Each critical reading section of the PSAT/NMSQT leads off with sentence completions, eight in Section 1 and five in Section 3. Sentence-completion questions are relatively easy to answer, especially if you’ve built a strong vocabulary. A few key techniques go a long way toward a successful bout (contest or match) with this type of question, including identifying signal words and phrases.

Only three letters separate these two statements, but the meanings they express may as well be on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon:

“I’ve seen your essay, and I’m giving you an A.”
“I’ve seen your essay, but I’m giving you an A.”

The first statement implies that the essay was great. The second statement gives you the idea that the essay didn’t deserve an A. For some reason — perhaps class participation or the apple you left on his desk every morning — the teacher awarded the top grade anyway.

The and signals continuation; the but alerts you to a change in direction. Not all signal words are short, and some signals contain several words. Regardless, when you run into a signal word or phrase in a sentence completion, circle it so that it stays in your mind.

Here are some common signal words and phrases, grouped by theme, along with an explanation of how they function in a sentence:

  • Cause and effect: Because, therefore, so, accordingly, thus, hence, consequently, as a result, as a consequence of, if/then, so that. The sentence sets up two situations or events, in which one causes the other.

  • Change or contrast: Not, on the other hand, but, otherwise, yet, however, nevertheless, still, nonetheless, although, though, despite, regardless. These words whip the sentence around and send the meaning in the opposite direction.

  • Comparison: More, less, than, equal, equally, same. Two or more elements are measured against others described in the sentence.

  • Continuation: And, also, in addition to, as well as, moreover, along with, besides, likewise, not only/but also. The pattern of ideas already established keeps going.

  • Example: For example, for instance, not the only, in other words, that is, such as, as in, like, similarly, similar to. Some sort of category has been created, and these words send you to illustrations of that category.

    On the PSAT/NMSQT, the example structure may offer a definition of the missing word, as in this sentence:

    Carlota was thrilled to meet the _____, the absolute ruler whose reign has been compared to Emperor Constantine’s.

    Among the answer choices for the preceding sentence, you’ll find something like dictator or potentate (a synonym for dictator).

  • Time: After, then, subsequently, while, earlier, later, next, previously, preceding, once, finally, last, since, originally, at the beginning, at the end, before. These words establish a time frame for a series of events or a process.

    Verb tense also alerts you to time. Check the main verbs and participles (verb forms that may be used as descriptions).

Try your hand at sentence-completion Questions 1 through 5. Zero in on the signal words!

  1. Having performed poorly in the _____, Zachary gradually improved and was pleased to win a medal later in the competition.

    (A) playoffs
    (B) conclusion
    (C) finale
    (D) preliminaries
    (E) tournament
  2. Because enemy forces were about to attack, the sentries were especially _____ and scanned the horizon _____.

    (A) vigilant . . . ceaselessly
    (B) cooperative . . . incessantly
    (C) tenacious . . . infrequently
    (D) attentive . . . rarely
    (E) dubious . . . consistently
  3. Although the percentage of students requesting financial aid is high, the college maintains that the tuition is not _____.

    (A) transient
    (B) burdensome
    (C) troublesome
    (D) modest
    (E) diminished
  4. The chef’s cooking was _____, following the traditional French methods exactly.

    (A) orthodox
    (B) heretical
    (C) mainstream
    (D) deviant
    (E) innovative

Now check your answers:

  1. D. preliminaries

    The sentence contains several time clues: gradually and later create a timeline, and the introductory verb form (a participle) places the action of performing further in the past from the present moment than the main verb in the sentence, improved.

    Therefore, you know that you need something that happened earlier in the timeline than Zachary’s medal, which was awarded later. Choice (D) is perfect because the preliminaries take place before the rest of the contest.

  2. A. vigilant . . . ceaselessly

    The first word of the sentence is because, so you know you’re dealing with a cause-and-effect situation. What happens when the enemy is on the move? Sentries watch until their eyeballs fall out.

    Therefore, Choices (A) and (D) work for the first blank. (Vigilant means “watchful.”) If you leapt at Choice (D), you fell into a trap. Sentries on high alert don’t scan the horizon rarely, the second word in Choice (D). Instead, sentries scan ceaselessly (without stopping).

  3. B. burdensome

    When those gargantuan (giant) tuition bills arrive, what adjective will you assign to them? The clue here is although, which signals that something doesn’t add up (in addition to your tuition bills). The sentence tells you that many students request aid, so you expect the college to say, “Yes, we charge too much.” But although tells you that what you expect is wrong.

    Therefore, the school likely maintains (declares) that the tuition is just fine, or not burdensome, as Choice (B) states. Quick vocab lesson: transient means “brief, passing, not permanent.”

  4. A. orthodox

    Every word following the comma comprises (is part of, makes up) a definition of orthodox, Choice (A). Heretical is the opposite of “orthodox,” and deviant means “differing from the norm” — the opposite of Choice (C), mainstream. Choice (E), innovative, means “inventive, tending to create something new.”

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