test-takers, though, because the root of “deferential” might sound an awful lot like the root of “differences” in the text, but there’s a difference between “deferring “ and “differing.” To “defer” something is to put it off for later, while “differing” involves being different. Since the text doesn’t talk about people putting anything off for later, “deferential” isn’t going to be correct.

(D) is a word a lot of test-takers pick because it seems hard to take apart, and because they mistakenly assume that (C) must not be correct. But if we look more carefully, we may see that “sanctimonious” has something like “sanct” for a root, and we may realize that this is similar to the idea of “sanctuary,” a word we might know from political or religious contexts. If we can work that out, we can realize that (D) isn’t the right answer either.

(E) also doesn’t work—if we don’t know this word, we might be able to break it apart and realize the root is “lent,” which has a relationship to the idea of being slow in French and Spanish. But nothing in the sentence is talking about anyone being slow or fast, so this is the wrong answer.

At this point, it would be good for a lot of test-takers to revisit the word “discriminating.” We know that “discrimination” in the more common context involves focusing on differences between people; hopefully, given the fact that the rest of the words don’t work, we can realize that, in the context of evaluating food, the idea of “discriminating” also involves focusing on differences, though of a different type. This makes (C) correct.

Page 549, Question 4

This is another example of a question in which most test-takers will try to make an ill-informed guess based on their gut feelings, and be wrong.

The key in this question is the phrase “diametrically opposite.” The word “opposite” goes with the prefix “anti-” in choice (B), which is how we know that (B) is correct.

Many people will choose (D) or (E) because their prefixes seem to suggest the idea of two things, but the sentence doesn’t just say that New Zealand and Spain are two different countries—its says they are opposites in some way.

Let me use this question as an opportunity to remind you that it’s extremely important to pay careful attention to these kinds of small details! The people who score in the top 5 or 10 percent on the SAT are not, generally, people who memorize a ton of stuff; instead, they’re people who pay careful attention to the important parts of each question, and who avoid making small mistakes.

Page 549, Question 6

This is another question in which paying careful attention to the rules of the test might let us figure out the correct answer even if we don’t know all the words in the answer choices.

The sentence refers to a “sound” being made by a youth orchestra. Note that the word “cacophonous” has the root “phon” in it, which indicates a relationship to the idea of sound in a lot of other words (like “telephone,” “phonics,” and “homophone”). This connection alone might be enough for us to feel certain that (A) is the right answer.

If we want further proof, we should note that the sound causes the members of the orchestra to be “abashed.” If we can tell that the word “abashed” is probably negative (it might help if we realize it could be related to “bashful”), then we know that the word in the first blank must be a negative word. That would make it impossible for (C) or (D) to be correct.

Some students won’t feel comfortable choosing (A) purely on the strength of the relationship between the root “phon” in the answer choice and the word “sound” in the sentence. But this is the kind of connection we need to start looking out for on Sentence Completion questions, because in many cases it can allow us to realize that answers like (A) are correct even if we couldn’t have defined the words in those answers on our own before seeing the question.

Page 576, Question 5

This question is one that people miss all the time, even though the people who miss it nearly always know the meanings of every word in the question. This makes it a great example of the types of mistakes people can make because they either don’t know the rules of the SAT or don’t pay careful attention to details.

Because of the College Board’s unwritten rule about parallelism on the Critical Reading section (which we talked about in our discussion on Passage-Based Reading), we can tell that the first blank needs to go with the idea of “light” from earlier in the sentence, and the second blank needs to go with the idea of “insulation.”

So when we pair the word in the first blank with the idea of “incoming sunlight,” it needs to go with the idea of “offer[ing] . . . light” from the beginning of the sentence. The only choice that works for the first blank, then, is (C), because “admit[ting] incoming sunlight” would be a way to “offer . . . light.”

Let’s check out the word in the second blank for (C) to make sure we haven’t made a mistake. We have to ask ourselves this question: is “contain[ing] heat radiated from the ground” the same thing as “offer [ing] . . . insulation” and “preventing warmth from escaping?” The answer is yes, so we’re sure that (C) is right.

Page 576, Question 8

This question is one that some students manage to figure out, but that most students would be better off leaving blank. It’s also a good example of the pitfalls of memorizing vocabulary as an approach to prepping for the SAT.

From the sentence, we can tell that we need a word that means “very sentimental.” (We have to read carefully to figure that out: the sentence says the films are called X, but that they’re not sentimental enough to deserve that. That means that X must be a word that indicates a lot of sentimentality.)

If we don’t know what the word “sentimental” means, then it will be just about impossible to develop a good idea of the answer to this question, and we should definitely skip it.

If we do know the word “sentimental,” then the next challenge is to attack the answer choices.

(A) is a word that most test-takers won’t recognize at all.

(B) looks like it might have some relationship to the word “cursor,” or to “curse,” but neither of those possibilities would suggest that the word means something related to sentimentality, so this is probably not a correct answer.

(C) looks like it might be related to the word “prose,” which we may recognize from literature class. While some prose is sentimental, it’s certainly not true that all prose is sentimental, so “prosaic” is unlikely to mean “very sentimental.”

(D) is a word that a lot of test-takers know. It’s not related to the idea of being sentimental, so it’s out.

(E) is a difficult word for a lot of people, but if we attack it we may see that it’s probably related to words like “secret” or “sacred,” neither of which is related to being sentimental.

So here’s the situation: if we know what “sentimental” means, and if we’re able to work out that choices (B), (C), (D), and (E) really don’t seem like they mean “sentimental,” then—and only then—we might go ahead and mark (A), and know that we’re correct. But if we don’t know “sentimental” or we can’t quite figure out that the other four words don’t fit—which is the situation I suspect most of us will be in—then this is definitely a question we should skip.

Remember, once more, that the Critical Reading section is fairly forgiving when it comes to these kinds of things. We can still make a perfect score on the Critical Reading section if we miss one question on most days, and omitting even a half-dozen questions will typically put us right around a 750 out of 800. So this type of question isn’t the thing you should be preparing for unless you’ve already completely mastered every other part of the test; it’s much more important to work on practicing your basic skills so you can make sure to answer every question correctly in which you know enough of the words.

Page 587, Question 4

This is a question in which the word we choose for one blank will determine what the other blank needs to mean. (There are always a few questions like this on each test. We haven’t talked about them separately because they don’t require any kind of special treatment or anything.)

This is also a question that a lot of people miss because they don’t pay attention, even though they typically know the meanings of all the necessary words.

In this case, I’d probably start by looking at the options for the second blank, since the word in that blank needs to be something that someone can be “accused” of. We can probably tell that (A), (D), and (E) could work for the second blank, because they’re negative-sounding words. So now we need to see which of those choices has a word for the first blank that fits with the second blank.

A lot of test-takers won’t know the word “vacillated,” so let’s move on to (D). Does it make sense to say that a person “experimented” so much that he was accused of “inflexibility?” No, it really doesn’t—being inflexible means not being open to new things. It has nothing to do with the idea of experimenting a lot.

(E) presents a similar problem, even though a lot of test-takers incorrectly choose it. This is a very good example of how important it is to keep the SAT’s unwritten rules about restatement in mind. In real life, to say that a person “relied so frequently” on prevention that he was accused of “negligence” could almost make sense, especially if there were some context. For example, this sentence would make a lot of sense if it appeared in the middle of a paragraph that was claiming that doctors should know how to cure diseases instead of hoping to prevent them. But we have to remember that the SAT doesn’t allow an answer choice to be correct just because it might result in an interesting sentence. On this part of the SAT, it’s all about restating things, and relying on disease-prevention is not specifically the same thing as being negligent. So this is not the correct answer.

Once we figure that out, we can realize that (A) must be the correct answer. But, again, it all depends on being alert to the rules of the test, and realizing that (E) doesn’t actually work. If we can be very precise when we think about the meanings of the words we know, then we can work out correct answers to a lot of questions that most test-takers will miss.

Page 587, Question 5

This is yet another example of a question that test-takers can often attack successfully even without knowing what all the words mean, provided they read carefully and follow the rules of the test.

First, let’s start with a careful reading of the sentence itself. (This is always important, but it’s especially worth mentioning in this sentence because this one is a bit more complicated than most of them will be.) We can tell that the word in the first blank needs to mean something like “depict[ing] both the strengths and weaknesses” and “avoiding . . . extremes.” The word in the second blank needs to be the opposite of “indictment”—we know this because of the phrase “two extremes,” which indicates that the next blank must be the opposite of “indictment” (otherwise there would be only one extreme, mentioned twice). If we’re alert to the College Board’s unwritten rules, we know that the second blank goes with the idea of “depict[ing] strengths,” just as “indictment” must go with the idea of “depict[ing] . . . weaknesses.”

So let’s start with the first blank. Based on what we’ve just figured out, (A) might seem like a good option for the first blank initially, but there’s a problem with it. If something is “polarized,” then it involves the idea of two polar opposites or extremes, but the second half of the sentence talks about “avoiding . . . extremes.” So if we read carefully, (A) actually doesn’t work, even though (A) is the choice test-takers usually go with when they get the question wrong.

As always, it’s important to think about exactly what words mean, and exactly what the text says.

(B) doesn’t work either, because the idea of being imaginative has nothing to do with the idea of “depict[ing] strengths and weaknesses.”

(C) has a word for the first blank that most test-takers won’t recognize, so let’s come back to it.

(D) doesn’t work because it would only involve depicting strengths.

(E) might be another unknown word, but perhaps we can realize that the root “equi” probably indicates the idea of equality, which could be related to the idea of showing both the good and the bad.

So, after some careful reading and thinking, we can realize that (C) and (E) might work for the first blank. Now the issue is to figure out what could work for the second blank, out of “censure” and “eulogy.”

“Censure” sounds a lot like “censor” and seems to have a similar meaning, so it’s not a good match for the idea of “depict[ing] . . . the strengths.”

“Eulogy” is a word that a lot of test-takers might recognize from funerals, and that connotation of death might seem like a negative thing at first. But let’s think about it for a second: the eulogy at a funeral is always a positive speech, full of kind thoughts and funny stories. So a “eulogy” really could be a “depict[ion]” of “strengths,” just as the sentence requires, and (E) must be the right answer.

Of course, we don’t even have to realize that “eulogy” works if we can work out that “censure” doesn’t, and that only (C) and (E) have acceptable options for the first blank.

But notice, again, that this entire thought process requires us to read carefully and to play by the test’s rules. If we just throw in whatever sounds kind of good to us and don’t pay attention to the details, we’ll end up missing questions like this for no reason.

Page 605, Question 6

Students often miss this question because they don’t pay enough attention to the details. (How many times have you heard me say that by now? The reason it keeps coming up is that the SAT does the same things over and over again, and if you want to beat the test you have to be trained to look for those things automatically.)

From the sentence, we can tell that the first blank needs to restate the idea of “automatically reject[ing]” things that “seem silly or superstitious.” (We know this because the sentence says that scientists shouldn’t do that, and then says being a scientist isn’t a license for whatever goes in the first blank.) So let’s start with that. “Experimentation” doesn’t work for the first blank, and neither does “humility” or “rigidity,” because none of those words describe the idea of rejecting things because you think they’re silly. But “arrogance” and “smugness” work well for that idea. So let’s take a look at the other words in (B) and (D).

(B) doesn’t fit if we put it in the sentence, because we would be saying that “qualifications” don’t “pursue prejudice” (the word “they” right before the second blank refers back to the word “qualifications”). A qualification can’t pursue anything, though—only people or animals can choose to pursue something.

But some people also have a problem with (D), because it seems to them like “legitimate” should be an adjective, and the sentence is clearly calling for a verb in the second blank. We have to remember, though, that all of the options for a particular blank are always the same part of speech; in other words, if the second blank needs to be a verb, and all the other answer choices for that blank can be verbs, then it must be that “legitimate” can also be used as a verb. (By the way, the verb form of “legitimate” is pronounced “luh – jit – uh – MATE.”)

So (D) can work, because the verb “legitimate” restates the idea of being a “license” for something.

Remember, once more, how important it is to know the rules of the SAT when answering Sentence Completion questions. The many people who miss this question don’t do so because they don’t know the words “pursue” and “legitimate.” They miss this question because they don’t pay attention to details on the SAT.

Page 644, Question 5

This is another question that students nearly always ask me about. Many test-takers would probably do best to skip this one, but there are some things here that we can figure out.

First, we know that the word in the first blank must mean “elaborately contrived.” We also know that the word in the second blank must restate the idea of “master[ing]” something.

Now let’s look at the answer choices.

Most people won’t know anything about either word in (A), so we’ll skip that for now.

For (B), people will often think that being “conscientious” might be kind of related to mastering something. But if we think about it very carefully, we can see there’s a distinction there—while many masters are very conscientious in their devotion to their chosen fields, it’s possible to master something without doing it conscientiously. People can master tying their shoes without conscientious study, for instance. It’s also possible to be conscientious about something without mastering it. Further, the word “nefarious” has a negative feel to it (because of the prefix “ne-“) that doesn’t really reflect anything in the sentence. So this one is out.

For (C), the word “devious” doesn’t really fit with the idea of something being “elaborate” from the text. It’s true that some “strategies” can be “devious,” but that still doesn’t address the idea of being “elaborately contrived.”

For (D), “onerous” probably seems like a difficult word to figure out, but in “slipshod” we can see the root “slip.” Since the idea of slipping generally indicates that something is not working properly (like when a car’s transmission “slips”) or that something has happened by accident (like when someone lets a detail “slip” or when an athlete “slips” on the playing field), it seems unlikely that the word “slipshod” is appropriate to describe someone who “master[s]” something. So this one is probably out, too.

For (E), the word “predictable” doesn’t restate the idea of something being “elaborate.” So this one is out, too.

That leaves us with only (A). Even though most test-takers don’t know what either word in (A) means, we can still probably figure out that something is wrong with the other 4 choices, and that (A) must be correct . . . assuming we read carefully and respect the rules of the test. Most people who miss this question will choose (B), because they ignore the negative connotation of “nefarious” and talk themselves into thinking that “conscientious” restates the idea of “master[ing]” something. Don’t make those kinds of mistakes. Don’t give points away for no reason.

Page 662, Question 8

In this question, the word in the first blank needs to restate the idea of being “openhanded.” Many test-takers will probably be unfamiliar with that word, but that might not be enough to kill our chances on this question. We might also be able to tell that the two words in the blank should contradict each other, because the sentence says it’s “difficult to reconcile” the two words, which means they must be antonyms according to the College Board’s unwritten rules.

Now our job is to look for an answer choice with two antonyms in it. We can probably tell that the words in (A) aren’t opposites, and we might also be able to tell that the words in (B) aren’t, either. (C) is a choice that many test-takers will skip the first time through because they don’t know what its words mean. The words in (D) are both synonyms. If we know the words in (E), we can tell they’re kind of similar to each other but not actually synonyms. If we don’t know them, then we should hold off on eliminating them.

At this point, then, if we can work out that (A), (B), (D), and (E) aren’t right, then we can confidently mark (C), and be correct. Of course, that assumes that we’re comfortable enough with the words “insolence” and “solicitousness” to be able to determine that (B) and (E) are wrong. If not, we may have to skip this question.

(There’s one other possible approach we could take: we might be able to recognize that the root of “magnanimity” is “magna,” which means “big” in Latin, and that the root of “pettiness” is “petty,” which comes from the French word for “small.” Realizing that could let us figure out that the words in (C) are opposites.)

Page 706, Question 5

Here, the first blank needs to be something with a negative connotation, because it reflects what the institute’s opponents call it, and it also needs to restate something about the idea of nobility. The second blank needs to reflect the idea of something that nobility might have had.

(A) probably looks good for the first word, because “elitist” is a word with a negative connotation that could describe something related to nobility. (It’s true that “elite” by itself is a positive word, but an “elitist” is someone who considers himself elite and will only deal with other elites—in other words, a snob.) We probably don’t recognize the second word here (it’s NOT “pre-requisites,” which is how many people incorrectly read it). So (A) seems like it might be possible at this point. Let’s move on and see our other options.

(B) might seem pretty good for the idea of “nobility” in the text, but this is yet another time when considering something very carefully becomes extremely important. The word “monarchical” technically refers to a form of government in which there is only one ruler. It’s true that some monarchical systems also included a class of nobles, but not all do. This is a critical distinction in this case, because the sentence is talking about a group of people (“scholars”) in an “institute.” It’s not talking about a single person with power over others, which is what the word “monarchical” would indicate. So (B) is wrong. To a lot of people, this analysis will sound like splitting hairs, but this is exactly the kind of thing we should be on the lookout for if we want to maximize our scores on the SAT. Picking up on these subtle attributes of words you already know (not memorizing hundreds of extra definitions!) is what will help push you to an exceptional score.

(C) seems to work for the second blank, but most test-takers won’t know the first word. Let’s hold on to this one as a possibility and keep going.

(D) doesn’t work because of the second blank—nothing in the sentence mentions anyone or anything being afflicted.

(E) doesn’t work because of the first blank. “Commend[ing]” something means praising it, and the opponents of an institute wouldn’t praise it (at least, not on a Sentence Completion question on the SAT).

So in this hypothetical scenario, we’re left liking the first word in (A) and the second word in (C). At this point I would recommend most people should skip the question, because I don’t like to put down an answer unless I’m positive I’m right (see my remarks on guessing earlier in this book, if you haven’t already).

If you feel confident, you may be able to figure out that “perquisites” sounds an awful lot like “perks,” the word used to describe bonuses that a person might receive at work or through a rewards program. If you notice the relationship between those two words, then you can be sure (A) is right. On the other hand, you might be able to recall that “reproach” is a negative word, so calling something “irreproachable” is actually a compliment, which wouldn’t work for the first blank, so (C) would have to be wrong.

But, again, for most test-takers this is probably going to be a good question to skip.

Page 734, Question 5

This question is one that test-takers often miss, even though they can usually figure it out if they think carefully about it.

At first, it might look like we need to know the meanings of the words “skepticism” and “nihilism,” but we actually don’t; in fact, we don’t need to know the word “elucidate,” either. What really matters here is the word “helps,” which tells us that the ancient philosophy went along with the 19th-century philosophy in some way.

When we look at the answer choices, the only one that works is (E), for two reasons. The first reason is that the prefix “fore-“ captures the possible relationship that ancient philosophers would have to the 19th-century: they came before it. The second reason is that the idea of “foreshadow[ing]” goes along with the idea of “help[ing]” that’s in the sentence.

(A), which is what people typically choose when they miss this question, doesn’t work because something from the ancient past can’t actively “suppress” something that ended up happening thousands of years later.

Page 762, Question 4

The key issue in this sentence is the phrase “on the contrary,” which tells us that the word in the second blank must be the opposite of “humanitarian.” It also tells us that the word in the first blank will have to indicate that the Professor doesn’t believe something.

Let’s start with the second blank. (A) is really the only option that gives us a workable word for the second blank. A lot of test-takers mistakenly think (B) offers a good option for that second blank, but, as always, we have to think very carefully about what that word actually means. It’s true that being “contemptible” is bad and that being a “humanitarian” is good, but the two words aren’t antonyms, and on the SAT we need antonyms in a situation like this.

Just to be sure, of course, I would check the other half of (A). “Dubious” works because the Professor doesn’t believe that the government is “humanitarian” (we know this because the Professor “insist[s]” something “on the contrary”). So we know that (A) is correct.

This is another good example of how being very careful with the meanings of words in the answer choices and in the sentence can help us zero in on correct answers.

Page 780, Question 8

In this sentence, the word in the second blank needs to go along with the idea of “fail[ing] to comprehend” something. That’s probably the best place to start, so let’s take a look at the answer choices.

(A) gives us a second word that most test-takers won’t know, so let’s come back to it.

(B) is a word we might be able to take apart if we don’t know it. “Vocal” indicates a relationship to the voice, “equi” indicates something to do with equality, and “un-” is a negating prefix. So this word seems like it has to do with the idea of not having equal voices, or of not giving equal voice to multiple things, or something along those lines. But none of that seems to mean the same thing as not comprehending something, so (B) is out.

(C) can work for us if we’re familiar with the use of “penetrate” to mean “understand.” Even if we don’t know that usage, though, we might still like this word for the structure of it. The combination of “-able” and “im-” means that this word is talking about the state of not being able to do something, which goes with the idea of “fail[ing]” in the original sentence.

(D) will tempt a lot of people with the word “exotic,” because it kind of seems to go along with the idea of not understanding something. But the word “exotic” doesn’t specifically mean that something can’t be understood! This is one more example of how important it is to pay careful attention to the exact meanings of words.

(E) doesn’t work, either. We’re probably familiar with the idea of a cheese grater, or of a grate in the ground, and neither of those concepts seems relevant to the idea of failing to comprehend something.

At this point, then, (A) seems possible (since we don’t know what the word in the second blank means), and (C) might seem good, at least in terms of its structure. Let’s check out the other words in those two choices.

The first word in (A) presents a problem, because “accessible” indicates that something can be accessed easily, but the sentence is talking about people failing to understand something. “Accessible” indicates that something is easy to figure out, so it doesn’t work for the first blank.

That leaves us, again, with (C). At this point we have clear ideas why (A), (B), (D), and (E) don’t work, and we have (C) with two strange words, the second of which seems to be structured in a way that reflects the idea of failing to do something. At this point, we should go ahead and mark (C) with confidence, and get the question right.

Note, once more, that this entire type of analysis can only be successful because we’re very careful to make sure we treat the word “exotic” correctly in choice (D). Most untrained test-takers will still consider it a possibility, but it’s really not, because being “exotic” and being impossible to comprehend aren’t the same idea.

Page 791, Question 6

Unlike the question we just talked about, which we could probably figure out through careful reading and reasoning, this question is very likely to be one that most test-takers end up skipping.

We can tell that the correct answer choice should mean “separat[e] the good from the bad,” but the difficulty is that at least a couple of these words will probably be unknown to us, and the ones we’re likely to know, such as (B) and (E), aren’t correct.

There’s very little we can do in a situation like this. If we know the word “winnow,” then we can tell that (D) must be right. But most people don’t know the word “winnow.” And even if you memorize the words in these answer choices now, the chance is almost zero that they’ll come up on the SAT in a way that matters when you take the test for real.

So most test-takers should skip this question.

I wanted to mention this question to use it as a counterpoint to the one we just talked about, in which we were probably able to figure out the right answer by reading carefully and thinking carefully. It’s because of questions like this one, in which we’re probably helpless and have to skip to the next thing, that it’s so important to make sure we pick up questions that we can actually figure out.

Page 824, Question 5

For this sentence, we want a word that would describe someone who has come to expect something that they would never even have dreamed of once.

Most students miss this because they choose (E), but the sentence doesn’t actually say anything about anyone feeling bitter, so (E) is wrong.

The other words are often challenging for students, but we may be able to work through them. We may recognize that (A) means something like “surprised,” which doesn’t work here because it doesn’t capture the idea of something becoming common that was once uncommon—if something is common, it can’t surprise you. (B) is a word we might know from everyday conversation, or from television or movies; if we do know it, we can tell it isn’t correct, because it means something along the lines of “a little angry” or “upset.” (C) is a word most of us would have to skip. (D) is related to words like “aware” and “beware,” but neither of those has to do with things becoming common, either.

So we may be able to rule things out and realize that (C) is the only possibility, and the correct answer. Of course, as is often the case, being able to arrive at this correct answer with confidence is only possible if we pay strict attention to the meanings of words and the rules of the test. Many people will get sucked in by the word “embittered” and never stop to realize that the sentence doesn’t talk about anyone being bitter.

Page 842, Question 5

This sentence is one that bears careful reading. A lot of people choose (A) incorrectly, because they realize that the ideas of “gradual[ness]” and “abruptness” are important to the question, but don’t realize that the clues aren’t “signaling” the “abruptness” itself. The clues are signaling that sleep is coming, but they’re not signaling that the coming will be abrupt. Furthermore, (A) gets the relationship between the halves of the sentence backwards.

But let’s back up a little bit. The words “actually” and “though” indicate that some contradictory ideas will be presented here. The phrase “for several minutes” near the end of the sentence indicates that the first half of the sentence will be talking about something happening in one instant (since the first half of the sentence contradicts the last half).

So let’s take a look at our remaining choices for words in the first blank. (B) doesn’t offer anything to do with the idea of the opposite of “several minutes.” (C) gives us a word related to the idea of time, but it’s still not actually relevant to the sentence—one more example of why it’s so important to read carefully and think carefully. Being “temporar[y]” has nothing to do with whether something occurs quickly or spread out over several minutes. (D) doesn’t work for the first blank, either. (E) does—in fact, it has the word “instant” right in the beginning of it.

So let’s take a look at the other half of (E) to make sure we haven’t made a mistake. “Onset” works nicely in the sentence, and restates the idea of when the “sleep actually occurs.” So we can tell that (E) must be correct.

There’s one more thing I’d like to point out about this question. You may recall that I said I was against “pre-forming” answers to Sentence Completion questions, even though the strategy is widely recommended in many other sources. In this particular question, though, I pointed out that we were probably looking for a word that would mean something like “in one instant,” and then the correct answer ended up including the word “instantaneously.” So it might seem like pre-forming worked out for me here. But I wasn’t actually pre-forming an answer to this question, because part of the pre-forming strategy is that you decide what the correct answer should look like beforehand and then go through the choices and try to find a word that matches your preconceived notion. I didn’t do that: I considered each answer choice on its own as I came to it, and it just happened coincidentally that the correct answer sounded similar to something I thought about when I was explaining what the question looked like to me.

It’s not uncommon for something like this to happen, especially as you develop more familiarity with the test, but it’s very important that you never actually get in the habit of insisting that an answer choice include a certain word beforehand. Sometimes we misread sentences, or sometimes there might be more than one part of a sentence that a blank could restate, or sometimes a blank might be restating a word in another blank in the same sentence, or who knows what. It’s important to sit back and let the sentence come to you, rather than trying to force the sentence to say something that it doesn’t actually say.

Page 853, Question 4

A lot of test-takers incorrectly choose “nondescript” for this question because the sentence describes people who “neither spoke nor smiled.” But, as always, it’s important to think carefully about what these words actually mean.

“Nondescript” means that something has no particular description, as we can probably tell from the word itself. But the sentence actually describes the auditors: it describes them by saying that they “neither spoke nor smiled.” So (E) doesn’t actually work.

Let’s try the other words. (A) certainly doesn’t work. (B) is a word that often describes auditors in general, because people who choose to become auditors are typically motivated by their ethics, but the sentence itself doesn’t say anything about ethics, so (B) is wrong. (C) is related to the word “glacier,” which might not seem to be related. And (D) definitely doesn’t work, because you have to speak to “taunt” someone.

So now what?

Well, if we’re pretty sure that all 5 answers are wrong, there’s only one possible conclusion: we made a mistake somewhere. So let’s go back over our assumptions and see if we can figure out what we did wrong.

(A) definitely means “friendly,” since we can recognize “ami” right at the beginning of it, which means “friend” in French and is similar to “amigo” in Spanish or “amicus” in Latin.

(B) definitely refers to ethics, which isn’t relevant here.

What about (C)? We might realize at this point that glaciers are very cold things, and that the attitude of the auditors could certainly be called cold. It’s also imaginable that a glacier might be intimidating. Could it be that when the word “glacial” is applied to a person it means that the person is cold and imposing, like a glacier?

Sure, why not? Given the circumstances, “glacial” must be correct.

This especially makes sense when we consider that the other 4 words are all clearly wrong.

Sometimes we have to go back and revisit our assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s just smart test-taking. As always, careful reading and careful thinking are much more powerful than memorizing vocabulary—the people who miss this question don’t miss it because they don’t know the word “nondescript,” or because they don’t know what a glacier is. They miss it because they aren’t paying attention to details.

Page 853, Question 6

This is a question that many test-takers will probably end up skipping, because high school students often lack familiarity with financial terms and this question can quickly turn into a dead-end without that familiarity. Still, we might be able to work our way through it.

In this question, we need a word for the second blank that could indicate some kind of cash award coming in the form of a loan. We may be able to recognize that (A) and (C) offer workable options for the second word. But what about the first word?

If we think carefully, we may realize that a “rebate” can only be given after something has been bought—you’ve probably heard commercials for car dealerships where new buyers are promised a rebate. The sentence doesn’t say anything about the museum buying anything, so (C) doesn’t actually work.

But a lot of students may not trust the word “reprieve” in choice (A). A “reprieve” is a chance to be let out of doing something, let off the hook. That works here because the sentence talks about the museum being “on the verge of . . . collapse.”

So if we can figure out that (C) doesn’t quite work, and if we have the confidence to trust (A) even though it sounds odd to many test-takers, then we can pull out the correct answer here and mark (A). Otherwise, we’re probably better off skipping this one.

Page 898, Question 7

Coincidentally enough, this is another question in which some awareness of financial terms would be helpful, and not all test-takers are likely to know all of the relevant jargon. Still, let’s give it a shot.

The words “although” and “actually” indicate that the sentence is putting forward contradictory ideas. So the word in the first blank needs to indicate the opposite of the idea of being able to stay in business. Let’s start there.

(A) gives us a word for the first blank that most test-takers won’t know, so let’s skip it for now.

(B) gives us a word that won’t work here, as we can probably figure out. You may recall that earlier in the book I cited “prudent” as a word that we might be able to recognize from its similarity to “Prudential,” a financial services company you might have seen advertised. From this association we can tell that “prudent” is a positive word—nobody would name their company “Stupid, Unreliable Financial Services.” That means it doesn’t work here.

(C) is a word that many students might not recognize. But we can recognize the prefix “auto-,” which has to do with the idea of self-directed activity. Does that seem relevant here? Probably not. So this one is probably no good.

(D) definitely seems like a word that contradicts the idea of being able to stay in business.

(E) definitely doesn’t work, because it’s a positive adjective.

So that would leave us with (D) as a word that seems to work, (A) as a word we don’t know, and (C) as another word we don’t know that’s unlikely to be correct. Now let’s take a look at the other blank.

The word in the second blank needs to describe some kind of activity that could let a company stay in business even when it shouldn’t be in business.

(A) definitely seems to work for that second blank, then.

(C) really doesn’t offer us much for the second blank. Even if we don’t know what “subordinate” means, we can probably recognize that “sub-“ means something is underneath something else, and that really doesn’t seem relevant here.

(D) doesn’t work for the second blank. There’s no way that “engaging in charitable activities,” which would basically mean giving stuff away for free, would allow a company to stay in business if it were bankrupt.

So at this point we may be able to figure out that (A) must be correct, since it has a word for the second blank that definitely fits and a word for the first blank that we don’t really know, and since all the other choices have flaws in them.

Page 909, Question 4

This is another example of a question in which the words in the blanks will rely on one another. In other words, if the first blank says something like “contradicted,” then the second blank needs to say something like “growing;” if the first blank were something like “supported,” though, then the second blank would need to be something like “shrinking.”

So we’ll really have to make sure that we pay attention to both blanks. (That’s always important, of course, but it’s extra important here to consider the words we choose not only in relation to the given part of the sentence, but also to one another.)

For (A), we might not know what the first word means, but the prefix “co-“ or “cor-“ probably suggests the idea of going along with something. The second word, though, would be going against the “warning” in the sentence, because “prospering” is the opposite of “declining.” So this one seems not to work as an answer.

For (B), “confirmed” seems like it might be able to go in the first blank, but we might not know what “extant” means. So let’s skip this for now.

For (C), we might not know “belied,” but it could have something to do with the word “lied,” which is related to falsehood. “Dwindling” is a synonym for “declining,” though, so these two words also don’t seem to fit together to complete the sentence.

For (D), it sounds a little odd to say that a “warning” was “diminished.” Still, even if we accept that, the word “debilitated” goes along with the word “declining.” So this choice doesn’t hold together—as we said at the beginning of this discussion, if the first word is something negative, then the second word would have to be something positive.

For (E), we might not recognize the word “tempered” in this context. But “thriving” definitely seems relevant to the idea of a population “declining”—“thriving” is the exact opposite of “declining” in this context.

So we’re left with (B) and (E) as possible choices at this point. Let’s review them. (B) will be right if “extant” means something like “declining.” (E) will be right if “tempered” means something like “called into question.”

As it turns out, (E) is correct, but a lot of test-takers may not feel confident enough in deciding that, and they should skip this question if that’s the case.

Page 960, Question 8

For this sentence, we probably want a word in the first blank that would indicate using something up completely, and a word for the second blank that will mean the opposite of that idea (because the sentence mentions “replac[ing]” one with the other.

Let’s take a look at our options for the first blank. (B), (C), and (D) all have words for the first blank that we can probably recognize as valid options for the first blank. (A) and (E) don’t work for the first blank.

Now let’s take a look at the options for the second blank. Again, we’re looking for a word that would describe a policy that will not “deplete” “natural resources” “forever.”

“Dispersion” doesn’t really work here, because the idea of “dispers[ing]” “natural resources” is nonsensical.

“Gathering” is a synonym of “harvesting.” If “harvesting” might lead to “deplet[ion],” then so might “gathering.”

“Husbandry” seems like an odd word to a lot of test-takers, most of whom are unfamiliar with the term. It clearly has some relationship to the word “husband,” but is that enough to make it right?

Well, let’s think about that, especially in light of the fact that all the other choices definitely seem to be wrong. Could it be that the root idea of the word “husband” might be something along the lines of “protector” or “guardian?” That seems possible—and, if it is possible, then “husbandry” in this case might refer to the idea of protecting resources so they aren’t “deplete[d] . . . forever.” Again, this seems especially coherent when we remember that we’re probably pretty familiar with all the other words we’ve looked at, and we’re sure they don’t work. So “husbandry” is part of the right answer, and (D) must be right.

This is the kind of problem-solving that the Sentence Completion portion of the SAT rewards. We read carefully, we think carefully, and we work stuff out based on our fundamental knowledge of everyday words.

Page 982, Question 5

Here, the word “although” indicates that there’s a contradiction between the ideas of the way Keller was treated as a “hero” and the way he was “in the political arena.” We can also probably tell that the word in the first blank needs to be positive, since the sentence says he “achieved” it, and since a “hero” is a good thing to be. Finally, the word in the second blank needs to be negative, to go with the idea of something being “painful.”

(A), (C), and (D) might seem like good choices for that first blank, then. Now, our job is to figure out which of those options could work for the second blank. (A) is unlikely to work, since the word “versatility” is positive. (C) is also no good, since “finesse” is positive (we can see the word “fine” right there in the beginning of it). (D), on the other hand, looks promising, since “ineptitude” is a negative-sounding word that indicates inability (notice its apparent difference from the positive word “apt”).

Given all of this, it’s probably pretty clear that (D) is correct. A lot of test-takers accidentally choose (A) or (C), though, because they decide they like the first half of the answer choice and then don’t bother to consider the second half and see that it doesn’t fit.

Conclusion

This section has discussed all the rules, patterns, and strategies for SAT Sentence Completion questions. We’ve learned a process to answer those questions, and we’ve used that process on some real SAT questions from the Blue Book, second edition of the College Board publicationThe Official SAT Study Guide.

The most important part of SAT Sentence Completion is that we don’t give up just because we don’t know a word—but we never guess, either!  We rely on careful reading, careful thinking, and an awareness of the SAT’s rules. When necessary, we attack words to figure out if they might be relevant to the concepts in a sentence. Finally, we remember that we can always skip a question if we can’t figure out the answer with certainty.

Working with this section and your copy of The Official SAT Study Guide will help you get better and better at SAT Sentence Completion questions. Keep it up!

By now, you’ve seen that the SAT Passage-Based Reading questions aren’t really about the kind of reading you do in high school, and that the SAT Sentence Completion questions aren’t really about memorizing vocabulary. In fact, we’re establishing a general theme that the SAT is pretty horrible at testing the things it claims to be testing.

You’ve also probably noticed by now that the general approach to each question is the same: we read very carefully, we think very carefully about words that we know the meanings of, we avoid any interpretation, and we skip questions we can’t answer. If you practice using those simple principles and get very good at them, you’ll have an amazing score on the SAT. That’s truly all there is to it. Most of the people who fail to get an amazing score on the SAT either aren’t aware of how the test actually works, or they don’t get good enough at reading and thinking very carefully.

Video Demonstrations

If you’d like to see videos of some sample solutions like the ones in this Black Book, please visit www.SATprepVideos.com. A selection of free videos is available for readers of this book.