SAT Tip: Tricky Vocabulary Questions

Photograph by Digital Vision/Getty Images

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

It happens all too often in the critical reading section of the SAT. A student gets to a vocabulary-in-context question: In line 18, what does the word want mean?

And the student immediately thinks, “Hey, I know this word! A ‘want’ is a noun describing something we desire to possess or buy, such as an iPhone or a ticket to see Lady Gaga in concert.”

Scanning the answer choices, the student sees the following options:

A. desire

B. hegemonize

C. lack

D. engender

E. cue

Our student chooses (A) quickly and moves on to the next question, only to find out later that (A) was incorrect. But how can this be? It seems like such an easy question!

On SAT reading comprehension passages, questions that ask about the meaning of specific words and phrases are called “vocabulary in context” questions. They are not called “vocabulary definition” questions, because the question is not asking you for the most common dictionary definition of the word. Instead, it’s asking only for how the word is used in the context of the passage.

English words often have many meanings, common and esoteric. A commonly used word often takes on a secondary definition within SAT passages. Do not assume that the common meaning is the correct answer; there may be several meanings you do not know. Go back to the passage and see how the word is being used in context. Here the word “want” comes from Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare:


A thousand times the worse to want thy light.
Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

Is Romeo saying it would be a thousand times worse to desire Juliet’s light? We know he loves Juliet, so it doesn’t make sense that he would say to desire her is “worse.” So what other logical meaning might there be? It’s most reasonable that he is saying it would be worse to lose or be separated from Juliet’s light, so want, in this context must mean something like “lose” or “not have.”

Armed with that knowledge, we know that the correct answer here is (C). A secondary definition for “to want” is “to lack.” For a different passage, (A) might have been correct. The takeaway: On  SAT reading comprehension passages, dictionaries don’t define, context does.

Plan on taking the SAT soon? We run a free online SAT prep seminar every few weeks.