SAT Articles

5 Ways to Learn SAT Vocabulary with (Apparently) Little Effort

My experience with helping students study for the SAT is that vocabulary tends to fall by the wayside. Students generally come to me needing verbal help because they’re worried about comprehension in the Critical Reading sections or because they think their grammar skills aren’t up to par. But consider this: there are three Critical Reading sections on every SAT exam, two of which begin with five or six questions that are specifically vocabulary-based (these are known as “sentence completion” questions), and one of which begins with eight. In addition, each of these Critical Reading sections contains at least 2-3 questions that require you understand the vocabulary involved: the College Board will either ask you about a word as it appears in context (“In line 34, the word “cloudy” most likely means: a) muddy b) overcast c) nebulous d) lackluster”), or it will present you with answer options that contain some demanding words (“The author of passage 1 would most likely assert that the position of the theorist in line 19 is: a) atypical b) perspicacious c) haughty d) unpretentious”).

In short, every SAT exam will contain somewhere in the range of 24-plus vocabulary questions. That’s a big chunk of the test. Here are my top five suggestions for studying vocabulary strategically (which of course does not mean “without effort,” as my title might seem to imply. It just might not feel like you’re exerting effort in the way it would if you were to sit down and memorize by rote). And it begins with the big one: START EARLY.

1. Make flashcards – and bring them everywhere. You’ll be surprised to find out how much “down time” you really have that can be filled with words. Break them out on the bus on your way to school. Or on your walk down the hall from one class to the next. Look at the word on the card on the top of the deck before you get into the shower in the morning and think about that word while you’re washing your hair. You get the drift. Even if you just put a few in your pocket before you leave for school and pull them out at intervals, you’ll be learning vocabulary much faster than the next guy or girl.

2. Get familiar with prefixes, suffixes, and roots. (See an extensive list from Wiki). Take a look at a list such as “The 1000 Most Common SAT Words” first, though, so to ensure you’re studying the ones that will most help you (I’ve pasted a link to the site below). Those of you who have studied Latin or Greek do, in many ways, have it easier, since so many of our English words have descended from those languages.

The quickest way to learn words is to learn them in groups – in other words, to be attentive to the prefixes, suffixes and roots that words share. For example, you don’t have to know that in Latin bellum is the nominative singular for the neuter in the second declension (though try throwing that one around at the next party you’re at); what it will be helpful to know is that it is Latin for “war,” and so any word that has that “bell” hanging out somewhere in it is going to have some sort of warlike connotation. Now that you know this, if you see a word like bellicose or belligerent on the SAT, you’ll know it has to do with war – both are in fact adjectives that have synonyms in “hostile” and “aggressive.”

3. Space it out. It might shock you to find out that one of the most consistent problems I find students have is waiting until the last minute to do… well, just about any work I assign them. Vocabulary doesn’t work that way: you can’t cram words. My general suggestion is to begin a few months before you know you’ll be taking the SAT. Decide you’re going to learn three to five new words a day. If your family is into it, decide you’ll use one new word during every meal. Tell your father how adept he is at flipping pancakes before breakfast. Tell your brother you have a proclivity toward not sharing your dessert with him after dinner. Thank your mother for packing you such a palatable lunch. Keep this up and you’ll know at least 90 new words by the end of the month.

4. Add SAT synonyms to the words on your flashcards. When you make a flashcard for timorous, put the words tremulous, trepidation, and diffident on it – or make sure those four cards, if you make them separately, are all near each other in your stack. Granted, timorous does not mean exactly the same thing as the other three words, but all four of them have to do with shyness or fear. This way if you encounter the word trepidation on the exam (or, on the other hand, the word intrepid, which you will know to be its opposite) and can’t remember exactly what it means, you’ll at least be able to remember that it was near a group of words that meant approximately timidity or fear – and approximation, at least as far as the SAT is concerned, is the important part.

5. Play word games with your friends. If you’re all about to take the SAT at the same time and have to learn these words individually, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be a communal (and thus inevitably more amusing) effort. If you can find three other friends who are in, split into teams of two and try to catch each other off-guard during lunch or between classes. Ask a member of the other team where he absconded to with the head cheerleader during last night’s party. If he doesn’t get the implication, that’s one point for you. If he answers that they went off to read esoteric theory and you don’t get why that’s so funny to the students of metaphysics who just passed you in the hall, that’s a point for him. And so on.

 “The 1000 Most Common SAT Words” from Scribd