The SAT Prep Black Book

SAT Writing Multiple Choice

A Selection of Challenging Questions

Now that we’ve gone through a complete section of Improving Sentences questions, let’s take a look at a sample of some of the more challenging questions from the Blue Book, the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide.

These questions are some of the ones that students have asked me about the most over the years. Of course, they still follow the same rules and patterns as other questions, but sometimes test-takers have a harder time identifying those things in certain situations. So these questions aren’t really doing anything different from any other questions; it’s just that they’re sometimes a bit more subtle about what they’re doing.

As with other question explanations in this book, you’ll need a copy of the Blue Book to follow along. Let’s get started.

Page 430, Question 9

I wanted to single out this question for consideration because it’s a good example of the way that questions can often be misinterpreted by test-takers as they prepare for the SAT.

Many people incorrectly assume that (E) is correct because it avoids the passive voice constructions that appear in (A), (B), and (C), but that isn’t actually the reason that (E) is correct. In other words, if we assume that passive voice is a problem on all SAT questions, then we’ll find ourselves getting questions wrong when the correct answer happens to use the passive voice.

It’s important to understand that the reason (E) is correct has nothing to do with the passive voice. (E) is correct simply because it is the shortest answer, and it has no grammatical mistakes.

Many test-takers end up making the Writing section much more difficult for themselves than it needs to be because they reach incorrect assumptions about the test’s reasoning on certain issues, and the passive voice is one of the best examples of this type of misunderstanding. If you want to do well on the SAT, it’s not enough to know about reading, grammar, and math in real life—you have to know the rules the College Board actually follows, many of which might seem odd or counterintuitive to most test-takers. That’s what this Black Book is all about!

Page 470, Question 7

There are a lot of ways to approach this question, but the easiest one is probably to realize that (C) is the shortest answer choice and is also grammatically acceptable, so it must be right.

Just like on the previous question we talked about, many people will assume that the correct answer here is somehow related to the fact that many of the wrong answers use the passive voice. This is a tempting conclusion to reach, but it’s wrong—there are many correct answers in the College Board’s book that include the passive voice.

Remember: if the shortest answer choice has no grammatical issues, it’s right.

Page 470, Question 10

The College Board sometimes tests your awareness of idioms, and that’s what this question is doing. In fact, the issue is simply that “for all their talk” is a grammatically acceptable phrase in English.

(If “for all their talk” doesn’t make sense to you, think of it this way: the sentence is a bit like saying “even though they always talk about ecology, major companies have [blah, blah, blah].”)

The good news on this question is that an awareness of the three major patterns of Improving Sentences questions would have helped us answer this correctly, even if we didn’t know the idiom. (A) is the shortest choice, for one thing, which is often a good sign; it’s also one of the only two choices without any -ing or -ed words. It does have more short words than (C) and (D), but those two choices have weird conjunctions for this sentence—neither “besides” nor “in addition to” really makes a lot of sense in this context.

So it would be possible to work out that (A) is correct even without actually knowing the idiom being tested. It won’t always happen that knowing the patterns of the SAT can save us from not recognizing an idiom, but it will happen sometimes, clearly. I wanted to talk about this question so I could make it clear that we always have to be alert to the patterns in the answer choices, even when all hope might seem lost in the beginning.

Page 492, Question 10

This question is a good example of how important it is to read carefully and be very familiar with the test’s rules.

Many test-takers incorrectly choose (D), usually because the first part of the answer choice seems very clear and direct. But they overlook the fact that (D) ends with the word “and,” which isn’t an effective conjunction here—the SAT is picky about making sure that conjunctions are used appropriately.

People often shy away from (A) and (B) because they start with the word “because,” but we have to remember that it’s actually okay to begin a sentence with the word “because” as long as the rest of the sentence includes a portion after the comma that could stand on its own as a sentence. In other words, any time that you could create a valid sentence with the structure “X, because Y,” then it’s also okay to write “because Y, X” as long as the X part could be a sentence on its own.

So if you could say “Measuring beforehand is good because the recipes don’t allow for interruption,” then you can also say “Because the recipes don’t allow for interruption, measuring beforehand is good.” Note that everything after the comma could be set aside as a sentence on its own.

That means (B) must be right, because it’s the only choice without any grammatical issues in the eyes of the College Board.

Note that (A) has the word “having,” which often indicates a wrong answer, and (C) has the phrase “being that,” which is also often found in incorrect answers. Further, (E) has many, many short words, which is also often a sign of an incorrect answer.

Again, it’s very, very important to read things carefully and to keep the design of the test in mind!

Page 532, Question 10

This question often confuses people who think it would be more natural to use the pronoun “their.” The problem with the word “their” is that it’s a plural pronoun, but the word “band” is singular in American English—even though the band involves multiple people, the band itself is a single thing according to the SAT’s grammar rules. So we have to use the word “its.” So (A) is correct.

Some people aren’t comfortable with the word “its” because they aren’t sure if it should be spelled with an apostrophe. But that isn’t anything we need to worry about on the SAT—the SAT doesn’t try to mislead you by testing spelling. (The ACT, on the other hand, does try to mislead you with those kinds of issues, so if you’re going to take the ACT make sure you’re aware of that distinction.)

Page 532, Question 11

The College Board likes to insist on a kind of parallelism in these kinds of questions, so we have to make sure that we pick the exact right words to satisfy the SAT’s grammar rules.

In this case, the phrase “twice as many” is the first half of the structure “twice as many X as Y.” So we need an answer choice that begins with the word “as.”

That gets us down to (A) and (B). Now it’s time to complete the parallel structure: note that the original sentence says the birds “inhabit” something. That makes (B) correct.

Another way to approach this question would be to say that the College Board requires comparisons like “twice as many X as Y” to be made between similar things. Since the first half of the sentence is talking about the number of birds that inhabit an area, the second half of the sentence must also mention those words.

Page 554, Question 10

This is yet another example of a question that will needlessly confuse many test-takers who get intimidated by the number of words in each answer choice.

If we jump right to the shortest answer choice, which is (B), we see that it’s grammatically acceptable, which means it must be correct. (Remember, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, that it’s okay for a sentence to begin with the word “because” if the words after the comma could stand on their own as a sentence.)

One other thing: it’s not okay to say something like “because X is the reason why . . .” in the way that the original version of this sentence does. In those cases, you should just say, “X is the reason why,” or “because X,” as choice (B) does. (A), (C), and (E) all violate this principle in various ways.

Page 599, Question 1

This is another of the College Board’s comparison questions, so we should look very carefully to make sure that similar things are being compared in the correct answer.

The first half of the sentence talks about visiting places “in Great Britain,” so the second half needs to talk about things “in Canada”—this way, both phrases contain the word “in.” So (E) is correct.

Remember that the answers will always be clear if we keep the test’s rules in mind and read carefully.

Page 599, Question 3

Test-takers are often surprised to find that (B) is grammatically correct, because the phrase “as does” strikes them as odd.

But we should remember that the College Board requires a certain kind of parallelism with the word “as” when we’re comparing two things, so the underlined portion will need to include that word (since the first half of the sentence uses it). That gets us down to (A) and (B). From there, we should recall that the test requires us to compare similar things—in this case, the campus “newspaper” must be compared to the hometown “newspaper,” not to the hometown itself. So (B) is correct.

Page 600, Question 6

There are a lot of subtle things that we need to make sure we catch in order to answer this question correctly.

One of the most often overlooked issues with this question is the fact that the first verb in the correct answer needs to agree with the word “reasons,” not with the word “process.” So the verb needs to be “are,” not “is.”

That means (A) and (D) are out.

From a grammatical standpoint, we could actually say that (C) is the only grammatically correct option, since the two “reasons” need to be noun phrases, and since putting the word “that” in front of a verb phrase makes it into a noun phrase. In other words, the phrases “that they have . . .” and “that they work . . .” actually function as nouns in (C).

Other people might try to appeal to a sense of parallelism to explain why (C) is correct, but I think it’s important to avoid appealing to parallelism whenever possible on the SAT—I try to limit its use in my explanations to questions that involve comparing two or more things. (The reason for this is that students can get kind of obsessed with the idea of parallelism and try to apply it everywhere, with disastrous results, if I’m not very careful about laying down strict rules.)

Page 600, Question 9

There are a lot of important things to note in this question.

One of the most important is that choice (A) is only wrong because the phrase “as well as” appears in a position where the word “and” could have been used, and the College Board doesn’t like that.

It’s also worth pointing out that (E) is the only choice without an “-ing” word, which is one of the ways we might realize it’s correct.

Finally, (E) begins with the word “because.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence that way as long as the words after the comma could stand as a sentence on their own. (In this case, everything from the word “George” could stand as a sentence on its own.)

Page 657, Question 10

On this question, if we’re pretty good with grammar we can tell that (A) is the only grammatically acceptable choice, so it must be right.

But the phrase “which duration” will throw off a lot of people. In this case, though, it’s still possible to arrive at the right answer by following those three patterns I mentioned earlier. Let’s take a look at how things break down:

(A) has 2 words ending in “-ed” or “-ing,” and 6 short words.

(B) has 2 words ending in “-ed” or “-ing,” and 8 short words.

(C) has 2 words ending in “-ed” or “-ing,” and 10 short words.

(D) has 2 words ending in “-ed” or “-ing,” and 7 short words.

(E) has 3 words ending in “-ed” or “-ing,” and 6 short words. (It’s also the shortest choice, but it isn’t grammatically correct because of the word “making.”)

So we can see that (A) is the most ideal option, just by counting up the types of words the College Board likes to avoid and then picking the choice with the fewest of those words.

(This type of analysis will make a lot of English teachers very upset, but I don’t care. Because of the SAT’s poor design, these patterns can get you out of a lot of tough situations if you remember to use them. Of course, you have to read and count carefully to do it correctly.)

Page 677, Question 7

This is yet another question in which the shortest answer choice is grammatically acceptable, and is therefore the correct answer. So (E) is correct.

I’d also like to point out that the original version of the sentence might sound very natural to a lot of test-takers, but it’s no good from an SAT standpoint because it uses the word “it” to refer to the verb phrase “if you represented.” Remember that the College Board only lets us use the word “it” to refer to singular noun phrases.

Page 739, Question 5

Many test-takers accidentally choose (A) on this question, because it seems to make a strong sentence.

But we always have to remember to consider each answer choice and make sure we can find something wrong with the choices we’re not picking! That’s the only way to be sure you’re not making any mistakes.

In this case, (D) is the shortest answer choice and has no grammatical mistakes. That means the College Board will say (D) is the right answer.

(Notice also that (D) includes the passive voice construction “is highly motivated,” but it’s still correct.)

Page 775, Question 5

If we read the answer choices carefully, we’ll see that only choice (C) is grammatically acceptable. (A) doesn’t work for a couple of reasons, but the most obvious is that the word “their” is referring to the singular noun “literature.” (B) doesn’t work because “direct” and “fresh” need to be in their adverb forms in order to modify the word “speaking.” (D) has the same problem as (B). And (E) uses “they,” just like (A) does.

Test-takers often miss this question, and questions like it, because they get caught up in what sounds best to them rather than sticking to the simple and repeatable rules of SAT grammar.

Page 775, Question 11

This is a question that most test-takers would be well advised to skip, because most of them won’t be able to arrive at a single answer choice that seems to follow all the rules and patterns the College Board likes.

The reason they won’t be able to reach a solid conclusion on one answer is that most test-takers don’t know the phrase “at once X and Y,” which is an expression that indicates that something has two attributes that might often be thought of as opposites. (For instance, we might say that the Eiffel Tower is “at once imposing and delicate.”)

If we know that that phrase exists, then we can probably tell that (E) is correct, because (E) starts with “and” and also includes the “because of” structure that’s in the first part of the prompt sentence.

By the way, even if we weren’t sure that “and” was the right way to start off this phrase, it might have helped us to realize that 2 answer choices start with “and,” while no other word appears at the beginning of the answer choices more than once. This doesn’t always indicate that the correct answer should start with “and,” but it strongly suggests that the correct answer probably starts with “and.”

Page 803, Question 13

This is yet another example of a Writing question that incorrectly compares two things of different types. If we read carefully, we see that the things being compared in the original sentence are “the number of alligators” and “the Gila monster.” In other words, the original sentence is comparing a number to an animal. But on the SAT, we have to compare things of similar kinds. So in this case, we either need to compare an animal to an animal, or a number to a number.

The only answer choice that fixes this problem is (E), which talks about “a comparison of the numbers of [both animals].” The fact that the word “numbers” is plural means that we’re talking about the number of alligators and the number of Gila monsters.

As is often the case, being aware of the College Board’s rules helps us cut right to the heart of the matter and identify the only answer choice that will be grammatically acceptable on the SAT.

Page 803, Question 14

This is probably the single Improving Sentences question that I get asked about the most.

Part of the difficulty for most students stems from the fact that the answer choices all involve such long phrases, and that so many of the phrases in the different choices are so similar to one another.

In these situations, it’s very important not to get overwhelmed by details. We should just pick a part of the answer choices to focus on and start there, and see what happens.

My inclination would be to start with the shortest answer choice—if that one is grammatically okay, then we know it’s the right answer. Unfortunately, in this case the shortest answer choice, (E), would result in an incomplete sentence, because it uses the word “being” instead of “are” or “were.” So it’s wrong, and we’re going to have to work a bit more to answer the question. Oh well.

We could also start with the original version of the underlined phrase, which we’ll find in choice (A). (A) really doesn’t seem too bad from a grammatical standpoint, but since it’s not the shortest answer choice we’ll need more than just acceptable grammar. One thing that puts me off about (A) is the phrase “that of the” at the end—that’s a lot of short words in a row, and they don’t seem to be necessary. At any rate, let’s hold on to (A) and keep moving.

We might as well look at (B) next. (B) seems grammatically weird because of the phrase “there were” after the comma.

(C) might seem tempting to a lot of students, but it makes one of the most common (and subtle) errors that the College Board likes to test us on: it switches from plural to singular when it talks about “instruments” at the beginning of the sentence but then switches to the singular verb “was.”

(D) is actually going to be the clear winner here when we take everything into consideration. It’s grammatically acceptable and it also avoids the short words “that” and “of” that appeared in choice (A). In fact, if we look carefully, (D) has all the same major phrases from (A) but in a slightly different order, and it omits those short words, so it’s the best choice.

Since we can clearly articulate a problem with each of the other choices, and since (D) follows the patterns that correct answers tend to follow, we know it’s the right choice. As you can see, this type of analysis isn’t that hard to do if you just take it step by step, but it does definitely require you to read carefully and pay attention to the text—just like the rest of the SAT does!

Page 837, Question 5

Many students incorrectly choose (E) for this question, because it’s the shortest choice and they think it’s grammatically okay. But we can’t say “emphasize how” in this context; we need to go with “emphasize that.” (As is often the case, there are more choices that begin with the word “that” than the word “how,” indicating that “that” is probably the correct option.)

The other issue in this question is the incorrect use of “their,” which is plural, to refer to the singular noun “woman” in the original sentence. (B) fixes this issue without introducing any “-ing” words like (C) does, so (B) is the right answer.

Page 837, Question 9

This question is another good example of the way zeroing in on a key issue often helps us identify the right answer immediately, without getting bogged down in extraneous stuff.

In this case, the structure “X rather than Y” requires us to put X and Y in the same grammatical form (at least in terms of SAT rules). Since the first half of the sentence has “to appeal and persuade,” we need another option with “to” in it. Only (E) has that, with “to educate and inform.”

Another way to identify that (E) is correct is to note that it’s the shortest answer choice and that it has no grammatical mistakes.

Page 893, Question 8

This question provides us with a good opportunity to observe several of the College Board’s patterns and rules in action.

First, since the underlined portion is short, we can expect that the question is probably meant to test grammar alone, which turns out to be the case.

We might also be tempted to assume that the correct answer would avoid the word “in,” since the first 3 answer choices start with “either” and only 2 start with “in.” But notice that 4 of the choices actually include the word “in” at some point, which suggests that we might want to include it.

Of course, it becomes clear that we need to include “in” when we realize that the question is comparing two things, and that the first part of that comparison is the phrase “in poetry.”

That might get us down to (D) and (E). How do we know that (D) is correct? Well, as always, we arrive at that conclusion by thinking carefully about the elements of the question. In order for the phrase “either X or Y” to work on the SAT, X and Y must be two phrases of similar types. If we choose “either fiction or in drama,” then X would be “fiction” and Y would be “in drama,” which doesn’t work on the SAT since one phrase is just a noun and the other begins with the preposition “in.” So (D) is the way to go.

Page 925, Question 8

This question stumps a lot of test-takers because most of the answer choices sound pretty decent to most people. This is why it’s so important to know the rules of the test. If we know that the shortest answer choice is always correct if it has no grammatical mistakes, we can say with confidence that (C) is the answer choice that the College Board will say is correct.

Page 986, Question 4

This question, like many Improving Sentences questions, is much more straightforward than it probably seems to most untrained test-takers.

(A) is the shortest answer choice and it has no grammatical mistakes, so (A) is automatically correct. That’s all there is to this one.

Let this question and the many questions like it remind you of how important it is to know the rules of the test and to read carefully!

Conclusion

We’ve now discussed all the rules, patterns, and strategies for Improving Sentences questions in the SAT Writing section, and you’ve seen them in action against a wide variety of actual SAT questions published by the College Board in the Blue Book.

After they’ve done a lot of Improving Sentences questions, many of my students often remark that these questions just seem to be repeating the same basic ideas over and over again. They’re exactly right to think that. And while it might seem frustrating to repeat the same basic steps for 2 dozen questions or so on each test, we have to remember that this repetition is what makes the SAT so beatable once we understand how the game is played. (In fact, the whole point of this Black Book is to show you how to exploit the repetitive nature of the SAT.)

We want to get very familiar with the rules and patterns of every type of SAT question so we can always identify correct answers and incorrect answers. This way, when a question goes well we’ll be able to realize that we’ve found the right answer, and when a question seems not to have a right answer that fits the patterns of all the other questions, we’ll know that we’ve made a mistake somewhere, and we can fix the mistake.

Video Demonstrations

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

On the next page, you’ll find a quick summary of the main ideas for Improving Sentences questions. Then we’ll tackle the Improving Paragraphs questions after that. They’re basically a combination of the SAT grammar and style ideas we’ve covered already, with some ideas from the Critical Reading section thrown in.