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.

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How to Read Passages


Pick the Best Match in Sentence Completion Questions

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.


Here we are in the final of three episodes about sentence completions. This one is pick the best match, but let's recap where we’ve been. First off, look for clues. Second, capture the concept and third, pick the best match which we’re going to go into great depth on in this episode. But just to give you context, because you definitely need to remember parts one and two, here is where we’ve been.

In look for clues, we said you need to look for clues in the sentence. So there are words and phrases we talked in the past about the banker verses the doctor, smiled verses frowned, and how that changed the meaning of what you would expect in the blank. You also need to look for direction words, some of which tell you the sentence continues in the same direction, like so or because. Others tell you the sentence goes in a different direction, like although or despite. And lastly, we said we said to watch out for punctuation, especially semicolons and colons.

After we look after clues, we looked at capturing the concepts. Two basic ideas there, you have to capture the concept that goes in the blank. And the word that you use, or in fact the words if you want to use the phrase, don’t have to be poetic. They don’t have to be a big whole SAT word. They can be awkward they can even be made up. As long as you know the idea of the concept that goes in that blank you’re good. And with that in mind, we’re ready to talk about the third part, picking the best match.

When you do pick the best match, here are the concepts that you’re going to use. First of all, you’re going to eliminate clear mismatches among the answer choices. You’re also going to use roots and other association you might have to narrow the field, after you’ve made the clear mismatches go away. And lastly, you keep in mind if you can eliminate one or better yet more answer choices, you should always be sure to guess. Now let’s look at this applied to a whole bunch of practice SAT problems.

So here are our first of many examples that we’re going to practice these ideas with. Now remember, we have to still go through the first two steps; looking for clues and capturing the concept that goes in the blank. So let’s do that and then will move on to step three, picking the best match with the ideas in mind that I just mentioned.

So first off, looking for clues. "Thought Kayla insists she can fix her bad habits, her friends and family consider her blank-----." So let’s see, some clues are fix her bad habits and then we also have the word though. That suggests the contrast. So, though Kayla thinks she fix her bad habits, her friends family consider her? So you need to make a prediction now, you need to capture the concepts. And it’s okay if it’s not pretty or a single word. So here is a goofy word that captures the concept pretty well, unfixable. Not saying it’s the right answer, but it definitely has the flavor of the right answer we’re going to find. You could also write something like beyond help, and that could be the concept that you’re going for. With that out of the way you move on to picking the best match among the answer choices.

Use this as your guide. First up, we’re going to look for clear mismatches so we can eliminate them. So we say unfixable, does unfixable mean facile? I’m guessing you don’t know what facile means, so we'll skip that one and move down the list. Does unfixable mean incorrigible, also a hard word so we'll keep moving. Catastrophic means really bad or disastrous. Now that might feel okay, but it doesn’t mean unfixable. So we'll get rid of that, it doesn’t match. Predictable, does predictable mean unfixable? Also not a match, so it’s out. And then benign maybe you don’t know that, so we’ll live it in for there. Now I want to point out that both catastrophic and predictable, might actually kind of make sense in the sentence. But since they were not what the clues were hinting at, they’re not the right answers. If the clues didn’t tell you to make a prediction that was consistent with the choices, the choices aren’t right and they’re out. Even if you could kind of maybe squint your eyes, and make them fit, they’re not the answer.

So we’ve already finished the first part which is eliminating clear mismatches. And now we’re ready to use roots and associations to narrow the field a little. And there is going to be a little fuzziness here, you just kind of doing the best you can, but it will help you make an educated guess. Because remember, you shouldn't make educated guess when you can eliminate one or more answer choices.

So let’s go back through, facile. Maybe this rings a bell from Spanish class or French class. Facile means easy and sure enough in English, it means that something comes very natural to you. So that does not mean unfixable. Even if you didn’t know the English definition, you would say I don’t think from Spanish class, or French class that’s sounds like unfixable. So using that root, you’d cross it out.

Incorrigible happens to have roots in Spanish and French, but a lot of people don’t know them ,so I’ll just leave it in. But benign, now you could the roots or you could use associations. You might think of benign cancer, and maybe remember what kind of cancer that is, or maybe not. That could be helpful. Or you could remember that ben or benny is a root that means good, like benefit or beneficial. And if you want to become more familiar with roots, you can also check out the bonus material and that will be really helpful. But in the mean time, let’s say you knew that ben meant good and said well I don’t know quite what benign meant. But I don’t think anything having to good, it can mean unfixable so it’s out. Sure enough you’ve done your best and you’re guessing incorrigible and you happen to be right. Incorrigible means not fixable, it can’t be fixed it’s the right answer.

Now I’m not saying that you’ll always be able to eliminate, four of the five answer choices, but you can still make an educated guess. Let’s practice the process. The most important part is to just to narrow the fields and make a good guess, when you can’t say the right answer for sure.

Let’s look at another example; "The publisher decided to ----- the work, reducing it to from over 600 pages to just under 200." So what would a publisher do to a work if they were reducing it from long to short? We’re already ready for step two. Now that we’ve looked for clues, we can capture the concept. What are they doing to the work? They’re going to shorten it, that was first. Now with that in mind, we can move on to step three, picking the best match.

Now the first thing we do is, eliminate clear mismatches for the capture concept, shorten. So let’s run through the list and see which are clear mismatches. Does shorten mean the same thing as improve? Definitely not. Does alleviate mean the same thing as shorten? You probably know that word, alleviate, means to make to make something better and that doesn’t mean shorten, so let’s get rid of it. Anthologize, maybe you don’t know we leave it in. Abridge, debunk very likely in the same category. So now we’re down to three and you just have to do the best you can at this point with roots and associations. And sometimes your best guess is going to be wrong, but try to make whatever head way you can.

So let’s see anthologize, that word might remind you of something like a poetry anthology, or maybe you heard of an album that was released several years ago called the Beatles Anthology. Either way, you might think that it's some sort of collection and that’s actually what it is. And either way, it doesn’t have to do with shorten if anything because it’s a compilation, it’s getting longer. So you might be able to figure out that you don’t quite know what anthologize means, but it can’t probably mean shorten. You'd eliminate it for that reason. Again, just guess, but it would turn out to be right.

Decoding D and E is going to be hard that’s okay. Your best guess is still a good step in the right direction, because you will come out ahead over time, as long as you guess when you can eliminate one or more. So take your best guess, it happens to be the case. So the right answer here is D, but having a fifty-fifty shot is not bad.

Another example. "Because of his diminutive size, Ryan was a ----- basketball player." We’re going to start by looking for clues. We have because which is a direction word. It tells us that something causes something else. Diminutive size, that means he’s small, it’s kind of like the word mini. Ryan was a ----- basketball player. So if he had a small size, what would that tell us about his basket playing? We're ready to make a prediction for the concept that goes here.

So I would say something like because of his diminutive size, Ryan was a not very good. Now I could say a word like poor, but that that has so many meanings. But I think 'not very good' is a little more clear. It’s up to you. Now with that out of the way, we’re already ready for step three, which is picking the best match.

And we start by getting rid of clear mismatches. So does 'not very good mean' lamentable? Maybe you don’t know. Dedicated, that we can we get rid of. And check this out, Ryan could totally be a dedicated basketball player, and maybe you can even imagine the little guy on the team has to work really hard and he does. But, that’s not our prediction that’s out. So even if it could fit in the sentence, because it doesn’t match the concept that we thought went there, we confidently eliminated it. And that was the right thing to do.

Dexterous may not totally know the definition. Petite you know what? This is interesting. Is he petite? Yes, but is that 'not very good', the concept we’re going for? No. So even though it totally is consistent with the sentence, it’s not consistent with a blank and the concept, so we cross it out. Forceful does not mean not very good either, so then we’re down to two and we go to roots and associations.

What can you can remember here? Lament means, well it’s associated with sadness and complaining, so that is worth keeping in mind. Dexterous is like a manual dexterity or amber dexterous, which means something to do with skill. So even if you’re not quite sure you could say well, having skill of some sort, or having some sort of ability probably not associated with not very good. So I’m going to guess this is wrong and with very limited knowledge of what this means, this is right. And sure enough it might be a pretty good guess, in fact, it’s the right guess.

Another example. "The most recent work by Mason, a talented young author, has been heralded as -----." So hopefully you’re remembering the steps by now. First of all we’re going to look for clues in the sentence. We’re talking about a work, the author is talented, and you may or may not know the word heralded, but it means welcomed or praised. So how would it be seen? Now we said before in a previous episode, that we couldn’t say exactly what goes here, but we could say that it’s positive. So with just that prediction, we’re going look for a choice that’s positive and can describe a book.

So first we get rid of clear mismatches. Disappointing is not a positive that describes a work. Robust maybe you don’t know it. Vociferous maybe you don’t know it. Astute maybe you don’t know it. Legible means readable like you can make out what it says, it’s not too scribly, that’s probably not a good way that you describe a work. It’s probably true the work is legible, but it’s not a positive adjective, you give to something that was really that was really awesome, which is what is going on here.

So now we’ve got clear mismatches, and we’re ready to use roots and association to narrow the field a little bit. Little harder robust, maybe you haven’t heard anything but vac or voc is a root that means having to do with the voice, like your vocal cords. So you can say do I think the voice means something positive having to with a book? And again you’re guessing, but you might say I think that’s probably not right, I’m going to get rid of it. And then you’ve scored a fifty-fifty chance and you do what can. The right answer happens to be astute, but again as long as you’re guessing, better than one in five, maybe one in three, one in two, you’re doing great.

A few more examples. "Adele is the ultimate -----: she visits local galleries, studies the work of famous painters, and takes art appreciation classes." So let’s see, we have our clue here. The semicolon means we’re elaborating or even defining what we’ve just been talking about. And let’s see, how would you describe who visits galleries, studied art, and takes classes? Probably not a single would fit very well, but maybe art lover would be good. You probably wouldn’t want to say an artist because there is not real indication that she herself is good at art, only that she’s really into it. So with that concept in mind, let’s go through the answer choices looking for mismatches.

Does artist mean art lover? You probably know that means some sort of artist, which is different from art lover. Although it’s kind of in the same thing, so we get rid of it. Maybe you don’t know raconteur, maybe you don’t aesthete. Philanthropist, that’s some who gives money, not an art lover so it’s out. An inquisitor maybe you don’t know that either. At this point though let’s turn to roots and associations and do what we can.

Now, this one is a little tough. If you happen to have taken French you might recognize it from raconté means to retell a story. It’s also related to quinto in Spanish, which means a tale. So if you happen to notice that it might be useful but that’s asking a lot. So let’s leave it in saying you hadn’t made the association. Aesthete maybe you know the word aesthetic but probably not, it’s pretty uncommonly known in high school. But inquisitor we can make some head a way on. That’s looks like inquire or inquisitive, that all means questioning words. So would a questioning person be an art lover? They could be but, not really a match, so we get rid of it. And then you just make best guess from among what’s left and the right answer happens to be aesthete. But if you’re doing fifty-fifty that’s still pretty awesome.

Two more. "Kyle was frequently described as -----, excessively prideful and confident." So this is a construction we talked about briefly in a past episode. Sometimes if you have a word here and a comma you’ll have a definition after it. So this word means excessively prideful and confident. Our concept would actually be Kyle was frequently described as excessively prideful and confident comma, excessively prideful and confident. Of course you wouldn’t right that if you were writing an essay, but that's the concept. So with that concept in mind, which I’ll underline to remind us, we’re going to look for mismatches and eliminate them.

Does assertive mean excessively prideful and confident? That’s close, but assertive might mean confident. It doesn’t mean excessively prideful and confident. So that’s out, but that’s a pretty good distractor answer. Insipid, maybe you don’t know, hubristic probably don’t know, that’s a pretty arcane, word as the word arcane. Submissive, a submissive person is sort of shy, so that’s not going to be a match. An opaque maybe you don’t know that either, or maybe you know it’s wrong because it is. So we’re down to three and then we narrow the field as best we can.

Let’s see opaque, maybe that reminds or words like transparent and translucent and opaque, and you’re not sure what opaque is but you say, whatever opaque has to do with has nothing to do with having too much confidence or pride. So what’s cool is, you can say I don’t know what it means, but I know it doesn’t mean that, and get rid of it. And in what seems to be a pattern we’re down to two, you make your best guess. The right answer happens to be hubristic. But as long as you’re narrowing the field before you guess, you’re doing great.

Let’s look at one last example; "Cara’s essay was ----- and -----, reflecting no originality and little effort." This is a construction worth being aware of. Sometimes when it says blank and blank, you know they’re actually repeating something else where in the sentence. "Cara’s essay was ----- and -----, reflecting no originality and little effort." So the first blank, actually corresponds to this part. How would you describe something that reflected no originality? Probably unoriginal, that would be our concept. And it’s okay that it sounds repetitive it's just the concept. And how would you capture the concept for what reflects little effort? This one is a little harder, not reflecting effort, sounds kind of awkward, right? But it captures the concept. So with those concepts in mind, let’s eliminate clear mismatches.

And here is a little tip, if you’re doing with two blanks pick the one you feel more comfortable with and confident about, and start there. Because then, if you can eliminate answer choices based on that one, you don’t have to check the other, that’s a waste of time. So let’s take original, let's take unoriginal and try that first. Look for clear mismatches. Does eligible at least we're from the SAT’s repetitious, does eligible mean unoriginal? No, those are totally unrelated. Eligible means you can’t read it, unoriginal, nothing to do with. So we’re totally done with A, we never have to look at the second half ever again.

Does uninspired mean unoriginal? That could, so let’s leave that in. Trite, you nay not know, so we’ll leave in. Hackneyed, a lot of students also don’t know that, we’ll leave it in. Mediocre means so sore. This is an ephy-answer choice. Mediocre means not outstanding, unoriginal means something slightly different. So we’re suspicious of this, but we’ll keep it in mind as maybe a possibility, because it doesn’t look like a great match, but maybe it could work.

And let’s go through the right side, only looking at these three and I guess this one because it’s a maybe. Not reflecting effort, does torpid mean that? Probably don’t know, does perfunctory mean that? Probably don’t know. Obscure does obscure mean not reflecting effort? No, obscure means not known by a lot of people, or not understood very well, that’s totally unrelated to this concept. So now we’re down to two. And we’re pretty stuck because we don’t really know the words. Uninspired you might know sort of means this, torpid you probably don’t know. Trite you probably don’t know and perfunctory you probably don’t know. But that’s okay, just make your best guess. The right answer happens to be one of these two so that’s great. The right answer is C; trite and perfunctory. So let’s wrap that up with a summary of everything we’ve covered in this episode.

So you’ve finally reached the end of the three part series on dealing with sentence completions. And this part, picking the best match, involves three pieces. First off, look to eliminate clear mismatches. When you’ve captured the concept, be brutal, eliminating answer choices that don’t really match what you had in mind. Also, use roots and associations to make your best guess. Ideally you would know every single word on the SAT, and studying vocab and roots will help you get closer. But you got to just take your best guess. So, narrow the field using any gut fillings or roots you’re vaguely aware of, that can help you make progress in that way.

And lastly remember, if you can eliminate one answer choice, you should definitely guess. Obviously you want to feel as confident as possible, get it down to two, get it down to one. But no matter what, if you can eliminate one answer choice, you should guess with confidence, knowing that overall, you will come pout ahead. And that’s what you should know about sentence completions.

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