Score an SAT Vocab Victory

Stressing about SAT Vocab questions? You’re not alone! The good news is that the newly revised SAT test is more forgiving than previous versions in its treatment of vocabulary. Test-makers have eliminated sentence completion questions and reduced the number of vocab questions altogether, and they are only included as part of longer passages—not as standalone vocab questions. New SAT vocab words, unlike in previous versions, come from different subject areas and require distinguishing between multiple correct meanings of a common word based on its context (as opposed to identifying the one correct definition of an obscure word). Basically, context has become more important while memorization of obscure definitions is less useful. This is great news for you, because studying SAT vocab has become less arduous. To emerge victorious from SAT Vocab questions, you should:

1) Learn the Language First (If You’re a Non-Native Speaker)

This might sound obvious, but it’s essential—especially on the new SAT test, since direct memorization won’t get you very far. If you’re an international student who must take the TOEFL or other English language test for admission to your prospective college(s), consider taking it before the SAT. This practice will carry over to the SAT.

Even if you are not taking the TOEFL, learning college-level English will be essential to your academic success, so if possible, invest in learning the language. Take a class (in person or online), keep a translation dictionary on you, read books and watch TV shows in English, and engage English-speaking family and friends in conversation.

2) Pick Plenty of Probable Words

While we can’t list every likely SAT vocab word here, several targeted vocab lists are readily available online. Be sure to use a recent list (written in 2016 or later, after the switch to the new SAT) as a guide. Alternatively, recently administered tests, recently released practice tests, and even practice tests from recently published SAT prep books will expose you to words likely to be tested.

3) Review, Refine, Repeat

You should practice these words the way that works best for you, but keep in mind that flash cards work for many students. Because the SAT tests your knowledge of multiple meanings, your flash cards should list every meaning of a word and use every definition in a distinct example sentence. Test yourself using these flashcards. When you feel confident with your review, compile a list in which your example sentences are mixed up, and omit the vocabulary word—leaving just a blank space in its place. Fill in the blanks, review any you missed, and re-learn those words. Then, create new flash cards and lists using new sets of words. Mastering as many SAT-targeted multiple meaning words as possible before the test (300–400 is a strong target range) will prepare you for success.

4) Context is Crucial

Notice that the above strategy uses sentence completion as a practice tool. Though the SAT has eliminated sentence completion questions, using sentence completion to practice can help you master multiple definitions of a word using minimal context (i.e., the example sentences you wrote). On the actual test, you will have more context available because the tested word will be situated in a passage. So, sentence completion will over-prepare you for recognizing the meaning of a word in a sentence (which can be a strong starting point for English language learners). Some questions will also require you to justify your answer using context clues, so you must know how to identify textual support.

Practice SAT tests include both passages and corresponding questions that can help you master word-in-context questions. Taking multiple tests under timed conditions and carefully reviewing the answers and explanations (for questions you answered correctly as well as incorrectly) is the most targeted practice method.

Some test prep companies will recommend using assorted reading material—newspapers, books, research articles, etc.—to master words in context. While reading this material certainly helps with that, it may be an impractical solution if you are still scoring low on practice verbal tests or still learning English. My suggestion: focus on mastering SAT vocab questions as they appear on the test first, then leverage outside material to smooth out your vocabulary as you have time.

SAT Vocab questions are not easy—but thanks to the recent test change, they are more manageable than ever. As a bonus, your vocab studying will help refine your everyday speech and prepare you for writing college papers!