SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Study Vocabulary for the New 2016 SAT

Posted by Halle Edwards | Jun 14, 2015 10:30:00 AM

SAT Writing, SAT Reading, New SAT



Are you planning to take the new 2016 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 likely 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 test tough vocab words based on just one sentence of context and require 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.

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.” See the example below.


Via Specifications for the New SAT.


As you can see from this example, memorizing the definition of the word "intense" wouldn't help you with this question, since any of the definitions could work for the word "intense" in different contexts. But by looking at the sentence,"The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity" you can see that only choice B, "concentrated," makes sense in context.

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 10 “word in context” questions for reading (out of 52) and 8 word in context questions for writing (out of 44). This comes out to about 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, and not important to know obscure words. We will focus on two strategies: which words to learn and how to practice understanding words in context.


The Words to Learn

As the SAT is becoming more like the ACT and testing medium-difficulty words in context, we recommend studying ACT vocabulary words instead of using old SAT lists. This will maximize your study time and prevent you from wasting time memorizing words you don’t need to know.

Start with our PrepScholar ACT list, which teaches 150 medium-difficulty words, many with multiple meanings.

You can also learn this 100-word list from Scholastic, which pulled SAT/ACT words from one of their student magazines. Again, it focuses on less-obscure words that often have multiple meanings.

These two lists will give you a strong foundation of words likely to appear on the new SAT. Once you have them under your belt, then you can move on to practicing to define words in context.


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 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 it 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 I 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 recommend using Quizlet, an online flashcard program that you can also 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 defintions.


What’s Next?

Get a complete guide to the New SAT, as well as an overall study guide to prepare for each section.

Wondering when exactly you should aim to take the SAT? See our guide to maximize your chances of a high score.

How long should you study for the SAT? Read a guide so you know how much time to put in.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We have the industry's leading SAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so you get the most effective prep possible.

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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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