SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Study Vocabulary for the New 2016 SAT


Are you planning to take the SAT? Wondering how to handle the vocabulary questions? We will explain how the new SAT tests vocabulary and what that means for your study plans. Read on for an exclusive guide to new SAT vocabulary!


What’s Vocabulary Like on the New SAT?

As you may know, the SAT changed in 2016. The goal of the redesign is to make the SAT more modern and relevant for high school students. (Read more about the new SAT with our ultimate guide.)

As part of the effort to make the SAT more modern, the Reading section no longer has sentence completion questions. The sentence completion questions tested tough vocab words based on just one sentence of context and required obscure vocabulary knowledge. Since the new SAT is getting rid of this question type entirely, there is no longer the need to memorize hundreds of obscure vocabulary words. That's great news!

Furthermore, there are far fewer vocabulary questions in general, and they are all given in the context of longer passages. The vocabulary words tested are “neither highly obscure nor only relevant to one domain,” according to the Specifications for the New SAT released by College Board.

So what kinds of words is the new SAT testing? Multiple meaning words like “intense” will be tested, as opposed to super rare words like “exculpate” or “obsequious.” Below is an example of a vocab question from SAT Reading.


As you can see from this example, memorizing the definition of the word "favor" wouldn't help you with this question, since any of the definitions could work for the word "favor" in different contexts. But by looking at the sentence, "The Millennials who reached adulthood around the turn of the century and now outnumber baby boomers, tend to favor cities over suburbs, and are far more willing than their parents to ride buses and subways," you can see that only choice B, "prefer," makes sense in context.

Below is a vocab question from SAT Writing.


For this question, you're being asked if you should make a change to the word "swear" in the sentence "These models have expanded researchers' knowledge of ancient species and swear to advance the field of paleontology in the years to come."

The correct answer is D, but you wouldn't know this just by memorizing the definition of the words in the answer choices. Like the Reading question, you need to understand the context the word is being used in to choose the correct answer. In other words, context clues will be much more important than inherently knowing the meaning of a word.

Furthermore, vocabulary questions won't be a huge part of the new SAT. The new SAT will have about ten “word in context” questions for Reading (out of 52) and about eight word in context questions for Writing and Language (out of 44). This comes out to roughly 20% of questions in each section.

In short, vocabulary is now a pretty minor part of the SAT, and rare vocabulary won't even be tested.


So How Do You Study?

Even though vocabulary is now just 20% of the Reading and Writing sections, that doesn’t mean that you should stop studying it completely. Having a strong knowledge of medium-difficulty, multi-meaning words will be crucial to doing well on the new SAT. But it no longer makes sense to spend hours and hours memorizing words. Forget about those “2000 SAT word” lists – there are simply too few vocabulary questions on the new SAT to justify spending that kind of time.

Furthermore, it is important to be able to define words in context but not important to know obscure words. We will focus on two strategies: which words to learn and how to practice understanding words in context.


Which Words Should You Learn?

So now that the SAT has changed, how do you know which words you should be studying?

Start with our PrepScholar SAT Vocab list, which teaches 262 words you should definitely know for the SAT.

If you want more vocab lists after that, check out our guide to the best SAT vocabulary resources. These lists will give you a strong foundation of words likely to appear on the new SAT, and we also give you tips on how to study them. 


How to Learn Words in Context

Memorizing vocabulary should only be a small part of your new SAT vocabulary studying. The more important skill to learn will be how to identify and figure out the meaning of words in context.

This means you should do two things: read challenging articles and learn to pick out and define words.

One great (and free!) browser application to help you with this is ProfessorWord, which automatically identifies potential SAT/ACT vocabulary on various pages on the web and then provides a definition. By reading articles, you can make sure to learn realistic vocabulary likely to appear on the new SAT, rather than ultra-specialized words the SAT no longer tests. See the example below which breaks down the SAT/ACT vocabulary in a recent Atlantic article.



 Screenshot via The Atlantic.

The vocabulary words are highlighted. If you don't know the meaning of the word, you can type it into the ProfessorWord box next to "Define." A brief definition will appear, along with links to online dictionaries with more detailed definitions.

The way you can turn this into a study exercise is to pull up a challenging article, and see if you can define the highlighted words based on the words around them. Only then do you use the ProfessorWord "Define" feature to look at the actual definition.



If you were wrong about a word, write the word and its definition down on a flashcard and study it to naturally expand your vocabulary.

If you read one article per day and use ProfessorWord, you will get excellent practice at defining words in context and naturally expand your vocabulary.


What Kinds of Articles Should You Be Reading?

Any articles from the following publications/newspapers/magazines will contain SAT vocabulary. Make sure to read from different genres, as the new SAT will have passages from US and world literature, history/social studies, and science.

For example, don’t just read an article about politics every day, as you will encounter very similar vocabulary and lose the opportunity to learn vocabulary to help with science and literature passages.

This is just a small list of publications to get you started. If you have a favorite newspaper or magazine, feel free to incorporate it into your study regimen as long as ProfessorWord finds SAT/ACT vocabulary words in it.


Starter List of Publications by Category

US and World Literature: The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and short stories published in various popular magazines (Vogue, GQ, Elle)

History/Social Science: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, The Atlantic, Slate, The Economist, Bloomberg News

Science: Wired, Popular Science, Psychology Today


Other Tools and Tips


Use the Waterfall method to learn vocabulary words. This is an effective memorization strategy that will help you learn words efficiently.

We also recommend using Quizlet, an online flashcard program that you can connect to your smartphone. This is a great way to study words on the go – and also an excellent choice for people like me who hate hand writing flash cards.

Finally, if you would prefer to hear definitions of words spoken aloud rather than just reading them, use the vocabulary videos at Vocab Ahead to help you master definitions.


What’s Next?

Want to learn more about SAT Reading beyond just vocab questions? Check out our ultimate SAT Reading study guide. It will teach you the content, skills, and tips you need to improve your SAT Reading score.

Not sure what score to aim for on the SAT? Learn how to come up with a target score for the SAT based on the colleges you want to attend.

How long should you study for the SAT? Read our guide so you know exactly how many hours to spend on SAT prep.



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Halle Edwards
About the Author

Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.

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