Alex Sarlin, Knewton’s on-site Archangel, is also the Lead Verbal Developer for our SAT preparation course, where he helps good triumph over evil, one SAT score at a time.
Welcome to your weekly evil installment of “Evil SAT Trick of the Week,” the blog series in which we reveal, at an agonizingly slow pace, some of the tricks that the SAT throws at the vulnerable test-takers who are just trying to keep their #2′s sharp. This week, we delve into the sentence completion question type–you know, those ———— questions that make you want to take a bite out of your ————.
For the most part, sentence completion questions are tests of your vocabulary. But that’s only for the most part. There are certainly other things going on in sentence completion questions than straight vocabulary testing, and identifying certain ———— and —————- in the sentence will really help your score. Oooh, the evil is rubbing off on me now!
There is one trick that the SAT uses again and again on the SC portion of the test. We at Knewton call it…
EVIL SAT TRICK #19: The Surface Dwellers
Every sentence is about something. When you read a sentence, your mind is automatically “primed” to start thinking about that thing. The most famous example of this is the old “don’t think of an elephant.” When you read that, it’s virtually impossible not to think of an elephant; that’s just how our minds work! And to tell the truth, it’s usually pretty useful.
The SAT, being the kinda sorta evil entity that it is, uses this priming effect against you. It will give you answer choices to SC questions that are related to the topic of the sentence, but incorrect. We at Knewton call these “superficial” answer choices, because, like the girl who sits behind you in homeroom, they’re not very deep.
These surface dwellers don’t actually complete the sentence in a logical way; they just relate to the topic of the sentence. Because test-takers (especially those in a hurry) have been primed, these answer choices look a lot more tempting than they should. And because this is a portion of the test with complicated vocabulary, words that you recognize and that are related to the topic are doubly tempting. And thus, of course, doubly evil.
Let’s start with a simple example of this:
8. The mayor of Boston announced his ————— yesterday, explaining that he would be unable to ————- in his position after the recent scandals.
A. confirmation . . discredit
B. politicization . . articulate
C. resignation . . persevere
D. incarceration . . magistrate
E. red. . sox
This sentence is about politics and scandal, two things that tend to go together quite nicely. This mayor has been involved in scandals, and he is announcing his resignation because he is unable to persevere in his position; this makes sense- the correct answer is C.
But there are all sorts of surface dwellers lurking here.
A. The phrase “announced his confirmation” is a common one, especially in politics. A scandal is very likely to “discredit” someone–but nobody can “discredit in a position.”
B. The word “politicization” literally contains the words “politic,” so it’s a trick to catch people who are thinking only about the topic of this sentence and not its structure. A politician who announces things could is often described as “articulate.”
D. A scandal could lead to “incarceration” (and politicians are, too rarely, incarcerated), but nobody can “magistrate” in a position. That’s because “magistrate” is an old-fashioned noun that means a local politician or judge…Â like a mayor.
E. Lastly, and most obviously, mayors are famous for wearing red sox.
That wasn’t so bad. Let’s try one with slightly harder vocabulary and more creepy-crawly surface dwellers:
17. Madame Sophia White’s claims that her cell phone can be used to communicate with ghosts are considered —————, and many have even gone so far as to label her a(n) —————-.
A. redoubtable . . fabricator
B. implausible . . charlatan
C. shady . . clairvoyant
D. ephemeral . . apparition
E. nebulous . . anachronism
This sentence is about a “Madame” that uses cell phones to speak with ghosts. I don’t know about you, but this sentence primes me to think of an old-fashioned psychic or medium with a crystal ball, perhaps wearing some kind of bejeweled turban. That’s why so many surface dwellers in this sentence are words that relate to ghostliness and mystery.
A. This tricky choice uses the word “redoubtable”- which contains the word “doubt,” one of the first things you might think about after reading this question. However, that word means “scary, strong, and worthy of respect,” not what you want here. “Fabricator” would have fit, and has the additional bonus of seeming old-fashioned and relating to the imaginary “fabric” on the Madame’s head.
B. This choice is correct. Both words are about lies and believing, but not about ghosts, mystery or psychic powers.
C. Both of these words imply secrets and psychic powers, but they go in opposite directions. If her claims are “shady” (doubtful), then she would not be labeled a “clairvoyant” (fortune-teller). A choice like this would catch many test-takers who see words that are right on topic, but don’t fit the structure of the sentence.
D. “Ephemeral” and “apparition” are both ghost words, but neither fits in the sentence. Madame White is not a ghost herself!
E. More words about ghostliness and old-fashioned powers. While we might feel that the ghost cell phone is a major “anachronism” (a person or thing in the wrong time period), it does not make sense that it is Madame’s “nebulous” claims that make her an anachronism.
When you’re sitting in your orange chair in test day, chewing on your orange pencil and trying to keep your orange juice down, make sure that you are not so thoroughly primed that you’re not using your brain on every question. Quick- what color is an apple? If you said “orange,” you have just experienced the effects of…… evvvvvviiiillllllllllllll…..