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How to Study for SAT Vocabulary

However you come across the SAT - blogs like this, apps in the Google Play store, pop culture references, stories from older neighbors or cousins - you’re undoubtedly going to hear the word “vocabulary” come up often. And if you’re not careful, some of the vocabulary you encounter will look prohibitively scary. Some of those apps, for example, will contain flashcards for words such as:

  • Ignominious
  • Abstruse
  • Osculate
  • Truculent

But that’s not what’s on the SAT! Previous versions of the SAT included words like that, but since early 2016 the test has exclusively tested “Vocabulary In Context,” a new form of question (on the Reading test) that’s much heavier on the “context” than on the “vocabulary.” Simply put, memorizing vocabulary is not an effective SAT study strategy. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the “vocabulary words” tested across an entire official SAT practice test, released by The College Board:

  • Embraced
  • Clashes
  • Best
  • Rule
  • Capture
  • Devise

Notice that none of those words is more than two syllables, and none should be a word that you wouldn’t feel comfortable using properly in an essay or, really, in a conversation with the kids you babysit. The SAT’s “Vocabulary In Context” emphasis is really testing your ability to understand what a sentence means, not what a particular word means.

Let’s go back to the words from the practice test. If you had to define the word “embraced” you might quickly think “hugged.” But, again, this isn’t a vocabulary test. Here’s how that word is tested on that official College Board question:

“Some argue that because the free markets allow for personal choice, they are already ethical. Others have accepted the ethical critique (of free markets) and embraced corporate social responsibility.
As used above, ‘embraced’ most nearly means:

  1. Lovingly held
  2. Readily adopted
  3. Eagerly hugged
  4. Reluctantly used”

Here “embraced” probably doesn’t mean what your first inclination was (you can’t “hug” a concept like corporate social responsibility, no matter how tempting choices A and C might sound). The word “embraced” is really just a blank - you’re not defining embraced so much as you’re putting one of the answer choice in that “blank” where “embraced” used to go. What have people done to corporate social responsibility? They’ve readily adopted it - by “embracing” it, they’re accepting it as a valid concept, much like you’d “readily accept” your grandmother by hugging her.

Now, what does this mean for how you’ll study for the SAT? You should avoid blindly memorizing vocabulary and instead embrace the concept that SAT “vocabulary” is about the meaning of the sentence, not of the word. Your job is to read and “fill in the blank,” not to define and memorize. So as you prepare for the SAT “vocabulary”:

  1. Read. SAT vocabulary is more about reading comprehension than about vocabulary, so you’ll need to practice reading and understanding what you read.

  2. Pay attention to words that have multiple meanings. As you read, train yourself to tune in extra carefully any time the author uses a word in a context that differs from how you usually use it (e.g. “embraced” as “accepted” vs. “hugged”).

  3. Vary your own word choice. As you’re writing papers for school (or text messages to friends), think of words that could be easily replaced with several others. The more that you can consider several different word choices for the same context, the better you will feel on test day when you have to select a particular word for a particular place in context.

Most importantly, remember that SAT “vocabulary” isn’t a test of who knows the biggest words or most obscure definitions, but rather a test of who can understand the meaning of a sentence and select an appropriate (but common) word to convey that proper meaning. Save yourself the time and frustration of memorizing five-syllable words; instead, take that time to read and understand.