Be Very Wary of "SAT Vocabulary"

The word phlegmatic means “unemotional” or “apathetic.” It’s a good SAT vocab word. But so is sedulous (“diligent”). And eclectic (“varying widely”). And alacrity (“swiftness”).  And every other word you get when you Google “SAT vocab”. If you lived outside the space-time continuum, learning all these words that could show up on the SAT would be a good idea. But it’s not a good idea, because:

1) you do not live outside the space-time continuum.

It’s a misconception that you need a great vocabulary to do well on the SAT. The only “vocab questions” on the test are Sentence Completions—and there are only 19 of them, about 6 of which (the last 1-3 in each set) involve high-level vocab. Ergo, studying vocab is not the best way to increase your Critical Reading score.

But surely knowing words is more helpful than not knowing words! Surely, but there are thousands of “SAT vocab” words, so it’s highly unlikely that any particular word you study would actually show up on the test. And studying thousands of words would require an enormous amount of time that could be much better spent practicing critical reading, essay outlining, tricky math, etc.

Another reason not to go overboard with vocab is that you can often get the right answer to a Sentence Completion without knowing all the words. For example:

The mayor’s speech was full of _____ ideas, ranging from building a waterpark in the community center to guaranteeing free dental work to all citizens.

(A) soporific

(B) deleterious

(C) nostalgic

(D) grandiose

(E) bucolic

Instead of plugging each answer choice in and reading the sentence five more times, we can just anticipate our own word for the blank: a waterpark and free dental work sound like extraordinary ideas. Now all we have to do is eliminate answer choices that don’t at least come close to the meaning of extraordinary. Some of these words (soporific, deleterious, bucolic) might be unfamiliar. But that’s okay—leave them aside and focus on the words you do know. Does nostalgic (“hearkening back sadly to an earlier time”) go with extraordinary? Not really. So we cross off (C). Does grandiose (“impressive” or “pretentious”) go with extraordinary? They don’t mean exactly the same thing, but yes, they’re close enough. So we pick (D), which is right. And it doesn’t matter if we don’t know the other three words.

Another example:

Dale found the beauty of the sunset _____; he could think of no words to describe it.

(A) misconstrued

(B) ineffable

(C) lethargic

(D) spontaneous

(E) docile

You can probably eliminate (E) (docile means “tame”), (D) (while the sunset might be spontaneous, that has nothing to do with why Dale can’t think of any words to describe it), and (C) (lethargic means “lazy”). (A) and (B) might be tougher; if they’re equally unfamiliar, you can look at the mis prefix on (A), which always indicates something negative (e.g., misfire, mistake), so you can probably cross off (A). Which means the answer has to be (B), even if you have no idea what it means (ineffable means “indescribable”).

In sum, don’t make studying vocab a huge part of your SAT prep. Even if you had the time to study every single word that could possibly show up on the SAT, you’d probably only gain yourself a few extra points—and that’s assuming you remembered each and every word you studied. And if you don’t think that would be hard, what does phlegmatic mean?

Told you.

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