SAT Tip: Simplifying Sentences

Photograph by Lola Allum

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Christina Pushaw at Veritas Prep.

Since elementary school, you’ve aced your grammar quizzes, spelling tests, and persuasive essays. Then you take a practice SAT and score disappointingly in the writing section. This scenario is surprisingly common, even among students who excel in English. Why? Because the SAT does not necessarily test your aptitude for reading and writing. Rather, it tests your ability to recognize some very specific (and predictable) patterns. In fact, even if you have never been a strong English student, you can score very well on the writing section of the exam if you keep a simple tip in mind: Disregard unnecessary information.

In practice, many students struggle with multiple-choice questions that require them to identify sentence errors. Not only are the sentences generally long and complex, but they are also unnecessarily convoluted, with superfluous adjectives and prepositional phrases. The prepositional phrases tend to be the main culprits students stumble over when trying to decipher complicated SAT sentences.

On the bright side, these traps are easily identifiable if you’re aware of them; they contain words that characterize relationships between one thing and another. Once you identify a “prepositional pitfall,” the most effective strategy is to cross it out completely and focus on the remaining sentence, simplified to contain only necessary elements. Here is a sample question from SAT 2400 in Just 7 Steps that demonstrates the value of this strategy:

“Disappointed by our actions, Mom and Dad scolded John and I vehemently at the theme park so that we would not run off by ourselves again. No error”

For this type of question, you must determine which of the underlined sections contains a grammatical mistake, or that none of them do. By crossing off prepositional phrases, which are less likely to contain errors, you can eliminate “by our actions,” “at the theme park,” and “by ourselves.” Each of these prepositional phrases are little more than distractions. They provide contextual details, helping to set the stage for the action, but without them the sentence still retains its essential meaning.

By contrast, if you crossed out the object, “John and I,” the sentence would no longer make sense. Even if you do not know that “John and I” should be corrected to “John and me,” you have still eliminated three of the five choices right off the bat, thereby improving your odds of success in guessing from one in five to one in two. In practice, the benefits of this strategy are clear: The most effective writing is often the simplest and most terse. As the great author Truman Capote once said, “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Christina Pushaw is a Veritas Prep SAT 2400 instructor and has a passion for helping others realize their academic dreams. She earned a 2260 on the SAT and graduated from USC, where she studied history and the Russian language on a full scholarship.

For more SAT advice from Veritas Prep, watch “Why Smart Students Struggle”

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