SCs: A Five-Step Method
SCs: A Five-Step Method
We’ve developed a five-step method based on our electricity model to help you find the answer choice that best fills in the blank(s).
Here are the five steps, complete with an explanation of each:
  1. Spot the Switch
  2. Go with the Flow
  3. Fill in the Blank
  4. Compare Your Answer to the Answer Choices
  5. Plug It In
Step 1: Spot the Switch
As we discussed, every electrical current flows along a path with one or more switches that direct which way the flow goes. Most SC sentences contain conjunction words that function like switches, pointing the meaning of the sentence in different directions. Some examples of these words include so, however, thus, and although. We call these words “switches.”
The first thing you should do on every SC you come across is search for the switch. Not every sentence contains a switch, but many do. To make switch-spotting as easy as possible, here is a list of the switch words that most commonly appear on the SAT. There are two types of switches: one-way and two-way:
One-Way Switches
and because since so therefore thus
Two-Way Switches
although but despite however instead nevertheless
notwithstanding rather though unless while
Step 2: Go with the Flow
Every switch word can tell you which way the flow of the sentence goes. A one-way switch points out a one-way sentence. A two-way switch points out a two-way sentence.
  • One-way sentences contain no contrast, which means they flow in one direction. All parts of the sentence support the main idea of the sentence.
  • Two-way sentences contain a break in the flow of the sentence that makes one part of the sentence contrast with another part. Often the contrast comes after a comma or semicolon that divides the sentence.
Examples will make all of this much easier to see and understand.
One-Way Switches
Here’s an example of an SC question that contains a one-way switch. Try to pick out the switch on your own before you read the explanation that follows.
Since the scientist’s years of research finally confirmed his theories, everyone ---- him.
The switch in this sentence is since. It’s a one-way switch, so it tells you that the sentence’s flow goes one way. And knowing that the sentence is one-way allows you to figure out how the sentence works.
The part of the sentence before the comma says that a scientist did a ton of research that finally confirmed his original theories. The part after the comma, which contains the blank, describes the reaction to the scientist’s research and theories. Because the sentence is one-way, the word in the blank must support the idea that the scientist’s years of hard work have finally paid off.
Now that you’ve used the rest of the sentence to clue you into what the blank might mean, you can begin to come up with your own possible answers to fill in the blank. Ask yourself what people would do in that circumstance? They’d probably do something like congratulate or cheer the scientist since his research paid off, right? Exactly.
Two-Way Switches
A two-way switch indicates that the sentence contains a contrast and therefore flows two ways. Here’s an almost identical version of the sentence you just saw. Only one word has been changed.
Although the scientist’s years of research finally confirmed his theories, everyone ---- him.
Once you’ve spotted the switch word although, you can use it to determine how the blank goes with the flow. The two-way switch word although indicates a contrast, so the blank must not support the idea of the scientist’s research finally paying off. Once you’ve figured out which way the flow goes, you need to find the answer choice that goes with the flow of the sentence. Rather than cheer or congratulate the scientist, in this version of the sentence everyone must do something like criticize or reject the scientist.
No Switches
Not every sentence contains a switch. But whether there’s a switch in a sentence or not, it’s still vital that you figure out if the sentence flows one way or two ways.
And, luckily enough, there’s a simple rule about sentences that don’t have any switch words:
  • A sentence without a switch will be one-way unless that sentence describes a change over time.
Sentences Describing a Change Over Time
There’s one type of sentence that doesn’t contain a switch word but can still flow two ways. These are sentences that compare two different periods of time. For example,
Once a ---- movie director, Mickey Carson ended his life a pauper unable to finance the making of his own films.
Though this sentence does not contain a switch, it contains a two-way flow because it conveys an unexpected change over time. The main idea of the sentence focuses on a contrast: that Mickey Carson died a pauper even though he was once a ---- movie director. Words that you might come up with to go with the two-way flow of the sentence may include successful, rich, celebrated—all adjectives that contrast with the idea of a movie director who died in poverty.
If you can’t find a switch word in a sentence, first check to see if the sentence describes a change over time. If it does, you’ve got a two-way sentence. If it doesn’t, you’ve got a one-way sentence. Once you’ve determined that, come up with words that go with the flow as we just did in the previous example.
Following the Flow
On all SCs, if the sentence flows one way, ask yourself what main idea of the sentence the blank must support. If the sentence flows two ways, ask yourself which idea the blank must contrast. Here are some examples to test your ability to pick out the switch, follow the flow, and figure out which answer choices go with the flow.
Despite the violently harsh weather conditions, the hikers ---- and made it back to their base camp.
What’s the switch? despite
Which way does the flow go? two ways
What idea does the blank support or contrast? contrasts with “the violently harsh weather conditions”
In this sentence, the switch word despite makes it clear that whatever fits into the blank has to contrast with the “violently harsh weather conditions.” That means the sentence flows two ways. Now ask yourself what kind of word would go with the flow. The switch word despite tells you that there’s a contrast in the sentence, which means the campers do make it back despite the harsh weather. Ask yourself what the campers would have to do to make it back despite threatening weather. They would have to endure or survive, right? That’s the kind of word you would need to find among the answer choices.
Now try this example:
Alex grew up near the beach, so he ---- how to surf at a very young age.
What’s the switch? so
Which way does the flow go? one way
What idea does the blank support or contrast? supports “grew up near the beach”
The switch word so in this example indicates that the sentence flows one way. That means all parts of the sentence must support the ideas that the sentence expresses. The word that fills in the blank must fit with the common conception of people who grow up by the beach. Ask yourself what their relationship to surfing would be at a young age. Would they learn to surf at a young age? Or know about surfing at a young age? Probably. That means you need to look for words like learned and knew in the answer choices. That would make the completed sentence read something like, Alex grew up near the beach, so he learned how to surf at a very young age.
Step 3: Fill in the Blank
You might have noticed that we haven’t included the answer choices in our examples. We did that by design. Why?
Because you should try to come up with your own answer to fill in the blank or blanks in an SC before looking at the answer choices. That way you won’t fall prey to SAT traps that the test may have planted among the answer choices. Coming up with your own answer first will also force you to stick with step 1 and step 2, which will prevent you from speeding along and making careless errors.
The answer that you generate to fill in the blank or blanks can be either a single word or a quick description of the type of word that you think should go in the blank.
Let’s go back to a previous example, now with answer choices.
Despite the violently harsh weather conditions, the hikers ---- and made it back to their base camp.
(A) surrendered
(B) won
(C) succeeded
(D) collapsed
(E) evacuated
What’s the switch? despite
Which way does the flow go? two ways
What idea does the blank support or contrast? contrasts with “the violently harsh weather conditions”
In step 2, we determined that the switch word despite indicates that the sentence flows two ways. That means the word in the blank must contrast with the idea of the violently harsh weather conditions. Ask yourself what the hikers would have to do despite the violently harsh weather conditions to make it back to camp. What word pops into your head? Managed? Survived? Endured? All of those choices are great. They go with the flow of the sentence and convey the idea of the hikers making it back despite the harsh weather. Now on to step 4.
Step 4: Compare Your Answer to the Answer Choices
Once you’ve used the information in the sentence to build your own answer, then you should go to the answer choices and look for a choice that matches yours.
In the example about the hikers, you can throw out surrendered, collapsed, and evacuated, because none of them even come close to your own answers.
That leaves you to choose between succeeded and won. Which is the better answer? Step 5 will help determine that.
Step 5: Plug It In
When you’ve got a new electrical device like a microwave or a TV, there’s only one way to test whether it works: Plug it in. Same goes for testing out answer choices on all SCs. Always plug in the answer choice (or choices) you’ve selected to make sure your choice works in the sentence.
In the last example, we were trying to decide between won and succeeded. Plug both words in to determine which one fits best into the sentence.
Despite the violently harsh weather conditions, the hikers won and made it back to their base camp.
Despite the violently harsh weather conditions, the hikers succeeded and made it back to their base camp.
After plugging the two words in, succeeded seems like the better choice. The hikers weren’t playing a game or involved in an contest, so the idea of having won something is inappropriate here.
You probably didn’t have much trouble deciding between won and succeeded in this example. You may even be thinking that this plugging in step is a waste of time. It’s not. Never skip step 5. Always plug in to check your answer choice.
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