There are plenty of “tricks” to taking the SAT out there, and a whole lot of them are shams. Yes, the College Board is sneaky, and the SAT is full of trap answers. But there’s not really any single rule you can follow to avoid those traps.
For example, even though the word “never” can easily make an otherwise good answer choice incorrect, you can’t automatically trash any answer with that word. You just have to be wary of it.
So I’m not going to tell you I have some magic secret that’ll get you a higher score on the day of your SAT. That takes practice, more than anything. But I do have a shortcut that might save you some time.
Improving sentence questions can be a time-suck
“Improving sentences” questions are one of the three types that the SAT’s writing multiple choice sections throw at you. They don’t look as involved as improving paragraphs questions, but they can be surprisingly time consuming because it’s rarely easy to predict how the error you’re given should be corrected. A lot of the time, there are several different ways a sentence could be improved, so you have to check each answer choice to find the one that resolves the problem and doesn’t create new ones.
And since the differences between those answer choices can be really subtle, many SAT-takers find themselves going back and forth between two or three answers, reading and rereading.
A pattern in the correct answers to improving sentence questions
If you’ve been prepping seriously, you might already realize that the SAT tests wordiness and style as well as more clear-cut grammar. Using too many words tends to make a sentence clunky—the best style is usually the one that gives all the necessary information in as few words as possible.
So it may not be surprising that the best version of a sentence is often a shorter one, if not the shortest. The trick is simple:
Shorter answers are more likely to be correct answers.
Again, I can’t give you a failsafe rule to follow, but the tendency of short answers to be right answers is really worth noting.
Just to prove the point, I went through three official SATs and checked the lengths of each correct answer compared to the lengths of other answer choices. For each question, I ranked them from 1-5. The shortest answer choice was 1, and the longest was 5. If more than one answer choice was the same length, I used the highest ranking for all of them (e.g., if the two longest answers were the same length, they’d both be marked as 5s).
The results were pretty wild.
The shortest answer choice was correct 36% of the time. Meanwhile, the longest answer choice was only correct 5.33% of the time. That’s an enormous difference.
Start improving sentence questions from the short answer
Because you end up doing a process of elimination for improving sentence questions anyway, you might as well start with the answer that’s shortest. A third of the time, you won’t have to check the others. As long as it fixes the error that the original sentence presented, it’s got to be the right one, because it won’t be too wordy to be correct.
Also, if you’re running out of time on the final section of your SAT, which is made up of just 14 improving sentence questions, just bubble in the shortest answer to each of the last couple questions. Even if they’re not all right, you’ll get points out of it on average.
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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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