4 Vocabulary Strategies for the Redesigned SAT

The new test requires more than just memorizing words and definitions.


Vocabulary questions on the new SAT will require students to select a portion of a passage that supports their answer, so understanding context is critical.

​By now, you are likely well aware that the SAT will change in 2016. These changes will not be cosmetic – the new exam prizes complex understanding rather than rote memorization.

At one time, teachers and tutors could reasonably recommend that a student study for the SAT by memorizing arcane vocabulary words. This is no longer a winning strategy. Instead, the redesigned SAT emphasizes the importance of words in context. Here are four prep strategies to help you prepare for this new challenge.

1. Strengthen your understanding of the questions: Consider the sample vocabulary question that appears on pages two and three of this informational bulletin. The question, which concerns a topic that will one day be relevant to test-takers, asks readers to choose the best definition for “intense” given the context of the passage.

All four options are valid substitutes for “intense,” but B is the correct answer.

Why is this example important? It demonstrates the redesigned SAT’s commitment to using words that students will often encounter in college classrooms, and it emphasizes the use of context clues over memorization. Given the shift in structure, it is crucial to use up-to-date study materials.

2. Update your vocabulary lists: Words like “intense” are tier two words – that is, they are words that are commonly used by mature speakers and writers. Tier three words, which the College Board previously drew from for the SAT, are those that have limited or narrow applications.

There is insufficient space in this blog post to provide you with a set of tier two words to review prior to your exam date, but a brief Internet search will uncover a number of terms that can guide your studies. Once you compile a list, create flashcards that include all possible meanings for each word.

Next, write sentences that use each definition appropriately. Keep your list handy as you write papers for your classes, and try to incorporate these words into your assignments.

Writing can help you set the words in your mind, which may make them easier to recall under stress. As an added bonus, you will also have an impressive arsenal of vocabulary words to deploy if you register for the optional SAT essay.

3. Read often: The redesigned SAT did not just change its vocabulary terms. It also changed the kinds of texts that they appear in.

The texts will include literary works, as well as historical and scientific documents, some from the 19th and 20th centuries. Unless your high school is uncommonly rigorous, or you are preparing for AP exams in American history or literature, you may have limited exposure to such writings.

The best way to prepare, then, is to simply increase your familiarity with these works. Choose a book from an earlier era, such as “The Great Gatsby,” and mark any words that are unfamiliar to you.

Better still, mark any words that look familiar, but that do not quite fit the context. Look these words up in a dictionary, and write down the sentence in which you encountered the word. You can then use that sentence when studying.

4. Practice identifying context: As you complete various practice problems, keep context in mind. The redesigned SAT will not just ask for definitions, it will also ask you to select a portion of a passage that supports your answer. In other words, it is not sufficient to determine the meaning of a word – you also have to be able to justify your answer.

One way to approach this difficult project is to write justifications for the correct answers to sample problems, as well as arguments against the other answers. In the question cited above, for example, you could note that “emotional” is not correct since the passage is dispassionately discussing trends in employment.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

Varsity Tutors is a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. The company’s end-to-end offerings also include mobile learning apps, online learning environments and other tutoring and test prep-focused technologies. Got a question? Email admissionsplaybook@usnews.com.


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