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Lucas Fink

Defining the Blanks SAT Sentence Completion Strategy

The sentence completion (fill-in-the-blank) questions that begin each SAT reading comp section are, like most of the test, pretty formulaic. That’s because the test-makers are faced with a problem: they need to make the sentence require the specific word that’s the right answer (or its synonyms). In order to do that, they pretty much have to give you the definition of the word in the sentence.

If the SAT were a little simpler, it’d just give you a definition and ask you which word carried that meaning. You’d see this:

Definition: To make less severe; to soften

  1. to console
  2. to counsel
  3. to incense
  4. to mitigate
  5. to barter

And, truth be told, they’d be getting a pretty similar result; the SAT wants mostly to test your vocabulary with these questions, as you’d imagine. But they don’t just give you the definition, and that can seem a little daunting, at times, because you’re faced with another step in solving the problem. You have to make sense of the sentence surrounding the blank.

But that can actually be pretty straight-forward.


Getting synonyms from the sentence

A lot of SAT sentence completions give you synonyms of the tested word right in the sentence itself. So, although you won’t get a plain and simple definition like the non-SAT question above, you will get a sentence with that definition in it.

International aid lessened the severity of the earthquake’s economic aftermath, helping to ————- the suffering endured by its survivors.

  1. console
  2. counsel
  3. incense
  4. mitigate
  5. barter

Remember that when answering sentence completions, you should always come up with your own word before checking out the answer choices.

In this case, that’s pretty easy to do; just plug in the synonym from the sentence, lessen the severity of.

Then, even if you don’t know all of the definitions of all the answer choices, you’ll at least be able to cross a few out, and that’s important.

You should always be keeping an eye out for sentences with two pieces (like the example above) that basically refer to the same situation. Any related nouns should jump at you as well; if a lake is described as “peaceful,” then the camping trip at the lake is probably going to be “relaxing”—or something like it. There are a few different ways the SAT makers sneak synonyms into the sentence, but they do it a lot. And that makes anticipating answers a little bit easier for you.


The answer to the example

✗ (A) console = comfort, make feel better.

✗ (B) counsel = advise

✗ (C) incense = make angry, infuriate

✓(D) mitigate = make less severe

✗ (E) barter = exchange goods or services without money


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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