Solving Scrambled Paragraphs

Scrambled paragraphs are some of the trickiest problems on the SHSAT. The scrambled paragraph section in the Barron’s SHSAT book gives you a pretty good idea of what to look for in these problems. I will not try to replicate that full lesson here. The purpose of this post is to give an idea of the thought process you should go through when you’re solving scrambled paragraphs. We will do two examples: paragraphs 1 and 2 from Form A of the 2015-2016 Department of Education SHSAT handbook.



1) After a quick read-through, it seems like this paragraph is describing meals in some traditional sub-Saharan Africa households. Now I skim the paragraph for clues. There are a few things in this paragraph I underline right away. In sentences Q, R, S and U they mention “the starch”. What is the starch? They don’t mention it in the first sentence. They must explain what it is somewhere! They introduce the starch in sentence T. That immediately tell us that T must come before Q, R, S and U, so T is the second sentence. it seems to make sense after the first sentence- it gives a general description of typical meals.

I underline “Diners then use” in sentence S because it tells us that something happens right before sentence S. Let’s find what it is. U talks about taking starch from a communal plate. S can come right after U. First the people take some starch, then they use it as a scoop. I draw an arrow from U to S to show that U comes right before S.

The other thing I underline right away is “another purpose as well” in sentence R. This tells us that R is a connecting sentence that will come between two purposes for “the starch”. Let’s look for those purposes.

One of those purposes is using the starch as a scoop, from U and S. Sentence Q is the other purpose: the starch cools the spicy food. All we need to know is which purpose comes first in the paragraph.

Right now there are two possible orders: TQRUS and TUSRQ. Trying both, we see TUSRQ works better because T and U both talk about the main course/ main dish, and together they work as a good overall description of the meal. In TQRUS, U and S don’t follow as nicely from R. R has no mention of the main course, so Q fits better after R because it is more specific to the starch. U is more general and has more connection to T.

Lets read through and make sure everything fits. The paragraph describes what is served at this type of meal, how the main dish is scooped up with a starch, and how the starch serves another purpose of cooling down the spicy food. Makes sense!

This paragraph fits a common pattern of sentences going from general to more specific.



2) After the first quick read, this paragraph appears to be about bluegrass music. I also see in sentence S they mention a variation on this type of music called “newgrass”. Whenever you see phrases like “this” something, “that” something or “these” somethings, you should underline them. They must’ve introduced what they’re talking about before. The same goes for “he”, “she”, “they” and when you see a shortened version of someone’s name. If you see just a last name, there’s going to be a sentence earlier in the paragraph with the full name. In this paragraph, I underline “that style” in Q, “Monroe” in T, and “these two meanings” and “this style of music” in U.

I also underline “on the other hand” in S since it indicates contrast.

I also see some repeated phrases. I see “traditional” and “non-traditional” three times, so I underline all of them. I also see “non-amplified strings” in R and “non-amplified stringed instruments” in T, so I underline them.

Now let’s start connecting. “These two meanings” in U is a strong connection to the first sentence, which gives two meanings of the word “bluegrass”, so U probably is the next sentence. “This style of music” in U must refer to bluegrass music. U also introduces Bill Monroe.

T gives use details of Monroe’s style, and we can connect the mention of “Monroe” back to “Bill Monroe” in U. T also mentions the style uses “non-amplified stringed instruments”. R gets more specific about those “non-amplified strings”. At this point UTR is a good bet for the order of the first three sentences.

Q says “you won’t hear that style at… traditional bluegrass festivals”. What is “that style”? S mentions that when the instruments or music are “non-traditional“, the style is called “newgrass”. It makes sense that they wouldn’t have a non-traditional style at a traditional festival, so the style is “newgrass”. So S must come before Q, and our order is UTRSQ!

Let’s read through in that order to make sure everything makes sense. The passage talks about the origin of bluegrass, give details about the style, and then talks about a non-traditional variation called “newgrass”. Seems to make sense!


So how should you prepare for scrambled paragraphs? I would read and work through the Barron’s section on it and practice on the practice exams you do. However, beyond that it should not be the main focus of your studying. Some paragraphs are so tricky that you can’t expect to get them all. Getting 3 out of 5 scrambled paragraphs is pretty good for most students. I have been dong this for a while and still sometimes run into scrambled paragraphs that I have trouble solving. In addition, scrambled paragraphs are only worth a fifth of the points on the verbal section. Reading comprehension is worth 30 points, and many students don’t pay enough attention to it. One exception: you may want to pay a good amount of attention to scrambled paragraphs if you are pretty good on everything else and you are trying to get into Stuy or one of the higher cutoff schools. It is possible that one or two correct scrambled paragraphs could make the difference there!


    1. I’ll try to get around to it. In the meantime, the Barron’s book ( ) has a really solid section on scrambled paragraphs. Also, practice is very much key with these, they have good practice scrambled paragraphs in the official handbook practice tests and in the Barron’s and Kaplan books.

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