Studying SAT vocab is a confusing topic for most students. It's unclear how many words you should 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 2,000 SAT vocab 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 go over a reliable way to commit these words to memory.
First, it's important to understand what impact SAT vocab can have on your score. Test takers who ignore this tend to shoot way off course, wasting more time and lowering their scores.
Although vocabulary is much less important for doing well on the SAT now, this guide is still useful for you to learn how to study vocab effectively—for history class, for foreign languages, and for any time you'll need to use flashcards.
How Important Are SAT Vocab Words?
Vocabulary is a confusing subject on the SAT. On the old, pre-2016 format of the SAT, vocab was heavily tested on the Reading section, primarily through Sentence Completion questions.
On the even older version of the SAT, analogies were the bane of high school SAT life. When I took the SAT back in 2004, more than half your Reading section score depended on vocab. Memorizing SAT vocabulary was absolutely necessary to do well on the exam.
But with the current form of the SAT, there's far less emphasis on testing vocabulary. Sentence Completion questions have been totally removed, and all vocab is now about medium difficulty, so you won't be seeing any super obscure words anymore.
There are two types of SAT questions that deal with vocabulary and definitions of words: Precision and Words in Context.
SAT Vocabulary Question Type 1: Writing — Precision
This type of question appears on the SAT Writing section, and we call it Precision. Precision refers to the exact word used for the right connotation. Here's an example of such a question taken from an official SAT practice test:
This approach increases sales, but it also stands in austere contrast to a time when goods were produced to be durable.A) NO CHANGE
This is pretty tough—austere is not an easy word, but egregious and unmitigated might be even less familiar. When you get this type of question, you must know the definition of the words. This is because there aren't any other clues that allow you to figure out what the word means.
Here's are examples of other difficult words from official SAT practice tests:
There are two to three of these questions on every SAT. So while not a huge deal, they're still important if you're trying to get an 800 on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.
SAT Vocabulary Question Type 2: Reading — Words in Context
The other type of question is on the SAT Reading section and is called Interpreting Words and Phrases in Context. This asks you for the definition of a word as used in a reading passage.
Here's an example of an official SAT question:
As used in line 50, “bearing” most nearly means
Note that in these SAT questions, the words used are often pretty common and have multiple definitions. While knowing the definition beforehand can help, it's more important to choose the definition that best fits the definition used in the context of the passage.
Here are all the words of this question type in the SAT practice tests released by the College Board:
Again, notice that the words are fairly common—you've likely heard of most of these before. Many of them have multiple meanings, though, so it's vital to be able to distinguish the word's meaning as used in the passage from the typical meaning you already know.
There are about seven to eight of these questions on every SAT Reading section. This is more common than the Precision question type above, but you'll also usually need less vocab knowledge to answer these.
So ... How Important Is Vocab for Your SAT Score?
At the end of the day, there are only about two to four questions that feature really difficult vocabulary. This means that, at most, vocab questions can have a 20-30 point impact on your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score (out of 800). This really isn't that big.
If you're scoring in the 400-600 range (which means you're missing 1/3-2/3 of all EBRW questions), vocabulary is definitely not the best way to improve your score. Instead, it's much better to spend your time learning passage-reading strategies and key SAT grammar rules.
Only when you're breaking 600 on EBRW and really trying to get that perfect Reading/Writing score does studying vocabulary start to become a worthwhile endeavor.
Overall, you should be smart about analyzing your SAT practice tests and seeing if you're missing easy questions that test vocabulary, or whether you're only missing hard ones because you don't know the vocab.
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Why Do So Many People Obsess Over SAT Vocabulary?
It's true that many students think vocab is a great way to spend their SAT study time, which might make you think it's a good idea, too. But if what I just told you is true, why do so many test takers waste time studying vocab? Here are a couple of major reasons:
#1: Test-Prep Companies Push Vocab to Appear Smarter
Vocab studying is a great way for SAT companies to seem as if they're teaching you something. For example, a test-prep company might claim to have an exclusive set of words, or it might boast a comprehensive 2,000 word collection, which is "definitely better than a 500-word collection!" This is more marketing speak than it is something actually useful for improving your SAT score.
In addition, some test-prep companies still haven't fully adjusted to the 2016 SAT change. As an example, some of the SAT prep books that are supposed to target the "new SAT" still use old SAT questions and material!
#2: Studying Vocab Often Feels Productive
Studying vocab can make you feel as though you're making a lot of progress in your prep. After all, you're learning a lot of words you never knew before! Just like collecting stamps, it feels great to have a complete set of words committed to memory.
Unfortunately, this might not lead to an increase in your score. Imagine you memorized 1,000 French words; this wouldn't actually increase your SAT score, right? Well, studying most SAT vocab lists is the same—most words on these will have a very low chance of appearing on the SAT.
How to Study SAT Vocab the Right Way: The Waterfall Method
As I mentioned above, if you are scoring above 600 on EBRW and are also aiming for a near-perfect score, it's appropriate for you to study vocabulary. In this section, we're going to cover the most effective method for memorizing SAT vocab. This is the same technique I myself used to memorize enough vocab to score a perfect 2400 on the old SAT (and a perfect 1600 on the very old SAT).
First, you're going to need a set of SAT words. Luckily, we've prepared a list of 262 SAT vocab words most likely to appear on the SAT. All of these words come from official SAT practice tests and other high-quality SAT vocab lists, so memorizing these is an excellent place to 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 SAT vocab the Waterfall Method. This method essentially forces you to focus on words you don't know while preventing you from wasting time on words you already know. It's based on a proven memorization technique called Spaced Repetition.
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 word cards:
Pick up the Struggled pile and repeat the process. The Struggled pile will have fewer words than your Starting Stack does. Put the words you know this time around into a second Know It pile and the words you're still struggling with in a new Struggled pile.
You should now have three separate stacks of cards:
Keep repeating this process until you have just one to five words left in your last Struggled pile:
I call this method the Waterfall Method because we essentially have a cascading waterfall, in which words that are really hard for you keep tumbling into farther and farther piles.
Theoretically, at this point you should know nearly all the words in the entire set. Now, we're going to go back up the waterfall.
Combine your last Struggled pile with your last Know It pile. This will become your Working Pile:
Now, review all the words in this pile. If you forget any words, go through all of them again. Yep—this is harsh, but it's the only way you're going to memorize all the words. You'll need to be strict about making sure you learn each and every word.
Once you've remembered all the words, combine this pile with the next highest pile:
At the very end, you should end up back with a Starting Stack. And you'll know every single word!
Why Does the Waterfall Method Work So Well?
The reason that this method is so effective is that you'll review the hardest words for you more than 10 times more often than easy words.
Most students just go through vocab lists from front to back. They might already know half the list, but they spend equal time on words they know and words they don't know (but really, really need to learn).
Now that you've learned how to use the Waterfall Method, you'll be a smarter SAT studier and can concentrate far more on getting down the hardest vocabulary words for you.
Where Can I Find More SAT Vocabulary Words?
Looking for more SAT words or other vocab lists to study with? You've come to the right place. At PrepScholar, we've created tons of relevant guides for you. Here are some of our best resources for SAT vocabulary practice:
- ACT Vocabulary | Words You Must Know: Since the SAT's redesign in 2016, the vocab you need to know for it has become extremely similar to that you need to know for the ACT. This article introduces 15 high-frequency ACT/SAT vocab words.
- The Best ACT Vocabulary Lists on the Web: Once again, since the SAT is so similar to the ACT, it's a good idea to also look for (quality) ACT vocab lists. This guide goes over the very best online ACT/SAT vocab lists.
- The 200 SAT Words You Need to Know: Although this list actually targets the old version of the SAT (back when vocab words on the SAT were a lot harder and more obscure), it's a good resource to use if you've already exhausted the materials above and are aiming for a perfect SAT Reading/Writing score. As a bonus, you also get free printable flashcards.
- The Vocabulary You Need for SAT Reading Passages: It's important to make sure you know the meanings of common reading-related words such as "allusion" and "simile." This way, you won't get stuck on a question that asks you to identify the "tone" of a passage!
These are our best, most comprehensive articles on SAT vocab. But what about other resources? Below are our picks for the top additional resources you can use for SAT vocab prep:
- Official SAT practice tests and sample questions: Perhaps the best resources (aside from our own!) for SAT vocab practice are those made by the College Board itself. Look for words in official practice tests and questions, and make flashcards for the ones you don't know.
- Khan Academy: This free online SAT prep website offers tons of College Board-approved SAT Reading and Writing questions, which you can use to pinpoint new vocab words. You should also check out our guide on how to effectively use Khan Academy in your SAT prep.
- Your Dictionary — 100 Most Common SAT Words: Although this vocab list was written for the old version of the SAT, most of the words on it are still super relevant to the current SAT.
Finally, if you're interested in using pre-made vocab flashcards, I recommend browsing the SAT-labeled decks on Cram and Quizlet. In general, stick with decks that were made in 2016 or later; this lets you ensure that the words in them are relevant to the current SAT. (Note that it's OK to use older decks, just as long as you're aware that they're going to have much harder words than you probably need to know.)
For more tips, read our in-depth guide on how to find quality SAT vocab resources and use them effectively in your prep.
Vocab doesn't play a big part on the SAT, but it's still important to know if you're aiming for a high score. Learn how important vocab is on the SAT, and get info on how many vocab questions there are on the SAT and how to prepare for them.
Want more help studying SAT vocab? Check out our guide to learn the best resources you can use for quality SAT vocab practice.
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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. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.