Arguably the most infamous subject tested on the SAT is vocabulary. My students moan when I present them with a lengthy list of hundreds upon hundreds of words they need to learn by test day. Many report that vocabulary-based questions are responsible for most of their missed points on the Reading Section, others complain that they’ve never even heard of at least half of the tested vocabulary words.
In fact, even Collegeboard, the company that makes the SAT, is dropping the vocabulary section from the new version of the test, which will come into effect in March of 2016. However, the following trick that will help you ace sentence completion questions is still relevant to any of you students taking the SAT over the next six months.
The reason the vocabulary on the current SAT is so tricky is that the tested words tend to be unfamiliar. By unfamiliar, I mean words you don’t throw around in everyday conversation with your friends, family, and peers. On the SAT, you won’t see words like “lol”, “fomo” or “candid”. Instead, you’ll see words like “anachronism”, “strident”, “quotidian”, and “panacea”, all of which, I’m guessing, you haven’t recently dropped in casual conversation. However, just because these words are unfamiliar, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to deduce the rough meaning of some of them simply by looking for recognizable roots, or parts of the words.
Take the word “anachronism”, for example. In the middle of the word I spot the root “chron” which reminds me of “chronological”, a word most of us are more likely to know than “anachronism”. So, if I were to make an educated guess, I’d wager that anachronism has something to do with time. And in fact, the dictionary definition of the word is, “A thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned.”
So how can I use this trick of looking at the roots of unfamiliar words to improve my scores on the SAT? Take a look at the following sentence completion question:
Many economists believe that since resources are scarce and since human desires cannot all be _____, a method of ____ is needed.
A) indulged… apportionment
Let’s say that I narrowed my answer choices down to A and B, because the second word in each answer (apportionment and distribution, respectively) makes sense in the sentence (as both suggest that resources need to be divided because they are scarce). However, let’s say I couldn’t choose between A and B, because I know the meaning of “indulged”, but not the meaning of “verified”.
Before guessing between the two, I would scan the word “verified” for roots. In this case, I can spot the root “veri”, which I know is a version of “verus”, meaning true, accurate, or real. It makes much less sense, in context, for resources to be divided because human desires cannot all be true rather than for resources to be divided because not all human desires can be satisfied. So, my final answer is A.
Let’s take a look at another example:
Even in her fiction writing, Denise Chavez functions as a kind of historian in that she _____ the real experiences of Hispanic women through her characters.
I can eliminate D and E, because it doesn’t make sense in context for Chavez to ward off or to make guesses about the experiences of her characters. However, let’s say I was considering A because “predict” seems relevant to history, and B because defending the real experiences of hispanic women also seems relevant. Also, let’s say I’m unsure about C, because I don’t know what the word “chronicles” means. Note: rather than guessing at random between the three remaining choices, I would want to scan the unfamiliar word for roots.
In this case, “chronicles”, like anachronism, has the root “chron”, meaning “time”. So, given that the sentence is about an author being comparable to a historian, I’ll keep C for now. Does it make sense to call Chavez a sort of historian because she predicts the experiences of hispanic women? Upon consideration, it doesn’t, because historians record the past; they don’t predict the future. Does it make sense to call Chavez a sort of historian because she defends the experiences of hispanic women? That sounds more like an activist than a historian. So, I can eliminate the other answers through logic, and even though I don’t know the exact meaning of “chronicles”, I can reasonably assume the word fits in context, as it has to do with time. In fact, chronicles means to record, so the correct answer is indeed C.
I know some of you might be thinking that it’s unfair that you have to learn so many vocabulary words for so few questions, especially with the new, vocabulary-free SAT just around the corner. However, the skill you’ve learned today will prove valuable to you whenever you see unfamiliar words, which means that it will be especially relevant in college.
Building a strong vocabulary and looking at words critically aren’t skills you should only invest in for the SAT; they will come in handy for the rest of your education! And in case you’d like some further practice, take a look at the tricky question below. See if you can spot roots that you know in any of the words you are unfamiliar with! Also, be sure to look up the words after you finish the question, so you can learn new roots!
No longer narrowly preoccupied with their own national pasts, historians are increasingly _____ in that they often take a transnational perspective.
Correct answer: D. Cosmopolitan means worldly, and is derived from the roots “kosmo” (world) and “polites” (citizen).
By Rita Pearson