SAT Tip: Building Your SAT Vocabulary

Photograph by Philipp Nemenz

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Vivian Kerr at Veritas Prep.

The SAT Critical Reading section contains a lot of vocabulary-specific sentence completion questions. Even if you don’t have a commodious vocabulary you can still get many of these onerous reading questions correct. When you encounter unknown words on SAT test day, the most important thing to do is not give up or panic. You can still get a question correct, even if you do not know the definition of a word.

Put the word in context. Often the word will “ring a bell,” but you won’t be able to recall the exact definition. Try to think of a context where you may have seen this word. At your parents’ work? In an advertisement? In school? Write down the context next to the word. Sometimes that will jog your memory. For example, you may not know what “elitist” means, but maybe you have heard the phrase on the news or in a political context. Calling someone elitist is usually not meant kindly, so the word must have a negative meaning.

Try to think of similar-looking words. This is helpful if you’ve been studying word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Break the word down into its basic parts. For example, you may not know what “incontrovertible” means, but it shares the same root as the word “controversy” and begins with the prefix “in-,” which means not, or opposite of. So we can surmise that incontrovertible means something like “not having controversy.”

Use Word Charge. Although some words are considered “neutral,” most words, especially adjectives and adverbs, have a positive or negative word charge. This means they “sound” like their definition. Let’s take a quick quiz. Write down whether you think the following words have positive or negative definitions based on how they sound.

1.    boorish

2.    noxious

3.    stalwart

4.    abstruse

5.    congenial

How did you do? You may have surprised yourself by getting 4 or 5 correct! (See answers below.) Even with hard words, trust your instincts. You know many more meanings than you realize.

Does it look like a word in a foreign language? Here is where your AP French and Spanish classes will really pay off. Take the word “lachrymose,” for example. It looks a lot like lágrima, which means “tear” in Spanish, so it must have something to do with being sad. In fact, a lachrymose person is someone who’s depressed or morose.

There is still time before your SAT to memorize word lists, make flashcards, and learn word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. But know that even on test day, you are likely to see several unknown words. Use these tips to help you eliminate the incorrect choices.

(Answers to quiz: 1. negative  2. negative  3. positive  4. negative  5. positive)

Vivian Kerr has been teaching and tutoring in the Los Angeles area since 2005. She graduated from the University of Southern California, studied abroad in London, and has worked for several test-prep giants tutoring, writing content, and blogging about all things SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT.

For more SAT advice from Veritas Prep, watch “SAT Tip: Powerful SAT Writing Strategy to Identify Parallelism”

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