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Sentence Completion, Part I

Teacher/Instructor Eva Holtz
Eva Holtz

Harvard University
Perfect scores on the SAT and 4 SATIIs

Eva is a certified admissions counselor and the founder of PrepPoint, a premier test prep company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

So we're going to talk about sentence completions and we're going to break this down into three separate steps. The first one's right here, which is looking for clues. Now before we get started we should of course remember what a sentence completion looks like, it's a sentence with a word missing or sometimes more than one word. And a bunch of answer choices that could potentially fill in the blank. Now we're not going to solve this one but I just wanted to refresh your memory, so what we're going to do is not what most people naturally do, which is trying to plug in the answer choices, you don't want to do that, instead we're going to look for clues. Let me elaborate on what that means.
So it's very important that we look for clues in going about sentence completions and looking for clues, there are three different ways to do that. We can look for words and phrases that are useful, direction words that are useful and punctuation that's useful. We're going to go into detail in each one of these starting with words and phrases. Every word in the sentence can potentially be a clue and when I say clue I mean a hint as to the meaning of what's in the blank.
Let's look at some examples here. First off, the banker looked through the woman's records and frowned as he informed her that she was blank.
Next, the banker looked through the woman's records and smiled as he informed her that she was blank.
And lastly, the doctor looked through the woman's records and frowned as he informed her that she was blank.
Now, the sentences are all very similar but I hope you can tell that the blank should have different words, in different cases because of the words in the sentence. Not too complicated. Here the word banker and frowned tell us something about this word. Something like she's not doing well financially, she's broke. Something to that effect.
The next example, we have banker again as a clue word, but we have smiled so a word more like successful, something like that, would serve us well. And lastly we have doctor and frowned as our clue words in the last sentence and that changes the prediction for the blank dramatically, something like no.
So we want to look at the words in the sentence and see what they tell us about what's going on in the blank.
One more example here, the most recent work by Mason, a talented young author, has been heralded as blank. So what words are clue words here? What could give us a hint about what's going on in the blank? Well the word has to describe the work so that's useful, he's talented, so that probably also indicates something about the work and here's a pretty subtle one, heralded is a word that a lot of people don't know but it means welcomed or praised so it's a positive word. And that tells us a lot about what's going on in the blank.
And in addition to looking for clues in the form of words and phrases, you want to watch out for direction words. Direction words will tell you whether two ideas in the sentence are related, that are sort of along the same lines or they do a U turn and they are contrasting each other. For instance, there are some same direction words here, they're many others but this is a good start that tells you that the two parts of a sentence are connected because they're similar. For instance, I would say I love you and you're great. Those belong together with and the same direction words.
On the other hand we have different direction words and they indicate the two parts of a sentence being connected contrast with each other. I love you although you are a disaster would be an example of how different direction words would come into play so as you read the sentence, you really want to pay attention to these words whether they're same direction words or different direction words 'cause they'll tell you what goes in the blank. It makes a big difference whether I choose and or although in terms of figuring out what goes in the blank later in the sentence.
Let's see some examples. Because of his diminutive size Ryan was a blank basketball player. Despite his diminutive size, Ryan was a blank basketball player. Very similar sentences but we're looking for clues and "because" is a clue, it's a same direction word and "despite" is a clue, it's a same direction word.
Now I should point out that diminutive is also a really important clue, diminutive means small, you can see sort of the word "mini" in there so let's see what makes sense. Because of his diminutive size, Ryan was a well if he were small and we're using the word because, you'd probably expect a word like mediocre right? Meanwhile with despite which is a different direction word, you would have a very different expectation for the blank. Something like despite his diminutive size, Ryan was a pretty good basketball player. So definitely pay attention to the direction words. Another example here, Gwen was a top contender in her school's spelling bee and that's a same direction word, she ultimately blank the competition. Verses Gwen was a top contender in her school spelling bee, yet she ultimately blank the competition. The direction words are same and different and that again changes what we expect for the blank.
And the third kind of clue we're looking for in addition to words and phrases in addition to direction words is punctuation. If you see semicolons, of course you want to know what semicolons are? And if you see colons, you should know they generally continue the ideas that are already being stated in the sentence. And meanwhile commas occasionally introduce definitions but not every comma has really great meaning so don't pay too much attention to commas. It's the semicolons and the colons you really want to be attentive to. So let's this in action.
Priscilla's selfishness is astounding semicolon; so that indicates that we're in the same direction here. Even her best friends are struck by how blank she can be, because of the semicolon we expect the first part, her selfishness is astounding to be consisted with the second part. Even her friends are struck by how blank she can be, so she probably is very selfish to be consistent according to the semicolon. Another example, Adele is the ultimate blank: and we have a colon meaning we're continuing in the same direction with our logic. Adele is the ultimate blank: she visits local galleries, studies the work of famous painters and takes art appreciation classes. So whatever we expect here should be consistent with what goes on and the rest of the sentence.
And let's look at one more example with not semicolons or colons but with commas. Kyle was frequently described as blank, excessively prideful and confident. In this case here's a comma that tells us that whatever word goes here, this is a definition of it. So those are the three pieces you can expect when looking for clues.
So the bottom line is that you want to look for clues in sentence completions, it's the first in a three step process and we'll be getting to the other two steps soon and you should do this in the lieu of trying to plug in the answer choices that is not the path to take. So step one is to look for clues and that has three parts. They are looking for words and phrases in general that could be useful, that's what came up in the banker, doctor, smiling, frowning examples. Also direction words, things that are in the same direction like 'and' and 'so' and things that are in the opposite direction like although or despite.
And lastly, you want to be on the lookout for punctuation. Remember that colons and semicolons and commas indicate that the rest of the sentence tends to go in the same direction as the beginning of the sentence. And that's step one, look for clues.