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Pinpoint vs. Paragraph Questions On the SAT Writing / ACT English Section

The SAT / ACT is a long test. If there are shortcuts to take, or reading you can wriggle out of, you should seize the chance. Today we'll discuss what you should and should not read on the SAT Writing / ACT English section.

There are roughly two question types on the SAT Writing section / ACT English section: pinpoint questions and paragraph questions. In today's article we'll discuss both question types, and provide a broad outline of how to approach each question.

Pinpoint Questions

Pinpoint questions are questions on specific segments of a sentence / sentences. Most pinpoint questions are of the following kind:

'Mary visits her niece, and she finds a stuffed animal in the closet.'



B) her niece

C) they

D) it

On the SAT, these questions have no question phrase. Four options are offered as replacements for the underlined segment, and you're meant to choose the most appropriate one. On the ACT, 'Choose the best answer' appears before the answer options.

This ia by far the most common question type on the SAT Writing / ACT English section. Note that there are some questions, not of the structure above, which still qualify as pinpoint questions. The reason is that you don't need to read the surrounding context (i.e. the paragraph) to answer the question. You only need to read a sentence or two. One example: combine - the - sentences questions.

For pinpoint questions, you don't have to understand the passage at large. For the most part, you don't even have to understand the surrounding context. It's sufficient to read the sentence in which the underlined segment appears, and sometimes the sentence before it as well. Pinpoint questions don't require context.


Something which ostensibly makes sense may sound wrong when you take a step back. I recommend ALWAYS reading the entire sentence, even if you think you've got the answer. Certain answer options exist because SAT drafters deliberately insert options that would "sound right" if you haven't read the whole sentence.

Checking your answer option

After you've chosen the answer for a pinpoint question, plug what you've chosen into the sentence and read it with your new choice incorporated. Does it make sense? Okay, then move on. No? Try again.

Even if you've read the sentence before choosing the options - as you should have - you still need to do this step. Let's look at an example to illustrate why this is:

'In fact, Monmore worked harder than ever before in those two years , he volunteered in the field and used his experience there to eventually work in agriculture.



B) , volunteering

C) , and he volunteered

D) ; he volunteered

At first glance, you may think that option B) is fine:

'Monmore worked harder than ever before in those two years, volunteering on the farm'

However, when you read the entire sentence with option B), something should sound strange:

'In fact, Monmore worked harder than ever before in those two years, volunteering on the farm and used his experience there to eventually work in agriculture.'

There's a problem, and you should be able to hear it. The issue is that 'volunteering' is a progressive verb, while 'used' is past simple - these are two different tenses. (For a more thorough explanation of why this answer is incorrect, see here.)

Even if you read it through before trying to answer it, the oddness of a wrong option - and the sense that something doesn't quite "work" - probably won't jump out at you until you've read through the sentence with your chosen option

This is potentially true of every question on the SAT / ACT. In long sentences like this one, it's even more likely.

Paragraph Questions

Paragraph questions, as the name implies, demand that you read a paragraph - or most of it - in order to answer the question. That's because these questions have more to do with the logic of the paragraph, and how elements of it fit together, than simple grammatical technicalities.

Paragraph questions include but are not limited to questions like the following:

Since this list is so long, it may seem that there are many more paragraph questions than pinpoint. This is untrue; pinpoint are much more common. Since the paragraph questions are highly specific, they exist in variety.

So, when approaching a passage on the Writing / English section, first ask yourself: is this a pinpoint question, or a paragraph question? If it's a paragraph question, MAKE SURE you read until the end of the paragraph (or until the end of the section designated in the question) before attempting to answer. Many students try answering such questions after only reading a sentence or so past where the question appears. This cripples your chances of a correct answer.

What not to read

The clear conclusion is that, in paragraphs containing ONLY pinpoint questions, there's no need to read the entire paragraph. And there are plenty such paragraphs.

If you don't have a time-management problem on the Writing / English section, and feel better having read the entire passage, you can do so. However, I recommend trying to read only the relevant segments as recommended in this article, at least for a couple of passages, and see if you adjust. Aside from the time issue, it's also important to consider avoid energy, focus, and attention. The SAT and ACT are long tests, and if you don't allot concentration and focus strategically, your performance will be suboptimal by the end of them.

Other questions categories on the SAT Writing / ACT English section

There are question types which don't fit into the two categories mentioned above. Here are a few examples:

  1. The author wants to link Paragraph 2 with the ideas that follow. Which choice best accomplishes this goal?

  2. The writer wants a conclusion that conveys how the shortcomings of 1-MCP presented in the passage affect the actions of people in the fruit industry. Which choice best accomplishes this goal?

There may also appear questions based on a graph, which of course belong to another category altogether.

Note that questions like (1) and (2) are rare, and will probably appear at most once or twice in the course of the entire Writing / English section. (The SAT Writing Section has 4 passages; the ACT English, 5.) When they do appear, you may indeed have to skim the passage to answer them. But remember - this means skim. You don't have to read the passage in depth, or understand every detail. Just enough to answer this one isolated question.

In which order should you answer Pinpoint / Paragraph questions?

There are two main ways students approach the Writing / English section.

Some students answer pinpoint questions first. These are easier and require less concentration. Students then have a clear head with which to answer paragraph questions, which require greater thought and inspection.

The alternative is to answer questions in the order in which they're given. Some students feel this wastes less mental energy, since they're not jumping back and forth.

My personal recommedation is to test out both methods, and see which works better for you. Most students find that one of these methods is easier, takes less time, and allows them better focus. Only you know what works best for you, and it's important to use every advantage. So do your own experimentation: even a few minutes can make a huge difference on your exam. For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. Studying privately with a skilled teacher is the best way to increase your test score, and in coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style.

Happy learning,