SAT Strategy: Don’t Look at the Elephant

On the SAT, Sentence Completions are one of the easiest places to get back some of the points that the College Board has tricked you out of. To get those points back you just have to remember the one phrase:

Don’t think of an elephant!

When you read that phrase what was the first thing you thought of?

If you are like most people, you probably thought about an elephant; that’s no surprise.  Despite the fact that you were asked to think of anything else besides an elephant (e.g. chair, waffles, toe lint), seeing the word “elephant” on the page was simply far too influential (like the Stroop Effect for all you neuroscience nerds out there!).

In order to avoid this trap, I tell my SAT students not to look at the answer choices for a Sentence Completion question before they have thought of their own word to fill in the blank.  Let’s examine this question for better understanding:


As one might expect, the reclusive writer ——- public appearances and or any event that might undermine his privacy.

(A)  rewarded        (B)  enjoyed        (C)  neglected

(D)  welcomed        (E)  detested


Little Jack – Obsessed with elephants

Jack reads the sentence and then looks at the answer choices.  While glancing at the choices, he notices (consciously or not) how lovely and sophisticated answer choice (C) looks there on the far right, away from the muddle of (A), (B), (D), and (E).  And “neglected” does seem to fit, doesn’t it?  If the writer is reclusive, he would definitely want to neglect public appearances!  So Jack chooses (C) and therefore loses a quarter of a point.


Big Jack – Biased toward elephants

But perhaps Jack might act a bit more cautiously.  This time, he reads the sentence and considers all the answer choices.  He would eliminate (A), (B), and (D) because they all express positivity about a situation the writer clearly isn’t a fan of.  When choosing between (C) and (E), he ultimately decides upon (C).  Why?  It was the first word he thought worked, so he had a bias towards it. Unfortunately, he also heard from teachers in the past “always go with your first answer.”


Jill – Never looks at elephants

Jill immediately covers her answer choices before she can even glance at them.  Then she reads the entire sentence and studies the sentence for clues.  She knows that reclusiveness has something to do with preferring to be alone, and she also knows that whatever the writer is doing perpetuates his reclusive behavior (and follows this one clue given by the sentence about the writer habits).  Jill realizes that this writer is really not trying to have anything to do with the public.  Feeling that she has a good grip on the sentence, Jill fills in the blank with her own words; she writes “doesn’t like.”  She compares her predicted answer with the answer choices, eliminating answer choices that don’t mean something similar to her predicted answer, and finds that the only choice which really means “doesn’t like” is (E) detested.


Our Sentence Completion Action Plan

(1)   Cover your answers

(2)   Read the entire sentence

(3)   Identify clues

(4)   Write your own word(s) in the blank(s)

(5)   Compare your word(s) to the answer choices and eliminate wrong answers


Covering the answer choices and writing your own words for the blank(s) is crucial to earning points on the Sentence Completion.  In this manner, you are able to implement the piece of advice that applies to both test-taking and stampedes:


Avoid the Elephants!


Kara Segal

SAT Teacher – Brooklyn, NY


Kara Segal is a long time SAT superstar. Kara first demonstrated her masterful avoidance of elephants in high school when she used this talent to earn SAT scores high enough to gain her admission to Brown University. After graduating Brown, Kara brought her knowledge and passion for pachyderms and education to Bell Curves where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of K – 12 Programs. Kara also teaches classes and tutors students for SAT, SSAT, ISEE, ACT and ELA and Math statewide exams.

  • (646) 414-1586
COPYRIGHT ©2002 - 2020 BELL CURVES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. All tests names are registered trademarks of the respective testing companies, which do not endorse and are not affiliated with Bell Curves.
BELL CURVES - 25 West 36th Street, 8th Floor - New York, NY 10018 Bell Curves is an educational services and test preparation company. It delivers high-quality consulting services, test preparation programs, and self-study resources to students throughout the country.
Equal Opportunity Employer - Privacy Policy - Refund Policy