SC Step Method
Here’s a preview of our five-step method to help you find the answer
choices that best fill in the blank(s).
Step 1: Find the Keywords.
Step 2: Look for Road Signs.
Step 3: Make a Prediction.
Step 4: Compare Your Answer(s) to the Answer Choices.
Step 5: Plug It In.
Now let’s go through the step method in slow motion to see what this all
Step 1: Find the Keywords. Quick, what’s the correct answer
for the following SC?
||Mrs. Patel was very ________.
Unless you know something about Mrs. Patel that we don’t,
any of the five answer choices (and, for that matter, just
about any reasonable adjective) would work in this sentence. But since any
answer could work, any answer could also not work.
This question would never appear on the GRE, because it’s missing
keywords, or the information that lets you know how to fill
in the blank. Keywords are essential to the meaning of the sentence, so every SC
on the GRE will have them.
Here’s our example again, this time with keywords:
||A two-time beauty pageant winner, Mrs.
Patel was very ________.
The keywords are beauty pageant winner, because these
words tell us important information about Mrs. Patel, information that lets us
correctly fill in the blank.
Of the five answer choices, pretty is the only one that
fits with the context provided by the keywords. Smart,
curious, rich, and nice
might all work grammatically, but they don’t logically fit in with the rest of
Let’s look at an example that more closely resembles the SCs you’ll find
on the GRE. This time, we’ll try to identify the keywords.
||As more Americans move up the economic
ladder, one fixture of the upper-middle-class income bracket
often ________ them; searching for a nanny can be an
exasperating, humiliating experience.
Although the blank is in the first clause, the first clause doesn’t tell
us much about the missing words. So let’s take a look at the second clause:
searching for a nanny can be an exasperating, humiliating
experience. This clause explains the first clause by implying that
a nanny is one fixture of the upper-middle-class income bracket.
The second clause also makes it clear that finding a nanny isn’t much
Now let’s take a look at the answers: Entertains and
excites are out, since finding a nanny is exasperating and
humiliating. Eludes and escapes seem like
reasonable choices, but disappoints doesn’t work well
grammatically: One fixture disappoints them is technically
correct, but it sounds bad. SC sentences always flow smoothly when the correct
words are inserted.
Escapes works in the sentence, but
eludes works better, since this word indicates that finding a
nanny is easier for some people than for others, as implied by the word
can in the second clause.
Step 2: Look for Road Signs. Road signs are
words that indicate whether a sentence has changed direction. They will also key
you in to the sentence type, as we described above. Some sentences are
straightforward, like our example with Mrs. Patel:
A two-time beauty pageant winner, Mrs. Patel was very
This fits into the “definition” sentence type discussed in the previous
section, since the word pretty essentially defines
beauty pageant winner.
But as we saw in the “contrast” sentence type, some SCs will contain
twists and turns; for example, they start positively but end negatively, start
neutrally but end positively, and so on. Road signs let us know when an SC
sentence will wind up in a place very different from where it started. Take a
look at this example:
Scenes of extreme poverty stand in contrast
here with the construction of ________ headquarters of
corporations from North America.
This SC has switched directions. It starts with scenes of extreme
poverty but winds up talking about corporate
headquarters. These headquarters stand
in contrast to the scenes of extreme
poverty, so we can predict that the blank might be filled with a word
that means the opposite of scenes of poverty, a word such as
expensive. In contrast is our road sign,
and the answer is D.
The bottom line is that you should always pay attention to the context
given in an SC—and let the context, including its keywords and road signs, lead
you to the correct answer.
Let’s take a look at another SC:
||Far and above the typical rowdiness and
harmless pranks of his fraternity brothers, Matthew’s
behavior bordered on unadulterated ________.
The phrase “Far and above” is a road sign that suggests that the missing
word must be characterized by a more extreme form of “typical rowdiness” and
“harmless pranks.” That means that we have an amplification sentence structure
on our hands, and our job will be to bump up from typical and
harmless behavior to something more intense. It helps to
know that unadulterated means “utter,” “absolute,” or
“complete,” but even if you didn’t know this, recognizing the amplification
sentence structure can help you sniff out the right answer anyway.
Etiquette and morality suggest good
behavior, things we might be looking for if this were a contrast sentence.
However, these words defy the logic here, so we can cut B and
D from the get-go. Cleverness is out of place in a
sentence concerning rowdy behavior, so we can eliminate E as well.
That leaves A and C as potential candidates, and
it’s a close call between them since both disorderliness and
debauchery indicate forms of negative behavior. However,
only debauchery (“depravity,” “decadence,” “wickedness”) ups
the ante by amplifying the behavior described in the beginning of the sentence,
whereas disorderliness could theoretically have the same
intensity as typical rowdiness and harmless
pranks. C therefore best completes the sentence.
Recognizing that the sentence calls for an amplification helps us to eliminate
some choices right off the bat and then to choose successfully between the two
Step 3: Make a Prediction. Anticipating the correct answers
before looking at the choices makes it much less likely that you’ll be tempted
by traps and much more likely that you’ll choose the correct answer. In steps 1
and 2, you looked for keywords and road signs, both of which will lead you to
accurately predict the answer or answers before you look at the
Step 4: Compare Your Answer(s) to the Answer Choices. After
you’ve made your prediction, take a look at the answer choices and match your
prediction to the answers. Rarely will your predictions be a perfect fit with
the answers. Don’t worry. Remember to choose the answers that are closest in
meaning to your predictions.
Step 5: Plug It In. When you’ve got a new electrical device
like a microwave or TV, there’s only one way to make sure it works: Plug it in!
Same goes for testing out answer choices.
Now that you’ve seen all the steps, let’s give this method a whirl.
Here’s a double-blank example similar to an SC you’ll see on test day.
We haven’t included the answer choices in order to emphasize the importance
of following Step 3 and coming up with your own answer first.
Despite its repeated claims of ________, the heavy
metal group actually had an exceptionally ________ history.
Step 1: Find the Keywords. For keywords, we’ve got
actually and exceptionally. We’ve also
got heavy metal group, because that’s what the blanks and
sentences are talking about.
Step 2: Look for Road Signs. For road signs, we’ve got
the word despite. The despite here tips us
off that the second blank should contrast with the first. This sentence is
really saying something along the lines of despite saying
one thing, the heavy metal group was really something else.
So, the correct words for the two blanks should contrast with each other.
Step 3: Make a Prediction. The music group is claiming to
be something it isn’t, and its present claims contrast with its
history. Maybe the band is claiming it’s
tough or has a lot of street cred. Being
tough seems to go along with being in a heavy metal band.
The first blank contrasts with the second, so we need a prediction for
the second blank along the lines of wimpy or
harmless. Now that we’ve got a prediction, let’s go to
Step 4: Compare Your Answer(s) to the Answer Choices. We
predicted toughness or a lot of street
cred for the first blank and wimpy or
harmless for the second blank. Now we’ll compare our
predictions with the answer choices:
||musical excellence . . notable
||having a traditional style . . felonious
||being made up of hardened criminals . . innocent
||aesthetic purity . . unrenowned
||fiscal propriety . . affluent
Being made up of hardened criminals definitely fits
with our prediction of tough for the first blank, and
innocent fits with our prediction of wimpy
or harmless for the second. Don’t worry if your
predictions don’t match the answers exactly; choose the closest
approximation to your prediction, and move on to Step 5.
Step 5: Plug It In. It’s tempting to skip this step.
Don’t. You must plug your answer choices back into the
sentence to make sure they work.
Despite its repeated claims of being made
up of hardened criminals, the heavy metal group actually
had an exceptionally innocent history.
So C is correct. Remember: After you’ve made your
predictions and checked out the choices, eliminate the answers that don’t
match, and plug in the ones that do. You’re looking for the best, most
logical answer for every blank.
Let’s do one more SC together. After that, you’ll be ready to try your
hand at the practice problems at the end of this chapter.
||Born ________, baby howler monkeys
will explore every inch of their surroundings without
any sense of fear, since they are not ________ of the
possibility of danger at such a young age.
||inquisitive . . cognizant
||pugnacious . . impudent
||timorous . . apprehensive
||listless . . mindful
||questioning . . unwary
Step 1: Find the Keywords. Let’s find the keywords by
looking at the sentence in parts. The first part describes how baby
howler monkeys are when they are born: They
will explore every inch of their surroundings without any sense
of fear. There’s our first group of keywords. The first blank
describes the monkeys at birth: They like to explore.
The second blank further describes the monkeys: They are
without any sense of fear. But note the phrase that
precedes this blank: They are not. So we’re looking for a
word that contrasts with the phrase without any sense of
fear. That makes this blank a little trickier.
Step 2: Look for Road Signs. This sentence has just one
road sign: since. This road sign means “because,” and thus
it clues us in to the relationship among the parts of the sentence: The
second part of the sentence provides the reason for or explains something
about the first part. Now we know that the two are related, and not in
contrast to one another.
Step 3: Make a Prediction. Uncovering the keywords in
Step 1 lets us know that the first blank describes how baby howler monkeys
are at birth: They like to explore. A good word for the first blank, then,
would be something like curious.
The second blank describes how the monkeys are in relation to danger.
Since the baby howler monkeys are basically fearless, it makes sense that
they either don’t care about the possibility of danger or
they are unaware of the possibility of danger. But note
that not before the second blank: We need to then look for
a word that means either “care” or “aware.”
Step 4: Compare Your Answer(s) to the Answer Choices. To
recap, we’re looking for the first blank to mean something like “curious”
and the second blank to mean something like “care” or “aware.”
Inquisitive and questioning are good
matches for curious; pugnacious, which
means “aggressive,” and timorous, which means “nervous,”
are not. Listless, meaning “lacking energy,” also goes
against the idea of enthusiastic, exploring monkeys, so we can chop
B, C, and D after working with the
easier of the two blanks.
For the second blank, choice A contains
cognizant, which matches “aware.” Bingo! Let’s double-check
remaining choice E just to make sure it’s not a better match:
Unwary means “unsuspecting,” so to say that the monkeys
are not unwary would mean that they are cautious and
careful, which is close to the opposite of what the logic here requires.
Step 5: Plug It In. Before we can click the answer and
move on, we need to double-check that the two words in A work
in the sentence by plugging them in:
Born inquisitive, baby howler
monkeys will explore every inch of their surroundings without any sense
of fear, since they are not cognizant of the
possibility of danger at such a young age.
Perfect. We’re done.