How to answer word choice questions on the SAT and ACT

Word choice questions are among the more challenging questions on the SAT Writing and ACT English sections. Word choice questions ask you to read a sentence or phrase and decide which word would be the best fit based on context. These questions can be tough for a couple reasons. First, they almost always include at least two answer choices that are fundamentally similar and are therefore difficult to choose between. Second, they may also include unfamiliar vocabulary words.

When students encounter tricky word choice questions, they sometimes freeze or spend too much time trying to answer them. To avoid this trap, use the following three best practices.

Predict the answer

Word choice questions rarely have one glaringly obvious correct answer choice. Instead, two or more answer choices will usually seem reasonable at first glance. Here’s an example:

If you immediately jump to the answer choices and start plugging them into the sentence, you may not readily be able to decide which answer is correct. In fact, you could probably make a case for every single answer choice if you really wanted to. This is because every answer choice is designed to sound appealing if you don’t pay attention to the context.

Instead, try covering up those tricky answer choices and read through the passage again. When you get to the underlined part, say the first word that pops into your head. (Seriously, trust your instincts on this one!) Nine times out of ten, you’ll come up with a word very similar to the correct answer.

Pay attention to tone

In addition to predicting what word should go in the sentence, be sure to pay attention to the tone of the passage as a whole. Some passages will be neutral and academic, while others may be more persuasive or even entertaining. The correct answer will always match the overall tone of the passage. Correct answers also tend to have a more formal tone, while answers that contain colloquial or more informal language are generally incorrect.

Ignore unfamiliar vocabulary

Occasionally, you’ll encounter a word or two that you genuinely don’t know. If this happens, do not freak out! The exams intentionally include these words to intimidate you and get you to use up extra time. To avoid this pitfall, be prepared to completely ignore all unfamiliar words. Often, you’ll still be able to find the correct answer even if you don’t know all the words.

However, in the rare event that vocabulary prevents you from making any progress, the best thing you can do is guess and move on. Word choice questions are only a small portion of your score, but time lost fruitlessly trying to answer them can do real damage to your overall score.

Now that you know how to approach these questions, try a sample one:

Start by covering the answers and reading the whole sentence. Once you’ve read the sentence, a few clues should stand out. First, the meal has herbs and spices that were hand-selected by a chef. Second, the chef’s taste, or “palate,” is both unique and discerning. Based on these clues, it’s clear the chef has been careful about the herbs and spices he or she has included in the meal. Without overthinking, it looks like you’ve already stumbled upon a prediction for the blank: “careful.”

Now that you have a prediction, you can think about tone. The sentence appears to have been excerpted from a very positive review of the chef’s work, so you’re looking for an adjective that describes the assembly of herbs and spices in a positive light. Now uncover the answer choices. Note that answer D, “snooty,” is critical and should therefore be eliminated. You are left with three answer choices. Answer A is complimentary of the chef’s dish but does not have the same meaning as your prediction, “careful.” In fact, there are no clues in the sentence that suggest the dish brings a sense of joy or delight. Eliminate A. You’re left with two answer choices: B and C. Both of these answer choices include words that may be unfamiliar. However, if you know one of the words, you can use process of elimination to arrive at the correct answer. Suppose, for example, that you do not know what “bombastic” means, but that you do know that “meticulous” means showing great attention to detail. Since the definition of “meticulous” almost exactly matches that of your prediction, “careful,” you can simply select answer B and move on.

Word choice questions can be a real sore spot for unprepared test-takers who do not predict their own words first or who allow unfamiliar vocabulary to intimidate them. However, if you trust your instincts and don’t dwell on strange words, it’s possible to get through these questions without even breaking a sweat.

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Lisa Mayo

About Lisa Mayo

Lisa is an authority in the test prep field, with more than 17 years of experience teaching students how to succeed on college admissions exams. Lisa has tutored students preparing for SAT, ACT, PSAT, ISEE, SSAT, GMAT, TOEFL, GRE, LSAT, and AP exams. Her students have attended some of the most prestigious schools in the U.S., including the Ivy League schools. Lisa has also contributed to numerous published works on standardized test preparation.

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