Understanding SAT Vocab: A Last Minute Guide

One of the trickiest things college prep students have to cope with is the SAT vocab section. Although the SAT will be changing next year, students taking the test in 2015 have to face this infamous section. They are called SAT words for a reason, because many students will be seeing these terms for the very first time when they start studying for the SAT, and many of the words will never be used again.  Students who took the SAT in October and who are planning to retake it later this year stand to gain a lot of points if they can figure out how to decode the illusive vocabulary questions.


1. 1,000 words is unrealistic

Students who attempt to memorize over 1,000 words in hopes of getting a perfect score on the vocab section will probably overwhelm themselves into a panic attack. It’s simply impossible to learn this many words in a short amount of time. However, students can investigate the most commonly used words as well as the most difficult words to help them participate in targeted study. It’s a good idea to set a reasonable goal that each student can achieve depending on their personal study habits and time commitment. For some students this may include learning 50 words while for others it will mean learning 200 (READ: “5 Homework Help Online Tools”).

2. Look for commonly confused words

Students are encouraged to look at commonly confused words that tend to trip up the majority of test takers. For example, think about the words “adverse” and “averse”.  Both of these terms elicit a negative connotation. However, “adverse” indicates that a harmful effect will take place while “averse” means that somebody has a strong dislike for something. It’s very easy to get words with similar meanings confused; however the SAT is pretty good at putting trap answers throughout the exam to lead students towards the wrong choices. Learning about commonly confused words can help students avoid choosing the so-called trick or trap answer.

3. Is the term positive or negative?

Another thing students should think about is whether a term is positive or negative in connotation. This can help set the tone for the particular question and leads students towards the correct answer, or at least helps them eliminate wrong answer choices. For instance, the term “reprehensible” has a clear negative connotation (meaning that somebody’s behavior is shameful) while the term “accolade” has a clear positive connotation (meaning a tribute or type of praise). This can help a student determine the general tone behind the question. Although strongly negative and strongly positive words are relatively obvious, some words are right in the middle. “Laconic” simply means to use few words and “enshroud” means to cover. Neutral words can be a little bit harder to figure out, but as always practice makes (near) perfect.

4. Look at the vocab words in the question itself

Students are also encouraged to look at the vocab words found within the question. Often times these provide a huge clue to the right answer choice. In some cases the answer choice is a synonym to a word in the question and other times the answer choice might be an antonym. It’s a good idea for students to pay close attention to all the vocab terms, whether it’s one of the answer choices or part of the question. As a side note, if students haven’t yet learned about synonyms and antonyms, now would be a good time (READ: “Online Research: What’s Legit”).

5. Fall back on good old test prep techniques

In the event that a student simply can’t choose the right answer because they have no idea what the answer choices mean, they can fall back on traditional test prep strategies. Students should remember that, on the current SAT, they are still penalized for choosing the wrong answer. If they have absolutely no idea, it may be time to skip the question and move on. On the other hand, if students can eliminate at least two answer choices with confidence, they are better off going with their gut and giving it their best shot.

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