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The Best Way to Study SAT Vocab Words

Posted by Allen Cheng | Jan 30, 2016 3:30:00 PM

SAT Strategies, SAT Reading



Studying SAT vocab is a confusing topic for most students. It's unclear how many words you need to memorize, which words to learn, and how to actually memorize these words without wasting time. If you think you need to memorize a list of 2000 words you found on the Internet, stop right there. We're about to save you a lot of time while delivering the same results.

In this guide, we'll discuss which words you should memorize and a reliable way to commit these words to memory.

First, it's important to understand what impact SAT vocab can have on your score. Students who ignore this tend to shoot way off course, wasting a lot of time and lowering their score.

Spoiler: Vocabulary is much less important for the new 2016 SAT, but this guide is still useful for you to learn how to study vocab well - for history class, foreign language, and any time you'll need to use flashcards.


How Important are SAT Vocab Words to Your Score?

Vocabulary is a confusing subject on the SAT. In the previous format of the SAT (before Jan 2016), the SAT heavily tested vocabulary in sentence completion questions. And then in the even older version of the SAT, analogies were the bane of high school SAT life. When I took the SAT in 2004, over half of the reading section score depended on vocabulary. Memorizing SAT vocabulary was absolutely necessary.

In the current form of the SAT (starting March 2016 and scored out of 1600), there is less emphasis on testing vocabulary. Sentence completion questions have been totally removed.

There are two types of questions that deal with vocabulary and the definition of words.


SAT Vocabulary Question Type 1: Writing - Precision

This type of question is in SAT Writing - we call it "Precision." Precision refers to the exact word used for the right connotation. Here's an example question:

This approach increases sales, but it also stands in austere contrast to a time when goods were produced to be durable.
B) egregious
C) unmitigated
D) stark

This is pretty tough - 'austere' is not an easy word, but 'egregious' and 'unmitigated' might be even more unfamiliar. When you get this type of question, you MUST know the definition of the words - there aren't any other clues that allow you to figure out what the word means. 

Here's a sample of other difficult words from the Official SAT Practice Tests:

  • complacent
  • confided
  • dispatch
  • eminent
  • emphatic
  • imparted
  • paramount
  • preserve
  • promulgated
  • satiated
  • sufficient
  • unveiled

There are 2-3 of these questions on every test. Not a huge deal, but important if you're trying to get an 800 on Reading/Writing.


SAT Vocabulary Question Type 2: Reading - Words in Context

The other type of question is in the Reading passages section and is we call "Interpreting Words and Phrases in Context." This asks you for the definition of a word as used in the passage.

Here's an example:

As used in line 50, “bearing” most nearly means
A) carrying.
B) affecting.
C) yielding.
D) enduring.


Note that in these questions, the words used will often be pretty common and have multiple definitions. Knowing the definition beforehand can help, but more importantly you need to choose the definition that best fits the definition of the passage. 

Here are all the words of this question type in the SAT practice tests released by the College Board:

  • ambivalent
  • bearing
  • best
  • capture
  • challenged
  • charge
  • clashes
  • common
  • conducted
  • convey
  • credit
  • demands
  • devise
  • directly
  • document
  • embraced
  • expert
  • favor
  • flat
  • form
  • hold
  • low
  • plastic
  • postulate
  • reason
  • rule
  • sixpence
  • state
  • turn
  • verifiable

Again, notice that the words are actually pretty common - you've heard of most of these before. Many of them have multiple meanings, and it's important to be able to distinguish the meaning as used in the passage - not just the meaning you already know.

There are 8 of these questions in every SAT Reading section. This is more common than the Precision question type above, but you also need less vocab knowledge to answer these.


So...How Important Is Vocab to Your SAT Score?

At the end of the day, there are only about 2-4 questions that will feature really difficult vocabulary. This means that, at most, it can have a 20-30 point impact on your Reading/Writing score, out of 800. This isn't huge.

If you're scoring in the 400-600 range, which means you're missing 1/3 to 2/3 of all questions, vocabulary is definitely not the best way to improve your Reading score. Your time is much better spent learning Reading passage strategies and training your SAT grammar rules.

Only when you're breaking 600 in the Reading/Writing section, and really trying to get up to that perfect Reading/Writing score, does vocabulary start becoming a worthwhile point of improvement in your score.

You should be smart about analyzing your practice tests and seeing if you're missing easy sentence completion questions, or whether you're only missing hard ones because you don't know the vocab.


Then Why Do So Many People Obsess Over SAT Vocabulary?

It's true that many students think vocab is a great way to spend their study time, which might make you think it's a good idea. If what I just told you is true, why do so many students waste time studying vocab? Here are a few major reasons:


Test prep companies push vocab so they seem smarter.

Vocab studying is a great way for prep companies to seem like they're teaching you something. A test prep company might claim to have an exclusive set of words. Or they might boast about a comprehensive 2,000 word collection, which is 'definitely better than a 500 word collection!' This is more marketing speak than something that's actually useful to improve your score.

Most companies also still haven't adjusted fully to the 2016 SAT change. (As an example, some of the SAT prep books that are supposed to be for the "New SAT" actually still use Old SAT questions and material!).


It feels productive to the student.

Studying vocab makes you feel like you're making a lot of progress. After all, you're learning a lot of words you never knew before! Just like collecting stamps, it feels good to have a complete set of words committed to memory.

Unfortunately, this might not lead to an increase in your score. Imagine if you studied 1,000 French words. This wouldn't actually increase your SAT score! Think about studying most SAT vocab lists in the same way - most words you study have a very low chance of appearing on the SAT.


How to Study SAT Vocab the Right Way

As I mentioned above, if you're scoring above a 600 and aiming for a near-perfect score, it's appropriate for you to learn vocabulary. We're going to cover the most effective method to memorize SAT vocab. This is the very same technique I used to memorize enough vocab to score a 2400 on the current SAT, and a 1600 on the previous format of the SAT.

First, you're going to need a set of SAT words. We've prepared an exclusive bonus containing 200 free SAT flashcards. These are the 200 words that are most likely to appear on the SAT, so memorizing them is the best first start

Exclusive Free Bonus: Download a free guide containing 200 SAT vocabulary flashcards and instructions on how to print them. Use them with the strategy coming next to memorize them in the best way.

I call the way I study vocab the Waterfall Method. In essence, it forces you to focus on the words you don't know, while not wasting time on words you already know. It's based on a proven memorization technique called Spaced Repetition.


The Waterfall Method of SAT Vocab Studying

Start with a stack of 30-50 vocab words.


Review each card. If you know the definition right away, put it in a Know It pile. If you struggled to remember the definition, put it in a Struggled pile. You'll end up with two stacks of words:


Pick up the Struggled pile, and repeat the process. This time the Struggled pile will have fewer words than your starting deck. Put the words you know this time around into a second Know It pile, and the words you're struggling with again in a new Struggled pile. Now you have three stacks:


Keep repeating this process until you end up with just 1-5 words in the last Struggled pile.


I call this the Waterfall Method because we essentially have a cascading waterfall, where words that are really hard for you keep tumbling into further and further piles.

Theoretically, at this point you know nearly all the words in the entire set. Now we're going to go back up the waterfall. Combine the last Struggled pile with the last Know It pile. This will become your Working pile:


Now, review all the words in this pile. If you forget any of the words in this pile, go through all of them again. Yep - this is harsh, but it's the only way you're going to memorize all these words. You'll need to be strict about making sure you learn all of them.

If you remembered ALL the words in this pile, then combine this pile with the next highest pile. 


At the very end, you'll end up with the starting stack. And you'll know every single word!



Why Does This Work?

The reason this method is so effective is that you'll review the hardest words for you over 10 times more than easy words.

Most students just go through vocab lists from front to back. They might already know half the words, but they spend equal time on words they know compared to words they don't know and really need to learn.

Now that you've read this, you'll be smarter - you'll concentrate way more on the hardest words.


Where Should I Get More Words?

If you've memorized our entire set of 200 free SAT vocab words, and you still have spare time to study, here are a few good sources of SAT words.

Direct Hits: Toughest Vocabulary of the SAT

This book contains harder vocab words than our set, and memorizing them will give you an even bigger boost. Make flashcards for the words you don't know, and use the Waterfall Method to memorize them.


What's Next?

If you liked this method of studying vocab and want to make your SAT prep effective, check out our industry-leading SAT prep program. Unlike other programs, we believe that your prep program should cater to your strengths and weaknesses. We use advanced education techniques to customize your prep so that you're always learning the most effective subjects to increase your score.

We have a 160+ point money back guarantee: if you finish our course and don't improve by 160 points, you get all your money back, no questions asked.

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.

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