Posts filed under: Reading

I found Leonardo here.

When it comes to sentence completion questions, it’s important to have some idea what you’re looking for before you hit the choices. In fact, it’s a really good idea to cover up the choices while you read the question, and not to uncover them until you have a pretty decent idea what word you’re looking for. Yes, I’m serious.

Here’s why: the SAT writers basically have to tell you exactly what they’re looking for in the sentence. They can’t just give you something open-ended and expect you to conjure up the correct answer. People always complain to me that the reading section is subjective. It so totally is not. They tell you exactly what they’re looking for in almost every question.

For example: here’s a sentence completion you will never see:

The dog is ____.

The dog is what? Awesome? Smelly? Brown? Friendly? Wet? Dangerous? Groomed to resemble a buffalo? The question doesn’t give you enough information to solve it! Can we make it better?

Because it jumped in the lake, the dog is ____.

Ok, better, but there’s still some ambiguity here. Could we say that the dog is smelly still? Couldn’t we also still say it’s wet? It’s probably not brown because it jumped in the lake, but what if the lake is full of sewage? The SAT will do an even better job telling you exactly what it wants:

Because it jumped in the lake (which has almost no poop in it), the dog is ____ and our mother says it can’t come inside until it dries off.

Aha! Now we know for sure the word must be “wet” or some synonym of it like “soaked,” because not only do we know it jumped in a lake, but our mother is not allowing it back inside the house until it is dry.

I’m having a bit of fun here with the subject matter, but the SAT really will give you this much information to help you select the correct choice. Often, in fact, they’ll blatantly give you synonyms for the words they’re looking for!  It is therefore prudent to pay very close attention to the sentence before you even think about looking at the choices.

Have a look at these three examples (left choice-less on purpose). Try to come up with a word (or a meaning of a word–something like “un-cool-ness” is OK if you can’t come up with a word that means exactly what you want), and then hold your mouse over the blank to see what I think are good predictions.

  1. Although he stayed away for several months, Harold was ____ the entire time and kept a diary detailing his wishes to return to his family and friends.
  2. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the ____ Joad family, which was forced from its home by the Dust Bowl and traveled from place to place in search of a better life.
  3. The horde of zombies was ____ but deadly; it wandered aimlessly about the once-great city, but it ____ anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path.

If your predictions were different than mine, take a minute now to think about why. You’re probably bringing outside knowledge to the question (a common mistake) or just missing important clues in the sentence.

The first one here is easy and I won’t spend much time on it. Harold keeps a diary of his wishes to return home…that means he’s homesick. Duh.

As for the second one, there are lots of things you could say about the Joads if you’ve read Steinbeck’s incomparable work; they were hard-luck, fractured, poor, sympathetic, strong, etc. But the sentence focuses on their homelessness and traveling. The word I’m looking for there is “itinerant.” If you know what “itinerant” means and you predicted the meaning of the blank well, this becomes a no-brainer question.

The structure of the zombie sentence is important, because it’s a common one on the SAT. The bit before the semicolon and the bit after it (call them clauses if you want, grammar nerd) are mirrors of each other. That makes it very easy to anticipate that the first blank should mean aimless, and the second should relate very closely to “deadly.” Actual words I was thinking of when I wrote this one: desultory and extirpated. Note that again, there are many things one could say about a horde of zombies: terrifying, smelly, stupid, noisy, etc. But only “aimless” and “killed” are good anticipations because they come from the rest of this particular sentence.

I didn’t put choices here because I’m trying to drive home the point that you don’t need to look at the choices right away when you do sentence completion questions. In fact, I think looking at the choices first leads to bad decisions sometimes. I’ll get more into that in a future post about eliminating bad choices, but for now you should practice predicting the meanings of the blanks before looking at the choices in your Blue Book, or whatever other book of practice problems you have.

Even though this might seem silly and a waste of time right now, I promise it will help you if you practice. Do it.

UPDATE June 2015: The links in this post have been broken for some time. That’s not necessarily surprising, as I originally wrote it in early 2011. I’m leaving it up for archival purposes, but don’t bother clicking the links.

Although the College Board’s Questions of the Day do remain archived on the CB site, it’s not so easy to browse them from there. Conveniently, last year someone created a searchable archive that links directly to the College Board’s own archives. It looks like it was more of a one-time project than something that’s indefatigably maintained, but if you’re looking for some more questions written by the actual test-makers during the lead-up to test day, this is a great place to spend some time.

I find the “advanced” search to be the most useful. From there you can, for example, view all Math questions that have been answered correctly by less than 50% of respondents. That’s pretty good, quick access to some decently hard questions. Here’s a particularly brutal one that I give to my students sometimes when they get too cocky.

Anyway, here’s the link. Go nuts!

Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that you found this post because your penurious self is Googling for ways to learn SAT vocabulary without spending any money. Today is your lucky day, though, friend-o. Although the multitudinous search results for things like “SAT vocab words” can be daunting to say the least, and a lot of what you’ll find is total dreck, there is some good, free stuff out there for those willing to sift through the morass.

I’ve been checking out some interactive online vocab tools for the past few days. Here are some resources I might come back to myself.

  • Word lists for your calculator. “Yo dawg I heard you like the SAT so I put some words on your calculator so you can think about the SAT while you’re thinking about the SAT.” Seriously though, different people learn vocabulary in different ways, so a prudent instructor should be willing to try some unconventional approaches if a student isn’t responding well to the standard flash card approach. Maybe…put the words on a calculator instead?
  • Visual Thesaurus. This list features “the 100 most common” SAT words, but clicking around inside the actual “visual thesaurus” will introduce you to tons more. Look for a word with a lot of branches coming off it as a starting point, and explore. I started at “benevolent” and just kept on going until my trial ran out. Not sure I’d pay for this, but it’s fun to poke around.
  • Vocab Concentration. A little hokey, perhaps. This site also has word searches, matching games, and flash cards for what it claims are “the 100 most common” SAT words. Is it the same list as the Visual Thesaurus folks? I don’t know, I didn’t check.

When it comes to the reading comprehension section, there are very few quick fixes. The one exception — if you consider learning words a “quick fix” like I do — is a quick vocabulary augmentation. Start looking up every single word you come across that you don’t know. Do so assiduously, with sedulous care. Become a Predator of words. Wear a mask, if you have to. Your friends will dig it. Seriously.

I’ve made special links all over this blog to help you get started (hover over red words for definitions), but to see results, you’re going to have to devote yourself to the cause.

You should keep in mind that not every hard word is a likely SAT word, and not every SAT word is necessarily a hard one. Some words show up again and again, and some almost never appear. So it’s a good first step to springboard yourself into your quest with a box of flashcards or word list that’s been designed using previous SATs for inspiration, like Direct Hits. What is often said about investments (someday you’ll know this firsthand) is true here as well: past performance does not guarantee future results. Still, it’s good to know which words the test makers have gone to repeatedly in the past.

So start with flash cards or a book of words, and then keep on moving from there. Words are everywhere. Learn the definition of every word you encounter in magazines, text books, advertisements, etc., not to mention practice tests in the Blue Book. Tirelessly hunt down the meaning of every word you hear from your teachers and your garrulous (but well-spoken) friends. Believe me, you’ll be happy on test day when a word you learned a few weeks prior appears as the correct answer of a very difficult Sentence Completion question.

A personal story to drive this home: I took the GRE (it’s like the SAT for grad school) a while back. It’s actually very similar to the SAT so I was supremely confident, but you take it on a computer so I figured I’d take a practice test before I sat for it just to get the timing down, etc.

Two words came up on the practice test that I didn’t know: pusillanimous and quotidian. I was in a rush, so I didn’t look them up right away. I did get around to looking up pusillanimous later (it’s easy to remember that it means cowardly because it starts with “pusi”), but I never got around to quotidian; I got lazy. A few weeks later, BOTH words appeared on my real GRE as correct answers, and I missed the quotidian question. I can’t tell you how hard I kicked my own ass for not following my own advice.

Bottom line: do as I say (and as I will most definitely continue to do now that I’ve been burned), not as I regretfully did.