An Eight-Step Strategy
An Eight-Step Strategy
All the self-help books these days have a twelve-step process to kick the habit. Improving Sentences are four steps easier to handle. Here are the eight steps:
  1. Read the sentence and try to hear the problem.
  2. If you find an error, eliminate A.
  3. Before you look at the answer choices, figure out how to fix the error.
  4. Find the correction that most closely matches yours.
  5. If no correction matches, eliminate answers that repeat the error or contain new errors.
  6. If you’re still stumped, reach into your bag of tricks (more on those soon).
  7. Plug your answer back into the sentence to check it.
  8. If you’re still stumped—cut, guess, and run.
Alright, now it’s time to put that exciting eight-step process into action. Below you’ll see a sample problem that we solve with the eight-step method, explaining each of the steps along the way:
Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic success or her skill on the soccer field, but for her being a participant in gym class.
(A) but for her being a participant in gym class
(B) the reason being for her participation in gym class
(C) the reason was her participating in gym class
(D) but for her being participation-willing in gym class
(E) but for her participation in gym class
Step 1: Read the sentence and try to hear the problem.
As we have discussed, relying on your ear exclusively is risky on the SAT Writing section. The writers of the SAT know most students will listen for what sounds right to them, but often what sounds right is actually wrong. That’s because using just your ear most often means you’re using spoken English as your guide. Remember that this section of the SAT tests your knowledge of standard written English.
In this chapter, we reinforce your understanding of the rules of standard written English. Knowing the rules gives you a strong foundation against which to check the signals your ear gives you that something in the sentence is wrong. In the sample sentence above, you might immediately notice the combined problem of wordiness and faulty parallelism—the phrase but for her being a participant should be rewritten in a more compact form in which all the different components of the sentence align, or flow together, correctly (more on parallelism below).
Even if you don’t come up with the specific term wordiness, you might have the sense that something about the underlined part is vague and a bit convoluted. It’s fine if you can’t think of the exact term that describes the problem. A general sense that something is wrong will go a long way. Just detecting the presence of an error allows you to cut answer choice A, which tips the guessing odds in your favor. More on that in step 2.
Step 2: If you find an error, eliminate A.
If you’re certain that there’s an error somewhere in the underlined part of the sentence, you can eliminate A since A always repeats the underlined part word for word. Again, you won’t need to know the exact term for the error in order to eliminate A.
The fine art of A elimination gives you a great advantage on Improving Sentences questions. Here’s why: Cutting A means something more than just “one down, four to go.” Even if the other four answers look like gibberish to you, cutting A gives you the green light to guess. As we explain in the introduction to this book, the SAT does not contain a guessing “penalty.” The test is set up to discourage totally random guessing, but to reward educated guessing. If you can eliminate even one answer choice, the answer you choose becomes an educated guess—tipping the odds in your favor.
Step 3: Before you look at the answer choices, figure out how to fix the error.
Once you’ve figured out the problem in the underlined part of the sentence, say to yourself (silently—you don’t want to reveal your genius to other test-takers in the room): “This would be a better sentence if it read something like Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic success or her skill on the soccer field, but for participating in gym class.” That version conveys the right information, but doesn’t take up unnecessary space.
Have you ever noticed that if you repeat a normal, everyday word like house over and over it starts to seem odd? That’s exactly what the answer choices of Improving Sentences questions will do to you. If you go right to the answer choices and read through them one by one, by the time you get to C, the answers will all sound equally confusing and wrong. Always approach the answer choices with a plan, which is what you think sounds correct. If you start looking at the answer choices with no idea of what you’re looking for, it’s possible all the answers will sound funny and incorrect.
Step 4: Find the correction that most closely matches yours.
Let’s say your correction reads, Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic success or her skill on the soccer field, but for participating in gym class. Now look at the remaining answer choices and see which one most closely matches your correction:
(A) but for her being a participant in gym class
(B) the reason being for her participation in gym class
(C) the reason was her participating in gym class
(D) but for her being participation-willing in gym class
(E) but for her participation in gym class
E looks most like the answer you came up with before looking. It’s not exactly like your prepared answer—it uses her participation instead of for participating—but it’s very close. Rarely will an answer choice exactly match the one you generated on your own, which is fine. The purpose of preparing your own answer first is not to find an exact match in the answer choices but to have an idea of what is correct before you start reading the choices.
If you find an answer that matches yours, awesome. Onward to the next question. Sometimes, though, you may not be totally sure whether any of the answer choices matches yours closely enough. In that case, move to step 5.
Step 5: If no correction matches, eliminate answers that repeat the error or contain new errors.
You’ll usually see a few answer choices that actually repeat the mistake. Others might fix the original mistake, but in the process add a new error to the mix.
Suppose you weren’t certain that E matched your prepared answer closely enough. In that case, you would read through the answer choices and try to determine if they repeated the first mistake or contained a new one. Answer choice B has a problem similar to that of the original sentence. It says, the reason being, which is a wordy phrase. Meanwhile, C creates a new problem: the word participating is a gerund but should be a noun. D repeats the original mistake, repeating the phrase but for her being; it also introduces a new problem by using the strange phrase participation-willing. Only E neither repeats the original problem nor contains a new one.
Step 6: If still stumped, reach into your bag of tricks.
Since you’ve already got E as a pretty solid answer from step 5, there’s no need to delve into the bag of Improving Sentences tricks just yet. So we’re going to skip step 6 for now and go right to step 7. At the end of the chapter is a section on which tricks to use to beat Improving Sentences questions when you’re in a pinch.
Step 7: Plug your answer back into the sentence to check it.
Plug the answer back into the sentence to check how well it works.
Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic success or her skill on the soccer field, but for her participation in gym class.
Sounds good. Sounds right.
Step 8: If you’re still stumped—cut, guess, and run.
If you can’t decide on an answer choice to improve the sentence’s error, you’ve got two choices. First, if you’re able to cut at least one answer choice, you should always guess. If you’ve got a strong hunch that the sentence contains an error but you just can’t pinpoint it, cut A and guess. The guess odds tip in your favor if you can eliminate at least one choice, so don’t worry about choosing randomly from among the four remaining choices: B, C, D, or E. If you don’t know for sure if the sentence contains an error and you’ve got no clue which answer choice might solve the error, you should leave the question blank and move on to another question you can answer confidently and quickly. Every minute counts. Don’t beat yourself up over an extra tough question. Use either of the strategies described in step 7 and move on pronto.
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