How Text Completion/Sentence Equivalence Questions Work on the GRE - dummies

How Text Completion/Sentence Equivalence Questions Work on the GRE

By Ron Woldoff

On the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions hold all the clues you need to answer them correctly. By using key strategies and avoiding common mistakes, you can breeze through these GRE test questions and rack up points in a hurry.

Because Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions are so similar, the strategy is the same for both:

  • Text Completion: A Text Completion question consists of a sentence or paragraph with one, two, or three missing words or phrases, along with a short list of word or phrase choices to complete the text. If the text has one word missing, the list has five choices, while if the text has two or three words missing, each has a list of three choices.

Each choice gives the text a different meaning. Your job is to choose the word or words that best support the meaning of the sentence. If the text is missing more than one word, you don’t get partial credit for choosing only one correct word.

Text Completion questions tend to have slightly easier vocabulary but are more challenging to interpret.

  • Sentence Equivalence: A Sentence Equivalence question consists of a single sentence with exactly one word missing and a list of six choices to complete it. Your job is to select the two words that fit the sentence and mean the same thing, and, as with the Text Completion questions, you don’t get partial credit for choosing only one correct word.

Sentence Completion questions tend to be easier to interpret but have more challenging vocabulary. The correct answers are always synonyms, so if you find a word that supports the meaning but doesn’t have a match, then you’ve found a trap word.

  • Both question types: The answer choices always fit perfectly and have perfect grammar: Make your choice based on the meaning of the words. Each word you plug in gives the sentence a different meaning, so find the meaning of the text without the answer choices, and then eliminate the wrong answer choices.

How many answers are expected?

Don’t worry about knowing how many answers to select. When you’re taking the GRE it’s clear, and just to be sure, at the top of the screen is always an instruction that reads something like, “Pick one answer for each missing word (in Text Completion),” or “Pick two answer choices that create sentences most alike in meaning (in Sentence Equivalence).”

Also, the one-answer questions allow you to select only one answer, and the two-answer questions allow you to select more than one. Go through it once and you’ll be fine.

Trying it out

The following example of a Text Completion question shows how all answer choices appear to fit perfectly but only two specific words actually make logical sense.

Directions: For each blank, select one entry from the corresponding column of choices. Fill all blanks in the way that best completes the text.

Frustrated that the GRE question was actually so easy, Faye (i) _____ her book out the window with such (ii) _____ that it soared high into the sky, prompting three of her neighbors to grab their phones and post the video on Instagram.

text completion example

The key word in this example is frustrated, which conveys a strong negative emotion. Choices (B) and (D), hurled and ferocity, are the only choices that support such a negative emotion. Note that this is a single, two-part question. You may select any of the three answer choices for each blank, but you must choose both correct answers to earn credit for the question.

Develop your skills for finding the correct answers

Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions are designed to measure two core proficiencies: interpreting the text and using the vocabulary. These are two distinct skills that you build separately but must use together.

Most of the vocab words that you encounter on the GRE are used commonly in most professional industries, including business and journalism. One student came in with a New York Times article that had three of the vocab words that we’d reviewed in class! Such words as ephemeral (fleeting), abscond (sneak away), and imbroglio (entanglement) stump exam takers every day but appear regularly in publications.

Interpreting the Text 101

Interpreting the text means discerning its meaning in the absence of the key words. Doing this prior to looking at the answer choices is the best way to quickly eliminate choices that don’t make sense, and the GRE-makers have fun trying to trick you.

Getting the gist of the text

One way to figure out the meaning of a challenging sentence is to see whether it has a positive or negative connotation. This high-level perspective can help you find words that convey the correct meaning.

Take the best and only approach

Whether you’re taking on a Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence question, your approach is the same. These steps are the only way to knock out these questions so you can ace the exam and get on with your life.

  1. Interpret the text without looking at the answer choices.
  2. Complete the text with your own words.
  3. Eliminate wrong answer choices.

The following sections explain these steps in detail.

Interpret the text without looking at the answer choices

First, figure out what the sentence is saying. If you know this, then you know the meanings of the words that go in the blanks. How else do you know which answer choices work, and more importantly, which choices don’t work?

While interpreting the text, don’t look at the answer choices! Each answer choice not only seems to fit perfectly but also gives the sentence a very different meaning. Then, you have no idea what the sentence is trying to say, and you’ve turned a relatively workable question into something that’s impossible. Whoa, right into the trap. Instead, get the meaning of the sentence first and then look at the answer choices!

To avoid involuntarily glancing at the answer choices, cover them up with your scratch paper. Hold that scratch paper right up on the computer screen. (You’re not working math now, anyway.) Silly? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. Students tell me it’s a lifesaver.

Complete the text with your own words

The next step is finding your own words to complete the text. Your words don’t have to be perfect — you’re not writing the sentence — but they do have to support the meaning of the sentence. This way, you know exactly what to look for and can eliminate answer choices (which is the following step). Right now, you’re still covering up the answer choices with your scratch paper.

Try to picture what’s happening in the text. Even though you may arrange it differently, your key words will match the missing words in the question.

Your own words may not fit perfectly or match the answer choices — but they don’t have to. Instead, they serve a more important purpose. They make the wrong answers clearly stand out. Now you go to the next step: Eliminate wrong answer choices.

Eliminate wrong answer choices

The final step to knocking out these questions is eliminating the wrong answer choices. Now that you know what the sentence is saying, the wrong answers are clear.

These questions can be challenging, so if you’re not sure whether an answer choice should be crossed off, don’t spend time on it. Instead, mark it as “maybe” and go on to the next answer choice. Usually, you’ll finish reviewing the answer choices with one marked “maybe” and the others eliminated. Go with the “maybe” choice and move on.

Worst case, if you have to guess, you’ve narrowed down the answers to guess from. Then mark the question for review and return to it later.

These verbal questions should take you less than a minute each, saving you valuable time for the time-intensive Reading Comprehension questions.

Interpreting trickier sentences

If every Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence question were as easy, everyone would get a perfect 170 on the Verbal section, and testing would be pointless. However, the actual GRE questions can be more challenging to interpret. When you come across these sentences, start with the three basic strategies mentioned earlier and build on them with these steps:

  1. Use transition words to get the gist of the phrases.
  2. Start with the second or third missing word.

Use transition words to get the gist of the phrases

Transition words exist in almost all Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions (and other sentences) and serve as valuable clues to interpreting the meaning of a sentence. (Transition words connect two ideas in a sentence or paragraph and tell you whether the two ideas in the sentence agree or contradict one another.) Transition words help you decipher the meaning of a sentence with key words missing.

For example, changing the transition word in the following sentence completely alters its meaning:

Although he ran as fast as he could, Eric _____ the bus.

The transition word although, indicating contrast, tells you that Eric missed the bus. Consider the same sentence with a different transition word:

Because he ran as fast as he could, Eric _____ the bus.

The transition word because, indicating cause-and-effect, tells you that Eric caught the bus.

With a little practice, transition words become easy to identify and use to your advantage. They’re helpful when breaking the sentence into pieces (which is the next step) and are used frequently in the Analytical Writing portion of the GRE.

Common transition words include the following:

although and because but
despite either/or however in spite of
moreover nonetheless therefore or

The English language has hundreds of transition words. Fortunately, you don’t need to memorize them, but you do need to be able to spot them.

Most transition words can be divided into two categories: continuing and contrasting. Continuing transition words — and, because, moreover, and therefore — indicate that the one part of the sentence will continue the thought of the other part. Contrasting transition words — although, but, despite, however, in spite of, and nonetheless — indicate that one part of the sentence will contrast the other part.

In the previous example with Eric and the bus, changing the transition from a continuing to a contrasting word (in this case, although to because) directly changes the meaning of the sentence. Note that the transition word isn’t always in the middle of the sentence. Now to work on the second step.

Start with the second or third missing word

Many Text Completion questions have two or three words missing. Often the first missing word could be anything, and the second (or third) missing word tells you the first one. Look at this example:

Although she usually was of a (i) _____ nature, Patty was (ii) _____ when the professor assigned a paper due the day after spring break.

The transition word although clues you in to the gist of the first phrase. It tells you that Patty’s usual nature is different from the way she felt when receiving her assignment. But this isn’t enough — Patty could usually be of any nature: good, bad, cantankerous (cranky), sanguine (cheerful), capricious (fickle). You need the gist of the second missing word to find the first one.

Second missing word: Patty was _____ when the professor assigned a paper due the day after spring break.

From the second missing word, you can infer that she was annoyed when the professor assigned a paper. It could be different, but probably not. Most people are usually some form of disappointed when assigned papers, especially over spring break. Anyway, knowing she wasn’t happy, the continuing transition word although tells you that she’s usually the opposite:

First missing word: Although she usually was of a _____ nature,

The opposite of annoyed is happy. Patty is usually happy but today is annoyed. Now take on the whole question:

Although she usually was of a (i) _____ nature, Patty was (ii) _____ when the professor assigned a paper due the day after spring break.

Answer choices for missing word problems

Eliminate answer choices that don’t match the words you used (happy and annoyed) to complete the text. Start with the second missing word.

Using the word clue annoyed, which words from the second column can you eliminate? Enigmatic means mysterious or cryptic, which doesn’t match annoyed. If you don’t know what lugubrious and ebullient mean, you can guess that lugubrious is heavy and ebullient means upbeat, based on how the words sound. (Ebullient means very happy, and lugubrious means sad. Eliminate ebullient for not matching annoyed, so lugubrious remains and is the second missing word.

Now for the first missing word. Using the word clue happy, which words from the first column can you eliminate? Frugal doesn’t fit based solely on its meaning (economical), and it has no opposite in the second column. Keen, which means intense, also doesn’t fit, so cheerful seems to be the remaining choice for the first blank. The correct answers are Choices (C) and (E).