Studying for SAT vocab has become a debatable topic in terms of cost vs. benefit in improving SAT scores. Should students be spending hours memorizing the definition of words that might not even appear on the exam? No! Should they even dedicate any resources to studying for SAT vocab? Yes!

It is important to understand the impact that strengthening vocab has on doing well on the SAT as a whole. What is the best way to approach SAT vocabulary while minimizing stress and allowing for the focus of students’ studies to be on the most vital aspects necessary for score improvement? This guide can help students reduce the amount of anxiety they feel in preparing for the SAT by providing ways to most effectively study for SAT vocab questions.

How Important Is Vocab on the SAT?

In the old format of the SAT (tests taken before 2016), vocabulary was much more highly emphasized through the sheer number and types of questions asked. Memorization of commonly used SAT words, which were high in difficulty and typically rarely used in everyday writing, was absolutely vital to success in the reading and writing sections. However, on the current format of the SAT, vocab is much less emphasized, and the words tested through vocab questions are much less obscure and lower in difficulty. The new vocab questions are passage-based and rely on the student’s ability to use context to discern what a word means. 

To go into specifics on the lack of emphasis on vocab on the current version of the SAT, typically there will be about seven questions in the reading section, which consists of 50 questions total, that ask the student to match a word with its correct meaning. These questions, called Words in Context, will direct the student to a line containing the vocab word and have them select a different word that has the same meaning in the same context. Here is an example from a version of the October 2020 SAT:

SAT Test Word In Context Vocabulary Example Question
An example of a word in context question that appeared on the October 2020 SAT

This question type relies on the student having some knowledge about medium-difficulty vocabulary words that they more than likely have experienced before. The key is that students need to know the meaning of each of the words in the answer choices in all of their applications and different uses in order to see which one best fits within the context of the sentence.

Students will also be exposed to around 3 vocab questions per writing section, which has 44 questions total. These questions, called Precision questions, require that a student potentially replaces a word with another in order to better fit the context of the sentence it is in. Here is another example from a version of the October 2020 SAT with its associated passage:

Because this question gives words as answer choices without any context, it is vital to know the definition of these words, but let’s remember that there are typically only a few of these questions, so they should not be a major source of stress.

How can students improve their vocabulary without wasting time?

The majority of students’ attention should be devoted to other areas given the lack of focus on vocab on the SAT, however there are a few things that students could do to directly and indirectly practice their vocab skills.

  1. Read challenging books:

Reading literature allows students to indirectly practice working with vocab in a context, exactly what the SAT tests. The SAT reading section pulls from complex publications in historical, scientific, and fiction genres, meaning that engaging with similar subject matters can help students practice the strategies necessary for being successful in the reading section, including questioning authors’ purposes and determining the meaning of words that they might not know by using context clues.

  • Take Practice Tests:  

The number one thing that can help students increase their overall score is practice. The SAT is very strategy based and the best way to figure out where the student excels or where they need work is through taking as many quality practice SAT tests as possible. This will help the student directly practice their vocabulary skills by exposing them to the question types and the types of vocab words commonly used on the SAT. It is important to draw from sources that accurately represent the material on the SAT so students should:

  • Take actual Practice Tests from the CollegeBoard
  • Use Khan Academy to practice specific weakness areas, watch tutorials on how to effectively solve SAT problems, as well as use an official source that developed its resources with the CollegeBoard
  • Memorize some of the most commonly used words on the SAT:

Instead of going in blind or reading dictionaries, the most direct way to study vocab is to explore lists of the most commonly used vocab words that can help guide students’ studies in the right direction and limit time wasted. It can also be helpful to look at ACT sources for SAT vocab because the newest style of the SAT vocab questions are more similar to the ACT format. Check out this list of ACT vocab words to know.

  • Learn Word Roots and Prefixes:

Learning the meaning of root words and prefixes can help students discern the definition of words they have never seen by breaking down these words into segments that they can understand. This gives students more freedom from needing to memorize the definitions of a large number of words.

This tool allows students to actively engage with vocabulary words by creating flashcards and continually testing the definition of words that they get wrong until they get them right. There are also other useful tools on the website like their learn feature which forces students to write out definitions for the words, which is proven to increase active learning. When looking at premade decks, it is important to only check out ones made after 2016.

What Now?

It is pretty clear that the focus of students’ studies should not solely be on improving vocabulary in order to better their SAT score, unless this is the area in the reading and writing sections where they miss the most questions. Students who ignore this idea typically end up wasting time and receiving lower scores by taking focus away from more important areas of study. Missing vocab questions really only impacts about 20-30 points of your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score, so putting students’ score goals into context can help guide the necessity and extent to which they study SAT vocabulary.

Read our new post about What to Bring to the SAT on Test Day

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