The Key to Selecting the Right Answer on the SAT & ACT: Part 1

Posted by Colleen on 8/11/17 7:00 PM


Here I bring you a two-part series about methods for the English/Writing and Language sections of the ACT and SAT.

Many students approach the English sections of the ACT and SAT with the mindset that they will go with whatever answer sounds right. Everyone who is taking college entrance exams already has a high aptitude in English. Isn’t this enough? 

Yes and no.

Going by ear will allow you to solve many English questions. But your ear cannot tell you the answer to every question. Some questions have nothing to do with your ear. You will also run into questions where ALL the answers sound right. And finally, you’ll see questions where NONE of the answers sound right.

What can be done? We can study, of course! The English portion is no different from the other sections. There are certain questions and tricks that come up again and again. Let’s break down what the test is really asking and get into the methods and strategies that can earn you top points.

I’m sold. Where do I start?

Let’s break tricky questions into two parts. First, we’ll deal with questions that cannot be answered by ear. Here, we’ll look into questions on punctuation, style, and editing. In a later post, we’ll consider options when your ear doesn’t immediately tell you what the right answer is—when more than one answer sounds right or when no answers sound right.

My Ear Is Not an Option

You know that classic like from Apollo 13, “Failure is not an option”? Well, here our ear is not an option. This especially applies to questions about punctuation, editing, or style.

If you see a question where you cannot go with what sounds right, first take a quick glance at the answers. Ask yourself what is going on in the sentence. We usually have three choices.

1. See if it is a punctuation question.

In this instance, the wording will be mostly the same, and there will be three or four punctuation changes. Remember the following:

  • Full sentences (with main subjects and verbs) need to be linked with one of three choices: a period plus a capital letter, a comma plus and/or/but, or a semicolon.

I reluctantly agreed to ride the rollercoaster. It was just as terrifying as I had expected.

I reluctantly agreed to ride the rollercoaster, and it was just as terrifying as I had expected.

I reluctantly agreed to ride the rollercoaster; it was just as terrifying as I had expected.

  • Commas often are listed as choices. Remember:
  • Pairs of commas go around appositives, or phrases that describe another word in the sentence. If there is a lonely comma hanging out somewhere nearby, you might need to provide the other to make a pair.

Susan B. Anthony, an early campaigner for women’s rights, was born in Massachusetts. 

  • Commas come after introductory phrases and clauses.

On Thursday nights, I like to take the subway into the city and see whatever new film is playing at the cinema.

  • Commas link items in a list.

My mom was displeased when I told her that I had forgotten my backpack, clarinet, and lunchbox.

  • Hyphens add an extra boost of emphasis.

Renaissance painters—like their ancient predecessors—depicted figures that embodied their ideal of beauty.

  • Colons introduce a list or give a conclusion to something that the sentence was leading up to.

I packed everything for the trip to the beach: a swimsuit, flip flops, and sunscreen. 

I went to my favorite city in the world: Chicago.

  • Check out my punctuation guide for more discussion of punctuation you might encounter. 

2. If there are choices about how to reorder the paragraph or change material, you are looking at an editing question.


  • Some questions ask you where sentences should be moved within a paragraph. Think about what the paragraph order needs to be, not just whether it made sense when you first quickly read the passage. There is some order that makes optimal sense, and it’s your job to find it. You could ask yourself questions like the following ones if you get stuck.
    1. Is there an order to the action? Did something happen first, middle, last? If so, follow the chronology.
    2. Is there a cause and effect? If so, put the cause first and the effect after.
    3. Is there an introduction, explanation, and conclusion? Again, follow the logical order.
    4. Did the author introduce or define the meaning of a particular word, phrase, or event that the rest of the paragraph relies on? If so, we need to put this first. 

Other questions in the editing category ask you to add, keep, or delete material. Think about whether you want to keep the material, and look at those answer choices first. Don’t get too attached to your yes or no answer, though. Sometimes the explanations in those answer choices are clearly wrong. If none of the explanations seem correct, switch from yes to no and see if any of the other explanations make more sense. 

3. If it’s neither punctuation nor editing, then you are probably looking at a style question.

These ask about the meaning of words or the substitution of words.

  • Make sure that you understand the question being asked. Often, these questions contain words like MOST/LEAST/NOT or ask for specific changes, such as the most vivid description, the most relevant information, etc. Pick the answer that most closely matches the information they are asking you to provide.

When you take your practice tests and in-person exam, think about what the test is asking for and what it wants you to do by thinking through check-lists like the one above.

More questions? Check out my other blog posts, and get in touch with Cambridge Coaching for private tutoring!

Work with Colleen!

Are you interested in reading more on the topic?

How do I use Punctuation on the ACT and SAT Exams?

What's the Difference Between the Old SAT and New SAT? 5 Major Changes on the Reading Section

Reading or Math? How to Decode Word Problems on the New SAT

Tags: ACT, SAT