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How to Tackle Paragraph Questions on SAT Writing

Questions on the SAT Writing come in many forms. There are ones on grammar, such as pronouns and verbs, and punctuation, like commas and dashes. And then there are questions about paragraph content and graphics. For many students, with enough practice and instruction, they can master the grammar and punctuation rules. What keeps their scores from reaching their fullest potential are the paragraph questions.

It makes sense why paragraph questions create many problems for students. These questions are the ones that involve the most “interpretation” and can sometimes even feel like Critical Reading problems. The ambiguity, which is a major departure from the other WR error types, leaves students wondering what can they do to improve.

Thankfully the SAT, regardless of question type, is still pretty systematic. While there is more room for failure with the paragraph questions, there are still plenty of tricks and clues you can use to get the right answer. Let me show you several situations you’ll likely see on your SAT and how to approach them.

Note: These questions are taken from College Board’s Practice Test #7.

Situation #1: “Which choice most effectively sets up the list of examples that follows in the next sentence?”

“...All along, these NASA projects have greatly increased international cooperation. A short list of inventions [developed] by NASA includes communications satellites, invisible braces, and cordless tools.”


B. garnered national publicity for the agency.

C. generated a steady stream of new technology.

D. made a lot of money for the agency.

The correct answer is “C,” because “new technology” links with the content that follows. But what exactly links the answer? You may think that a list of technology connects with the term “technology,” but your reasoning can be even more literal. The word “inventions” in the following sentence is the primary clue, and that’s all you need to justify the answer. You want to try to find these links when answering questions.

Situation #2: Which choice best establishes the argument that follows?

“Critics of employer-provided professional development argue that employees might consider a popular career path. If employees find themselves falling behind in the workplace, these critics contend, then it is the duty of those employees to identify, and even pay for, appropriate resources...”


B. should lean heavily on employers.

C. must be in charge of their own careers.

D. will be ready for changes in the job market.

The correct answer is “C,” because “must be in charge of their own careers” is the focus of the rest of the paragraph. But why is it the focus? What literal link do we see? The part that says “it is the duty of those employees,” and in particular “duty,” which links with “in charge,”give us the connection.

Situation #3: Which choice most effectively supports the central point of the paragraph?

“From the beginning, the movement had opposed the standardization of taste that fast food chains promote. For example, a McDonald’s hamburger made in Boston tastes more or less the same as one made in Beijing. This consistency is made possible by industrial mass production. Slow Food supporters, by contrast, back methods of growing and preparing food based on regional culinary traditions. When produced using traditional methods, goat cheese made in France tastes different from goat cheese made in Vermont. A goat ingests the vegetation particular to the meadow in which it grazes, which , along with other environmental factors, such as altitude and weather, shapes the cheese’s taste and texture. If all foods were produced under the industrial model, we would have meals that are not very flavorful.”


B. the public would not be interested in learning about traditional foods.

C. people would not be able to determine how a particular food was made.

D. consumers would lose this diversity of flavors.

This question is trickier than the previous two. The correct answer and the current version of the sentence are worded similarly. “[M]eals that are not very flavorful” sounds pretty much the same as “lose this diversity of flavor,” right? But DIVERSITY is different from FLAVOR. So, then, why is “D” correct? Let’s look at some key sentences:

First sentence: “From the beginning, the movement had opposed the standardization of taste that fast food chains promote.”

Third sentence: “Slow Food supporters, by contrast, back methods of growing and preparing food based on regional culinary traditions.”

Fourth sentence: “When produced using traditional methods, goat cheese made in France tastes different from goat cheese made in Vermont.”

Another reason that this question is tricky is that there is not necessarily a single word that makes it clear what the answer should be. However, several words throughout the paragraph do help:

--”opposed the standardization”

--”based on regional culinary traditions”

--”tastes different”

These phrases all suggest that the “Slow Food supporters” are interested in different-tasting food, or “diversity of flavors,” not “flavorful” food -- or how good it tastes. Finding these phrases and word links help cut out the noise and focus your selection.

Situation #4: The writer wants to add a supporting detail to indicate that the story was widely reported. Which choice best accomplishes the goal?

“The next day, a front-page headline in the New York Times declared, ‘Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.’ The Times article claimed that people had fled their homes and that police stations had been swamped with calls.”


  2. Other newspapers also ran stories claiming that the broadcast had incited mass hysteria.

  3. In 2013, many newspapers and magazines featured articles about the seventy-fifth anniversary of the broadcast.

  4. The Times as then and is now one of the United States’ most popular news sources.

It is important to focus on what exactly the question wants you to add. In this case, you want an answer that shows “widely reported.” Which one does that? “B.” The keywords are “Other newspapers” and “mass hysteria”--”other” shows us that the story was reported at places other than the New York Times and “mass” shows that the reporting was widespread.

The paragraph questions are daunting, but they don’t have to be what sinks your SAT Writing score. Being systematic and finding the keywords can eliminate the stress and frustration that comes with these questions.

If you are planning on taking the SAT during June and would like to brush up on your Writing skills, let us help you solve all the error types that appear on the test.


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