The Most Useful Technique for the SAT

There is a single technique that is helpful for almost all of the questions on the Verbal sections:


That is, come up with your own answer before you look at the printed choices.

I have found this technique to be helpful for students who are performing at many different levels on the SAT. It’s actually useful on many other multiple choice tests, but it is particularly effective on the SAT, given its “trappy” nature.

Students who are struggling with the SAT often make sizable score increases as soon as they implement this technique. And students who are nearly acing the Verbal sections often put the finishing touches on SAT mastery by fine-tuning this method.

Students who don’t anticipate usually employ one of three other methods:

Brady's Leap

The “Leap Method”

This is the weakest technique. Leapers go right to the answers immediately after reading each question, and choose the one that sounds best. There are two big problems with this approach. One, going straight to the answers short-circuits the thinking process. Two, the test writers are experts at making wrong answers attractive.

The “Try ‘Em and Buy ‘Em Method”

This is only useful on certain types of problems, such as Sentence Completions, or vocabulary-in-context questions on Critical Reading passages. The technique entails substituting each answer into the question or sentence, and choosing the one that sounds best. Again, this is dangerous because the test writers are good at making wrong answers “sound good.”

Process of Elimination

This is better than the other two methods I just mentioned, but again, there are two problems. One, this technique can waste a lot of time. Two, often you will eliminate two or three answers, after which you are still left with more than one answer to choose from (and you are subject to the same pitfalls as the “leaper”).

Even those who use one of the three inferior techniques will generally improve by thinking about the question before reading the answers. But they’ll do even better if they strive to come up with a decent answer on their own.

Don’t settle for an answer that could be right, or is just okay. Pretend that there are no answers, and furnish an answer that you think would impress a teacher. Then watch your scores soar.

Let’s look at some brief examples on four different types of SAT questions:

Sentence Completion

Q. Since the researchers were unable to detect any ____________ in the livestock, they concluded that the animals had been ____________ by the toxic rains.

(a) nutrients…inundated

(b) illnesses…buffeted

(c) offspring…cleansed

(d) abnormalities…unaffected

(e) mutations…bombarded

This question is of easy-to-medium difficulty, yet it’s tricky enough to trip up quite a few students. If you take your time and anticipate, you should come up with something like “sickness…unharmed,” and you’ll choose (d) in a flash.

Critical Reading

(1) As part of the experimental program, each month a few students were selected to serve as class leaders. Each leader was assigned a handful of students in a particular class, and was charged with motivating those students to improve their performance. Surprisingly, often the greatest progress was observed when leaders with the lowest grades served in this capacity.

Q. “Charged” (line 2) most nearly means…

(a) burdened

(b) accused

(c) calculated

(d) debited

(e) energized

Be careful here – you might anticipate something like “told to” or “assigned.” They’re not bad attempts, but you should recognize that you’re substituting for “charged with” while the question asks which answer means “charged.” So just come up with something like “given the responsibility for” and include the word “with” after each of the answers  – (a) is correct.

Improving Sentences

Q. Early treatment of certain illnesses can be more important in birds than either cats or dogs.

(a) either cats or dogs

(b) either in cats or dogs

(c) either cats or in dogs

(d) in either cats or in dogs

(e) in either cats or dogs

If you don’t anticipate, it’s easy to miss the fact that you need to preposition “in” here, or to misplace it. Answer (e) is correct.

Improving Paragraphs

(1) Except for my parents, no one has had a greater influence in my life than my neighbor, Mr. James Clark. (2) When I was only eight or nine, he first invited me to come to work with him. (3) Imagine how excited I was to be standing in a real laboratory! (4) At first, I didn’t understand much of what Mr. Clark told me about his research, but even so, I took a surprisingly keen interest in science for a youngster.

Q. To improve the coherence of the first paragraph, which of the following sentences would best be added after Sentence (1)?

(a) It’s funny how fate brings you in contact with people you might never have met.

(b) He even had a greater impact on my life than my older brother did.

(c) Mr. Clark was a cell biologist.

(d) I liked the fact that he never talked to down to me, as other adults sometimes did.

(e) I was fortunate to know this brilliant man in the last years of his life.

Remember, you’re not being asked to find the sentence that sounds the best. If you’re asked to add a sentence, you should choose one that supplies needed information. There’s a big problem with the paragraph as written; there’s a big gap between the first two sentences. As you read them, don’t you want to know what kind of work Mr. Clark did? Even the third sentence doesn’t really tell you that. The correct answer is (c).

English: Students at the laboratory of microbi...

Don’t just use the anticipation technique when it’s easy. You need it the most on the harder questions, and it will take some harder thinking. Don’t worry about the time it takes; eventually, you should save time with this method, since you’ll pick out many correct answers easily.

I recommend that, at least at first, you cover the answers with your hand (or your answer sheet) while you’re thinking. It’s awfully tempting to take a peek, hoping to “find a quick one.” Don’t do it – that’s exactly how the test writers want you to play the game.


3 comments on “The Most Useful Technique for the SAT

  1. Mike Bergin says:

    I agree with you completely here. One of the most attractive features of Anticipation as a strategy is that it’s so much more efficient than the other approaches. Finding the right answer comes much faster when you know what you’re looking for.

  2. johnfmurphy says:

    Thanks for this, dude. I teach all of my students the anticipation method. Good to see that it is part of your process.

  3. Al says:

    Thanks for the helpful article!

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