SAT Writing: Topic, Conclusion, and Transition Sentences

In the previous chapter, we reviewed transition words such as furthermore and however and how they're used to explicitly connect ideas. Transitions, however, can be more than just one or two words—they can be entire sentences that guide the reader from one thought to another. The more complex ideas get and the more subtle the relationships between them become, the longer the transitions will tend to be. Take a look at the following paragraphs:

By the time Heart of Darkness was published in 1902, a movement was already underway to expose the large-scale theft and murder occurring in the Congo. Dozens of missionaries had begun sending reports, including photographs, to bear witness to the violence. William Sheppard, an African-American Presbyterian, was one of these missionaries. He sent out shocking testimony of lands seized by force, of people living under a reign of terror, and of soldiers cutting off the hands of women and children.

An Englishman named E.D. Morel gathered the many reports and photographs and published them. He gathered crowds to listen to eyewitness accounts of colonial atrocities. He lobbied the British Parliament to denounce the Belgian king's horrifying practices. This became the first modern humanitarian movement, and it successfully exposed the horrendous violence in the Congo. Historians estimate, however, that, by that time, between 10 million and 20 million Congolese people had lost their lives.

Take note of the bolded sentence. This sentence serves as a transition between the two paragraphs, but how do we know? A good transition sentence references key terms or ideas preceding it and key terms or ideas following it. It brings together what comes before with what comes after. In this case, the transition brings up not only E.D. Morel, who is the primary focus of the second paragraph but also the many reports and photographs that were the focus of the first paragraph.

When you're asked to choose the best transition between two paragraphs or even between two sentences within the same paragraph, always read above and below where the transition will be. The best transition will be the one that brings together the main elements on either side, leading from the previous topic to the next.

A few more examples:

Lambert confirmed that we as humans have a finite amount of mental energy and attention. Tough decision making, such as that used when following a diet, saps us of our ability to exercise the same discipline later on. Based on this research, Lambert designed a diet that minimizes the need for discipline and protects against regression. Her program has been used by everyone from celebrities to world-class athletes who vouch for its effectiveness.

The bolded sentence is an amazing transition between two topics in the same paragraph. The opening phrase Based on this research refers back to the statements on mental energy. In particular, the word this makes that reference explicit. The diet that Lambert designed leads into the focus of the next sentence: the program. In short, this transition guides us from the research she did to the diet program she developed.

A professor at Harvard and an advocate of human rights, Dr. Joseph remains skeptical of charities that donate haphazardly to impoverished African communities, and his position has gained traction among other scholars. Many economists believe that these donations disrupt the local economy and potentially jeopardize businesses that would have to compete against the items being donated.

The bolded phrase is a transition that guides us from Dr. Joseph to other economists, explicitly laying out what the relationship is between them.

Now here's an important concept: topic and conclusion sentences are just specific types of transition sentences. The job of a topic sentence is to introduce a paragraph, guiding you from the previous one if necessary. The job of a conclusion sentence is to wrap up a paragraph, guiding you to the next one if necessary. These are transition sentences! The example on the first page of this chapter was a topic sentence.

There is, however, a slight nuance. Though they are just transition sentences, topic and conclusion sentences are typically more general and less specific than sentences in the middle of a paragraph. That's because a topic sentence usually tries to capture the entire scope of the paragraph it leads into, and a conclusion sentence encompasses the paragraph that led to it. Note the topic sentence of the paragraph you're reading right now. It's pretty general and even a bit mysterious, isn't it? That's what a topic sentence does. It doesn't tell you everything—it just leads into it.

The following two examples will show topic and conclusion sentences in action:

Zero population growth was an idea espoused by Dr. Ehrlich at Stanford in the 60's. His argument was that the Earth's resources would soon be exhausted and that everyone would suffer unless measures were taken to slow the rate of population growth. By the 70's, the idea had become mainstream. Everyone knew what zero population growth meant and its implications. People even took to the streets to raise awareness of the impending doom. Despite the movement's popularity, the predicted apocalypse never happened.

The world today manages to support over 7 billion people and counting. Through ingenuity and innovation, the human race has developed such improved agricultural practices that increasingly more can be maintained with increasingly less. Technological developments such as the internet have allowed humans to be more efficient in both production and distribution.

The first paragraph talks about the rise of the zero population growth idea whereas the second paragraph talks about the world today. Notice how the bolded sentence serves not only as a conclusion sentence that resolves the first paragraph but also as a transition between the two paragraphs, bridging them together. If you took this sentence out, the shift in topic between the paragraphs would be jarring and confusing for the reader, who would wonder why the writer is suddenly talking about the world supporting 7 billion people right after talking about protests in the streets.

Computer science is more than just working with computers. It involves computational thinking and algorithms, step-by-step solutions to complex problems. For example, calculating the shortest way from one location to another like a GPS would requires an algorithm. The subject requires patience and extreme attention to detail, especially when it comes to tracking down bugs and cleaning up code.

From an early age, I knew I wanted to study computer science and so all of my college planning revolved around it. I asked my math and science teachers to write me recommendations for all the top universities that offered this major. My college essays focused on the applications that I had built and the fun I had on the robotics team. I talked extensively about my passion for problem solving in my interviews. Now I just have to wait for decisions to roll in.

The bolded sentence serves as a transition between what computer science is and the author's personal experience with college planning. Note that this sentence is also a great topic sentence. It's broad and leads directly into the more specific details in the rest of the second paragraph. Hopefully by now, you're really seeing how these transitions work. Bad transitions will either miss the connection altogether or fail to relate both sides in a logical way.

When you're asked to insert the best transition between two sentences, look for words such as this, that, and these. These reference words must point to other nouns that exist in the surrouding context, which means the transition sentence itself may need to include them. In the last example, the second sentence of the second paragraph contains the words this major. But what is this major? Notice that the bolded transition defines what this major is—computer science. Because it supplies that definition, this is the transition you would pick as the answer if this were a question on the SAT.

Now on the SAT, you'll know you're being tested on these transition concepts when you see questions like this:

  • The writer wants to link the first paragraph with the ideas that follow. Which choice best accomplishes this goal?
  • Which choice best connects the sentence with the previous paragraph?
  • Which choice provides the most appropriate introduction to the passage?
  • Which choice provides the most logical introduction to the sentence?
  • Which choice most effectively sets up the information that follows?
  • Which choice most effectively concludes the sentence and paragraph?
  • Which choice most smoothly and effectively introduces the writer's discussion of... in this paragraph?
  • Which choice most effectively sets up the paragraph?
  1. One way of beating the casinos is to learn the art of card counting. It's actually not illegal, but most casinos won't allow it at their tables. Memorizing all the possible card combinations and how to play them can take up to a year.

    B) The challenge with this tactic is that it looks much easier to do than it really is.
    C) By betting only small stakes, you have a greater chance of winning in the long-term.
    D) Roulette wheels are a game of pure chance, and no amount of practice will help you get an edge on the house.

  2. This husband-and-wife team turned a dingy off-road café into one of London's most chic eateries in less than two years. The location has a lot of foot traffic and is frequented by tourists and locals alike. The danger, of course, is that a move somewhere else might kill its unique vibe.

    B) Finding the best ingredients is so much easier being close to some of the best fish markets in Smithfield.
    C) Prices in London are now so high that renting premises in the capital can be off-putting to new businesses.
    D) Due to their success, they're now thinking of moving locations to accommodate their rapidly increasing number of customers.

  3. Philosophers have long speculated that the machines we build today could tomorrow evolve an intelligence that threatens our dominance in the world. Their musings have been the basis for many science fiction novels and movies. Everywhere we look, we already see evidence of our dependence on technology. Digital maps direct us from one place to another, social networks keep us connected to our friends, and 3-D printers allow anyone to make almost anything.

    B) Robotic control systems still rely on human input to function correctly.
    C) They might not be as crazy as we think.
    D) Computers thus far have failed to demonstrate physical self-replication.

  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of Mark Twain's most famous literary creations. The story of a young boy and his adventures along the Mississippi with a runaway slave has long been a part of the great pantheon of American literature. In his defense, Twain is simply satirizing the views that would be found objectionable today, and he does so by using language that sometimes seems unsavory to our modern ears.

    B) However, it is preferable to have first read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer before tackling this weighty tome.
    C) Still, readers often criticize its allegedly racist use of the local dialect.
    D) The book brings up issues of race, family, and friendship that should be confronted in every high school curriculum.

  5. The body has many defenses. Without the conscious brain knowing, several internal mechanisms come into play: T cells raise the alarm, B cells produce antibodies to stop the virus from replicating, and other white blood cells destroy contaminated cells directly.

    Which choice most effectively sets up the examples given at the end of the sentence?

    B) When human beings become unhealthy,
    C) A part of the immune system,
    D) At the start of an infection,

  6. Though it depends on the school, most students do not buy all the textbooks they need. However, it is not always necessary to purchase a book at full price. Used books are often available online at a fraction of their original cost. Similarly, renting textbooks, which allows for semester-long access to relevant information, is becoming much more common. Another option is textbook buyback, in which the university buys the textbook back from the student at the end of the semester. There simply isn't an excuse for students to fall behind in class because they can't get their hands on the required textbooks.

    Which choice provides the most appropriate introduction to the paragraph?

    B) Because they can't afford it,
    C) Despite some professors' requirements,
    D) Regardless of their major,

Want more questions? Our SAT Writing Advanced Guide and Workbook contains over 500 additional practice questions (grouped by topic) and 3 practice tests.

  1. B
  2. D
  3. C
  4. C
  5. D
  6. B