SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How Do I Answer SAT Sentence Completion Questions Without Knowing Vocabulary?


Imagine you’re taking the SAT Critical Reading, when all of a sudden you come across a sentence completion question that completely stumps you. What are strategies you can use to help with this situation, and what are some ways to avoid this situation altogether? The College Board’s advice is helpful, but only goes so far.

Keep reading for solutions to this issue. I'll go over ways to avoid sentence completion questions entirely, common wisdom advice, and what I think really works.

NOTE: This article discusses a type of question that no longer appears on the SAT. For more information about what is included in the SAT Reading section, read this article.

feature image credit: words by Jonathan Assink, used under CC BY 2.0.


First, let me describe two ways you can get around getting bogged down by SAT Sentence Completions. Stick with me - afterward, we'll talk about actual strategies to figure out these questions.


Avoidance Solution 1: Don’t Take The SAT At All

If you're really struggling with sentence-completion questions, this is a serious option. I don’t just mean “only apply to SAT optional schools,” although these do exist. Rather, you should consider taking the ACT instead of the SAT. Why would this make a difference?

The ACT does not require the same kind of specific vocabulary knowledge, like knowing when to use the word "machinations" in a sentence. Instead, the ACT tests whether you can identify how vocab is used in the context of a paragraph or longer passage. For instance, take a look at this question, taken from an actual ACT Reading section.


Compare this to a sample SAT question (also taken from an actual SAT Reading section).

body_SATreading_B.pngAside from the fact that the SAT question has five answer choices, rather than four, there is also the more subtle distinction of what the questions are asking students to do. The ACT Reading question only involves one step (being able to correctly identify the meaning of "compensation" as it is used in a longer passage), whereas the SAT Reading question involves two steps (thinking of what makes sense in the sentence, then choosing the word that best fits the sentence from the choices provided).

In addition to only involving one step, ACT Reading questions can be easier because you’ll have (or have to) answered a bunch of other questions on the passage, so you will have more familiarity with the passage and the writing style, which in turn may make it easier to understand the meaning of a particular word. The problem is, of course, that if you are completely confused by the passage, then vocabulary in context may not be any clearer than normal sentence completions. Furthermore, there are trade-offs in other sections when you choose to take the ACT over the SAT, like needing to know trig(onometry) on Math and having some basic Science knowledge.

The verdict: Take a timed practice ACT and compare how well you do with your results on a timed practice SAT. If you do significantly better on the ACT, consider taking it instead of or in addition to the SAT.


Avoidance Solution 2: Take The New SAT [As Well]

We have more detailed recommendations for who should take the new SAT and who should take the current SAT elsewhere, so here I'll just focus on why the new SAT is better if you're having problems with knowing the vocabulary for sentence completion questions.

Beginning in Spring 2016, the SAT Reading section will NOT have sentence completion questions that question you about vocabulary in isolation. Instead, the questions will ONLY ask about vocabulary in the context of the paragraph or passage. You've seen this before in SAT Critical Reading questions, but the complete exclusion of all sentence completion questions brings the new SAT Reading a step closer to the current ACT Reading.

Here's an example of what a question about vocabulary on the new SAT might look like.

Image taken from CollegeBoard’s draft of Test Specifications for the New SAT.


In addition to the removal of all sentence completion questions from the SAT, questions that ask you about "words in context" (vocab) have been reduced to 19% of total questions (10/52); this is a pretty big contrast to the current percentage of vocabulary questions (sentence completion questions alone make up 28% of all SAT Reading questions).

What the new SAT will ask that the current test doesn’t, however, is your ability to back up your answers with other information from the passage. Take this pair of questions from the specifications released by the The College Board for the new SAT:


2014-04-16_144447.pngImages taken from CollegeBoard’s draft of Test Specifications for the New SAT.

For more information about what’s changing on the SAT in 2016, read our complete guide to the new SAT.

The verdict: If you're graduating high school after 2016 and sentence completion questions are really bringing down your SAT Reading score, definitely consider taking the new SAT as well as the old SAT.


body_wordsareimportant.jpgVocabulary – Words Are Important by Dr Noah Lott, used under CC BY 2.0.

For the current SAT, you’ve really got to know your vocabulary.


I Need Another Solution

What if you struggle with sentence completion questions, but can’t wait and take the new SAT and don’t want to or can’t take the ACT?

While most students won’t know all of the vocabulary on the questions, it's still possible to successfully answer sentence completion questions, or at least eliminate some answer choices. How? Read on for advice and strategies.


Traditional Advice: Learn Latin Roots

Traditional SAT prep wisdom holds that you should study the Latin roots of words in order to increase your score. This method of studying was much more effective with older (pre-2005) versions of the SAT, when vocabulary knowledge made up a larger percentage of the SAT Reading section. With the current SAT, however, sentence completion questions only account for 28% (19/67) of all Reading questions, and as I said above, the new 2016 SAT decreases that proportion even further.

So why bother at all with learning the roots of words? Well, if the question and answer choices are fairly simple, it can be of some (limited) use.


When Using Roots Works: An Example


Because of the way the sentence is constructed, you can tell that the missing word must be related to saving lives (if you rephrase the sentence, the sentence reduces down to "Garlic saved lives in World War I). Even if you don’t know the word “curative,” you can make an educated guess that it might be the right answer, based on knowing it starts with the beginning of the word "cure," or if you are able to eliminate the other answers. An example of how you might approach the answer choices:

  • curative? Seems to start with the word “cure”, which is related to saving lives, so maybe! Let’s take a look at the others:
  • flavoring? True, but not relevant to the question.
  • inferior? I know the phrase “inferior quality” and that’s never a positive thing, whereas saving lives is good, so probably not.
  • questionable and infamous? Even if you don’t know the words, you can use their component parts to tell you they probably aren’t related to saving lives (questionable has something to do with questioning things…no; infamous has something to do with being famous…doesn’t seem relevant).

On the other hand, relying on roots to help you with the definition of unfamiliar words can lead to unfortunate mix-ups.


When Using Roots Does NOT Work: A Counterexample

Here's an example of a question where using Latin roots might lead you down the wrong path and cause you to prematurely eliminate the right answer.


Again, because of the way the sentence is constructed, we know that the first word has to describe someone with “penetrating acuity and discernment”, and the second word describes someone who is “extremely humble” (the sentence can be simplified to "Doug had penetrating acuity and discernment and was extremely humble"). In this case, however, using the roots of unfamiliar words to guess at their meaning might trip you up.

The correct answer to this question is (B), but the word "perspicacious" is a tricky vocab word that few high school students will know. And even though they begin with the same root ("persp"), perspicacious (insightful) is not really related to perspiration (sweat); if you don’t know what perspicacious means, you might be tempted to eliminate B ("That looks like it relates to sweating – it's probably not related to having penetrating acuity and discernment") and go with E or A.

The verdict: Ultimately, I think that the time spent learning Latin roots is time that could be better spent expanding your vocabulary and prepping for the SAT in other ways. If you think it will help you, go for it, but my recommendation is to avoid this route.


Traditional Advice: Context Clues

Sometimes, even if you don’t know all the words in the question, you can use context clues to help narrow down the answer choices. The SAT often does the thing that my various English teachers throughout the years required us to do on tests or in homework, which is to say: the SAT uses the fill-in-the-blank in a sentence in a way that shows the missing word's meaning. Take a look at this sample SAT question:


The words modest, contrasted, and uninhibited are the important words you'll need to know in order to answer this question. Even if you don’t know what “uninhibited” means exactly, you know that it contrasts with the word modest, and so the answer choice is going to support the word modest. The only answer choices that do this are (D) reserve and (E) nonchalance; “theatricality” and “flamboyance” are very much NOT modest, while “sullenness” doesn’t really have anything to do with modesty.

To really get this question right, though, this is the point at which it becomes necessary to know a little bit what uninhibited means. If you don’t know that someone who is reserved is the opposite of someone who is uninhibited, you could be led astray.

The verdict: Use context clues to help you narrow down the answers if you don't know all the vocab (inlcuding words that appear in the question). If the question itself uses unfamiliar vocab, or there are too many unfamiliar words as answer choices, however, context clues will only be able to help you to a certain point.


Broader Advice: Read More...And Read Smart

This is advice that I can solidly recommend, because it is what worked for me.

A confession: my studying for the sentence-completion portion of the SAT consisted entirely of (A) encountering the section on the PSATs and practice SATs, and (B) reading for fun. The one and only time this study strategy has ever tripped me up is extremely memorable (and haunts me to this day): on the AP English Literature exam in my junior year, I messed up the definition of laconic. I believe the only place I had ever seen the word was in Carl Hiaasen books, and I’d always thought it meant “lazily short-spoken” (based on the people who were using it), but apparently "terse" is a better definition than "lazy."

So what should you be reading to help boost your vocabulary? Clearly, reading Z is for Moose didn’t get me an 800 (and not just because I didn't encounter it until this year, although it is an excellent book; A+, would read again and again). I could post a reading list of books I read in 9th grade up through when I took the SAT (yes, I kept track. No, YOU’RE nerdy), but less important than specific books or articles is the level of what you read.

Recommended reading lists like this one tend towards the literary, which aren't necessarily the most interesting books to read (particularly if you already have to read them for school). Personally, I recommend finding books and articles that not only contain higher level vocabulary, but are fun for you to read. When I was in high school, I found that reading articles from high quality publications like the New York Times really helped (no, I wasn’t that fancy that I read the newspaper all the time; had to read articles from the ScienceTimes section for a class in school); the same thing goes for publications like the New Yorker and The Atlantic Magazine.

For whatever reason, I also have found that science fiction/fantasy novels, books set in the 1800s/early-to-mid 1900s (even if they weren't written then), and collections of non-fiction essays are good for high level vocab.

Importantly, when you run across a word you don't know, make note of it. Write down the word, definition, and context on a flashcard. And then study it using the method below!

The verdict: As long as you're reading at a high level, reading more will help you with vocabulary for sentence completion questions. Look up SAT reading lists online, ask your local librarian/school librarian for recommendations, and find interesting articles in high quality publications to read. If there's enough demand, I may even post my very own reading list, gleaned from all the books I read between January of 9th grade and December of 12th grade.


Broader Advice: Study Vocabulary Effectively

"Well, no kidding, Laura," I hear you say while rolling your eyes. "Actually, I was planning on studying vocab in a way that wasn't going to help me at all, but now that you've said that..."

Before this sarcasm train goes even further off the tracks, let me explain my intent with this advice. By "study vocabulary effectively," I mean that you shouldn't just be memorizing definitions; instead, you must actually practice using the vocabulary in context yourself.


body_dictionary.jpgdictionary by Caleb Roenigk, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

Not the most riveting read.


So how can you practice using vocab in context? Let me illustrate with a story from my own youth. My 11th grade English teacher had us make up our own questions as part of our homework, then quiz each other during class. Here is an example of an actual question I created as part of an 11th grade English homework assignment (correct answer is at the bottom of this section).

  1. The postponing of the difficult test was certainly a(n) _____________ event for the students. A. latent B. imprudent C. sedentary D. felicitous

While my SUPER subtle attempt to persuade our teacher to delay our test did not succeed, exercises like this did teach me a lot about sentence completion and vocabulary.


Laura's Recipe For Effective Vocab Study

Step 1: Use our free ebook that lists 200 essential SAT vocab words as a starting point.

Step 2: Study the definitions of these words.

  • Using flashcards is a great way to do this. We have a beautiful visualization of the waterfall method in another article, but here's the short version:
    • Go through 30-50 words
    • Set aside those you knew and those you struggled with
    • Go back through those you struggled with and set aside those you knew and those you struggled with...
    • ...and so on
  • If flash cards aren't your thing, use whatever method works for you for vocab memorization (mnemonics? Songs? Straight up reading the dictionary?)(probably not reading the dictionary).

Step 3: Go through your list of vocab and in addition to writing out/saying/thinking of the definitions, also write out/say/think of a sentence that uses that word in a way that shows its meaning.

  • See "Context Clues" section for more information about what this entails.
  • Step 3a: Show the sentences to adults, people who read a lot, tutors, teachers, or anyone else you think would be a good judge, and ask them if the sentences you've come up with make sense and are clear.
  • Step 3b: Make up your own sentence completion questions, find a study buddy and get them to do the same, then try to answer each other's sentence completion questions.


The verdict: If a lack of vocabulary is causing you problems on sentence completion questions, the best solution is to study vocab in an effective way.

Answer to my fake vocab question: D. Felicitous. It would have been felicitous for my classmates and me if my teacher had postponed that difficult test.


Sentence Completion Solutions: A Round-Up

  • To avoid sentence completion questions completely, take the ACT or the new SAT in Spring 2016 in addition to or instead of the current SAT.
  • Use Latin roots and context clues to help narrow down answer choices, but do not rely solely on these strategies, as they can lead you astray and will only take you so far.
  • Read high level books and articles and note vocabulary you don't know.
  • Focus your studying on learning vocabulary and how to use it in a sentence.


What’s Next?

Besides sentence completion questions, what other types of questions will you run into on SAT Reading? Read about what's actually on the SAT Critical Reading section for a detailed breakdown.

Okay, you know what you have to do for sentence completion questions. But what are the best strategies for passage-based questions? Continue your mastering of SAT Reading with article on the best way to read the passages on the SAT.

Want more strategies to boost your SAT Reading score? Click here to learn strategies to improve your SAT Reading score!



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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.

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