The sentence completion section of the SAT is challenging for many students. In addition to testing a broad and specific vocabulary, the sentence completion section is also riddled with traps and tricks. To be clear, you should start by building your vocabulary in preparation for this section. However, you can also master test strategy in order to improve your performance.
The three tips below have helped many students beat this section:
1. Trust your prediction, not your conclusion.
Though it's the most natural method, there's no faster way to royally screw up this section than by reading the sentence and then immediately looking at the answer choices. That way lies confusion and despair.
If all those answer choices seem like they're designed to trip you up, it's because they are. “Conspicuous” sits contiguous with “convivial,” and you have to figure out which one to slot into the sentence. And then the more you stare at a group of words, the easier it is for your tired, ragged brain to convince you that a word “could fit there.” That's the kiss of death on this section: saying, “well...I guess I could see how that could work...” Once your brain has said these words, pack your bags, you're going home.
There is one question I love to throw at students to demonstrate the evils of just picking words and trying them out. It's about a Japanese painting of thick white clouds which ______ a mountain peak. The student is told to look right at the answers and pick the right one. Simple, yes? The student inevitably winnows the possibilities to two (this is the easy part): “entangle” and “shroud.” Many students have trouble with “shroud,” and so they start wondering aloud about the possibility of “entangle.” I let this go on for a while, and listen while they talk themselves into what, if you just wrote out the sentence, would be very clearly an incorrect word. “Clouds entangle a mountain peak?” It doesn't work. “Shroud” is the only answer. Yet I can't tell you how many students I've seen talk themselves into getting a easy-level question wrong, and waste large amounts of valuable time besides.
So how to ensure you don't do this? Cover the answers and make a prediction.
The only way to vaccinate yourself against the pestilence of wrong answer choices is to be searching only for theanswer that best fits your prediction. A good prediction for the question above would have been “hide”—which makes “entangle” impossible. The prediction does not need to be a complex word—indeed, it shouldn't be. A simple word like “involved,” “intelligent,” “ugly” is usually all you need to get to a right answer like “embroiled,” “prodigious,” or “loathsome.” These aren't necessary synonyms, and don't have to be. They are close enough to work, and to eliminate those wrong answer choices that want to “entangle” you.
2. This is where all those “SAT words” come into play.
There's just no getting around it: vocabulary is enormously important on this test, and almost all of that importance comes from this section. There are ways of dealing with tough vocab, ways which your SAT tutor can help you with (n.b.: Greek and Latin roots are frequently invoked here, but in my opinion they are not to be messed around with unless you are genuinely familiar with Greek and Latin. Otherwise they can be confusing). But the fact remains that there are some words that you simply have to know—or at least know that they don't fit your prediction, which is frequently enough. This is why I urge those who feel uncomfortable with big whomping words to spend a lot of time with SAT flashcards. Keep them in the bathroom, keep them in your purse, backpack, use them as bookmarks—just have them everywhere. Some people make their own, and while that's ideal for memory, it's a lot of time. A good hedge is to make a flashcard for every single word you get wrong in sessions or in homework. Additionally, flashcards aren't everything. All the words in the world won't do you any good if you aren't familiar with their usage. To that end, any good SAT prep must emphasize outside reading. You should be reading The New Yorker, or P.J. O'Rourke or Christopher Hitchens or anyone with a significantly developed vocabulary. Frankly, I think that if someone really wanted to know the best possible prep for the SAT verbal test, they couldn't really do better than just sitting down and reading an entire year's worth of New Yorkers.
3. Don't forget that SAT Sentence Completions are ordered from easiest to hardest, within each section.
What this means, simply, is that you can tell how much to trust your first impressions, depending on where in the section the question is. If it's at the beginning, and you think you see the word that fits your prediction straightaway, then jump on it; it's probably right. But if it's one of the last questions in the section, and the answer pops out at you, then take a second, and make sure there's nothing else that could fit better. This allows you save time early on, so you can be more meticulous later on.