Sentence Completions
Pacing
A set is a group of items. We know that each set of Sentence Completions will be arranged in order of difficulty, and that ordering should help you strategize.
How does ETS know how difficult its items are? ETS “norms” its items by inserting potential items in experimental sections. It notes how many test-takers got them right, how many got them wrong, how many omitted them, and what all those test-takers’ scaled scores were. It then constructs new sets from previously “normed” items, always listing them from “easy” to “hard.” (There might be some fluctuation—an easier item may come after one of mid-level difficulty—but in general the trend is easiest to hardest.)
Knowing this fact can help you make judgment calls when tackling items. If you think you’ve got a good answer for an early-set item, most likely you’re right. Don’t waste time second-guessing yourself. However, if you see a seductive choice in a late-set item, think twice. These items tend to be nastier.
Don’t take the order of difficulty in a set too seriously. An item’s “difficulty” is a statistical quality based on the test-takers who encountered that item in an experimental section. It is not an essential feature of that item. You’re an individual, and just because most test-takers found an item easy (or hard) doesn’t mean that you will. So, while order of difficulty can help, you should follow what we call “Bombing Runs” in order to maximize your points in Sentence Completions sets.
Bombing Runs
Say your set has ten items. Begin by reading the first stem. If it seems easy, complete that item and move on to the next stem. If you encounter a challenging stem, skip that item. (Make sure to circle the entire item in your test booklet if you skip it. Also, enter answers in five-item blocks, omitting whichever you’ve skipped. You don’t want to misgrid your answers.) After you’ve handled all the items that are easy for you—which may not mean the first half of the set, especially since you will have prepped for the exam—return to those items that you feel you could figure out, given a little more time. Make another Bombing Run, skipping all of the really tough ones. Repeat your Bombing Runs until time runs out.
If you approach Sentence Completion sets this way, you won’t find yourself worrying over item number 3—which should be easy—for several minutes when you could have answered four other items. That’s the principal error in standardized test-taking: wasting time on items you have little chance of getting right. You need to develop a fine-tuned sense of when to bail out on any given item. In order to develop this sense, you need to practice. Through practice, you’ll not only learn more about the test and become an expert at applying the methods you’ve learned, but you’ll also learn more about your own strengths and weaknesses. Are two-blank, logic-heavy Sentence Completions toughest for you? Or is it the one-blank item that relies heavily on difficult vocabulary? The more you practice, the more you’ll learn…and the more you’ll know about the test and yourself.
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