The “Improving Paragraphs” section of the PSAT/NMSQT features about 15 sentences on one topic, divided into three or four paragraphs. The paragraphs are supposed to represent a student’s typical first draft of a report or essay.

The sentences are numbered, and the whole thing is accompanied by five questions, which may ask you about the best way to combine two sentences or which sentence should be deleted or moved. The goal here is to see that you can think about structure (how the ideas are organized, where transitions are needed, and so forth) and style (combining or varying sentence patterns).

Grammar errors show up in this section, but in general, paragraph-improvement steps back from the micro-level to look at the larger picture. You have the usual five options; sometimes one option is to leave everything the same, but not always. Hit paragraph-improvement questions this way:

  • Skim read all the paragraphs. Get an overview first. Don’t read the questions until you’ve gone through all the sentences.

  • Think about the underlying logic. You should be able to see the path from one idea to the next. Each paragraph should be unified, revolving around one main idea.

  • Consider how you’d improve the paragraphs. If this were your report or essay, would you change anything before handing it in? Don’t get to the sentence level yet; think about the whole thing. Jot down a few notes in the margin.

  • Now survey the questions. Depending on how much time you have, you may decide to do all five questions, or you may pick the easiest — those that deal with combining two sentences or fixing a grammar mistake. Although paragraph-improvement questions stay mostly on the larger level, some address issues in individual sentences. If you’re short on time, go to those questions first.

Here’s one paragraph-improvement “essay” and practice Questions 1 through 5. Good luck!

[1] Historic preservationists argue that buildings constructed many decades ago should be preserved and not torn down. [2] They also want to save newer buildings that are unique. [3] The buildings have interesting features, or an important event took place in them. [4] One building was where a famous poet lived.
[5] The Committee to Save the Collerton Hotel has raised money for a campaign to save the hotel from developers. [6] The developers bought the old building a year ago. [7] The roof leaks, paint is peeling from the walls. [8] The developers plan to level the site. [9] They want to build 15 houses there. [10] The houses will bring new families to town, they say, spurring economic development.
[11] Preservationists and developers will probably never agree. [12] The developers make a good case for a more prosperous town. [13] The preservationists argue that history is important. [14] The town council will soon vote. [15] At that time one side will win, though no decision can please everyone.
  1. Which of the following, if any, would improve Paragraph 1?

    (A) No change.
    (B) Delete Sentence 2.
    (C) Delete Sentence 3.
    (D) Add information about the poet mentioned in Sentence 4.
    (E) Delete Sentence 4 and add information about the Collerton Hotel.
  2. Which change, if any, would most improve Sentence 7?

    (A) No change.
    (B) The roof leaks, and paint is peeling from the walls.
    (C) With the roof leaking, paint also peels from the walls.
    (D) The roof leaks though paint is peeling from the walls.
    (E) There is a leaky roof and peeling paint.
  3. How may Sentences 8 and 9 best be combined?

    (A) The developers plan to level the site and build 15 houses there.
    (B) Wanting to build 15 houses there, the developers plan to level the site.
    (C) The site having been leveled, the developers want to build 15 houses.
    (D) After having been leveled, the developers want to build 15 houses.
    (E) The developers will level the site, and building 15 houses.
  4. What change, if any, would improve Paragraph 2?

    (A) No change.
    (B) Delete Sentence 5.
    (C) Add the arguments made by the Committee to Save the Collerton Hotel.
    (D) Delete Sentence 10.
    (E) Add more information on the cost of the developers’ project.
  5. What, if any, is the best revision of Paragraph 3?

    (A) No change.
    (B) Add the writer’s own opinion.
    (C) Add information on the town council’s procedures.
    (D) Add quotations from council members.
    (E) Delete Sentence 15.

Now check your answers.

  1. E.

    Because the essay discusses one particular fight — whether to raze (knock down, level) a hotel — that issue should come up in the first paragraph. Right now, the paragraph is too general. Sentence 4 is way too vague and adds nothing to the essay, so Choice (E) is your answer.

  2. B.

    The original sentence is a run-on, with two complete thoughts glued together only by a comma. Nope! Choice (B) adds a conjunction and corrects the grammar error. Choices (C) and (D) are grammatically correct, but they introduce ideas outside the frame of logic.

    Choice (E) has a grammar error: The subject is plural (“roof and paint”), so the verb must be plural also. In other words, the sentence should begin with “there are,” not “there is.”

  3. A.

    Smooth and short: that’s your goal in combining sentences. Of course, you also have to keep the meaning and use correct grammar. Choice (A) is correct.

  4. C.

    Paragraph 2 gives some specific information on the developers’ plans but says nothing about what the committee wants to do or why members feel the hotel should be saved. The reader can’t be involved in an argument if only one side makes a case. Choice (C) is the answer.

  5. E.

    The last sentence is glaringly obvious and contributes nothing to the essay. Dump it by picking Choice (E).

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