Improving Paragraphs in Five Steps
There are five standard steps for dealing with all four
of the Improving Paragraphs question types. Each type has its own
particular quirks. First we give you the standard steps, then we
go over each individual question type to explain the quirks.
Step 1: Read and outline the entire passage quickly.
This first step never varies, and you only have to do
it once for every passage: Before looking at the
questions, read and outline the entire passage very quickly. When
we say quickly, we mean quickly. It shouldn’t take
you more than two minutes to read the passage and write down a quick
sketch of what the paragraphs contain. The “outline” we advise you
to write is really just a very sketchy road map of the passage.
As you read each paragraph, sum up its purpose in a few words and
write that summation next to the actual paragraph in your test booklet.
Here’s a quick sample of a paragraph and how we would outline it:
Dolphins can communicate by using a
series of clicking and shrieking sounds. Researchers off the coast
of Florida have undertaken research to try to decode these sounds
and come up with a comprehensive dolphin language. So far they’ve
managed to translate over 100 “phrases” dolphins use to communicate.
This paragraph is all about dolphins, but more specifically
about research on dolphin communication. Our outline entry for this
paragraph would read something like, “Florida dolphin research—100
phrases.” Just enough to cover the key facts and purpose of the
As you read and outline, you’re going to blaze by a lot
of errors. Don’t waste your time trying to fix them or even marking
them. Since the passage has more sentences than the questions can
possibly cover, it’s a waste of time to examine each sentence carefully.
You won’t be asked about every single sentence, so let the questions
guide you to the sentences you need to examine for problems. On
this first quick read-through, your main goal is to understand the
purpose of the passage and to see how its paragraphs relate. The
outline sketch you build along the way will make navigating back
through the passage a breeze.
Step 2: Read the question.
Read the first question, but remember not to look at the
answer choices yet.
Step 3: Reread the context sentences.
Context sentences are the sentences before and after the
sentence mentioned in the question. Your quick read-through of the
passage will give you a general understanding of its subject. But
to answer most Improving Paragraphs questions, you need to go back
to the relevant part of the passage and reread the sentence mentioned
in the question more carefully. It’s also crucial to read the context
sentences. In fact, sometimes the context can help you rewrite the
sentence. For example, read the two sentences around this problematic
mother told Emily to make the bed. Another chore her
mother told her to do was to take out the garbage. Emily
Here, the first and second sentences convey similar information.
The second sentence is wordy and awkward, however, while the first
sentence is clean and concise. You can use the first sentence as
a model for the revision of the second sentence.
Step 4: Make your own revision.
As in the other multiple-choice sections, it’s important
to generate your own answer before you read the answer choices.
The wrong answers are SAT traps placed there to confuse you, so
don’t fall blindly into their clutches. Generate your own answer
in your head before reading the actual answers.
If you read the example about Emily and her chores, and
modeled your revision on that successful first sentence, you might
come up with
mother also told Emily to take out the garbage.
Step 5: Read every answer and pick the one that comes
closest to your answer.
Here are the answer choices:
her mother told her to do was to take out the garbage.
||Her mother additionally asked her to do the chore of taking
out the garbage.
||Also, take out the garbage, her mother asked.
||Then, her mother told Emily to take out the garbage.
||She also asked Emily to take out the garbage.
D comes closest to the revision you prepared
before you looked at the answer choices, so that should be your
Let’s sum up all five steps:
Read and outline the entire passage.
the context sentences.
up your own answer first.
every answer and pick the one that comes closest to your answer.
These fives steps apply to all four question types: Sentence
Revision, Sentence Addition, Sentence Combination, and Essay Analysis.
Each question type does have its own particular quirks, including
one important exception, so next we take you through each type up