Frequently, I hear students starting to study for the SAT ask, “Do you need to know vocabfor the SAT?” or “Is there a vocab section on the SAT?” While there is no SAT vocab section, certain types of questions in the Reading and Writing sections of the SAT do test vocabulary skills. So, part of your SAT prep will need to be learning common SAT vocabulary words and practicing using them properly.
In this article, we’ll discuss the types of vocabulary questions you’ll see on the SAT in both the Reading portion and the Writing and Language portion. I’ll also give you some tips on how to learn vocab for SAT questions.
Here are the topics we’ll cover:
- The SAT Reading and Writing Portion
- Vocabulary Questions on the SAT
- How to Study SAT Vocabulary
- In Conclusion
To start, let’s review the nuts and bolts of Evidence-Based Reading and Writing on the SAT.
The SAT Reading and Writing Portion
The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) portion of the SAT is made up of 2 sections: the Reading section and the Writing and Language Section. Together, these sections make up a little more than half of your test. The Reading and Writing portions are the first 2 sections of the test, totaling 100 minutes, and the Math sections (calculator and no calculator) are the last 2 sections of the test, totaling 80 minutes.
The Reading and Writing portions are the first 2 sections of the SAT and are 100 minutes in total.
Let’s take a closer look at the format of each section.
The SAT Reading Test will always be section 1 of your exam. This section contains 52 multiple-choice questions, which you have 65 minutes to answer. The questions are associated with reading passages that are excerpted from published works. You’ll see a total of 6 passages in the section, including 2 passages that are “paired” with each other (i.e., associated with some questions that ask about both passages).
Single passages are about 75-100 lines long, while paired passages are around 40-50 lines each (passage lines are numbered). In total, each passage or passage pair is about 500–750 words. Furthermore, each passage or passage pair has 10-11 questions associated with it. These questions test your understanding of the passage, including the main point and style of the passage, how the passage is structured and the purpose of different parts of the passage, what various statements and details in the passage mean or indicate, and more. Additionally, some passages may have charts, tables, or graphs associated with them that some questions will ask you to interpret.
The content of SAT reading passages spans the range of content you might read in one of your high school classes, including:
- classic or contemporary works of U.S. or world literature
- a U.S. founding document or political/social text of global importance (speech, essay, etc.)
- social science topics such as economics, psychology, political science, or sociology.
- science topics such as Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics.
There are 4 single passages and 1 passage pair in the Reading section. Each passage or paired set has 10-11 questions associated with it.
Writing and Language Section
The SAT Writing and Language Test will always be section 2 of your exam. This section contains 44 multiple-choice questions, which you have 35 minutes to answer. You’ll see 4 passages in this section that are 400-450 words each and are associated with 11 questions each. Some of these questions will be focused on rules of English grammar and usage. Others will be focused on the clear and logical expression of ideas. In either case, your job will be to select answer choices that “correct” various indicated parts of the passage (or keep them as is).
Passages in the Writing section are all nonfiction and cover a variety of topics related to:
- the humanities
- social studies
At least 1 of the passages you see will be in a narrative (storylike) style. The other passages will be either argumentative or informational in style. As in the Reading section, some passages will contain tables, charts, or graphs that some questions will ask you to interpret.
There are 4 passages in the Writing section, each with 11 questions associated with it.
Now that we have a general sense of the structure and content in the EBRW sections, let’s talk about where vocabulary questions come into play.
Vocabulary Questions on the SAT
Let’s start with the good news: You do not need to know all sorts of super-difficult, unusual, obscure, or even particularly advanced vocab words for the SAT. In fact, SAT questions that test vocabulary knowledge tend to feature pretty common and widely known words that you are likely to come across in your reading for high school classwork or leisure.
Now, I’m not saying that SAT vocabulary questions don’t find ways to be tricky or tough, or that you’re guaranteed to recognize every word you see in an SAT vocabulary question. What I am saying is that you won’t have to spend day after day learning a bunch of vocab words you’ve never seen or heard before in order to prepare for the SAT.
Furthermore, remember that all of the vocab words tested on the SAT will appear in the context of a passage. So, you will be able to look to the passage for context clues to discern the meaning of the word. In fact, understanding how a word relates to the context in which it appears will be your primary task in SAT vocabulary questions. SAT questions that test vocab skills are really testing you on two things: your ability to understand the meaning of a word in context and/or your ability to understand whether a word is appropriate in a particular context.
So, let’s discuss exactly how these two skills may be tested in SAT questions.
Words in Context Questions
Words in Context questions (WIC) are the most recognizable way that the SAT tests vocabulary. These questions appear in both the Reading and Writing sections of the test, though they are a little different from one section to the next. So, let’s review how they appear in each section.
In the Reading section, a WIC will ask you what a particular word in a passage “most nearly means” in the context in which it appears. Each answer choice will present a different possible meaning of the word, and you will have to select the appropriate meaning. Again, the word probably won’t be a particularly difficult or uncommon one. However, it will be a word that could be interpreted in different ways depending on how it’s used. So, your job will be to determine how the word is being used in the particular sentence in which it appears.
In the Reading section, Words in Context questions ask you what a particular word in a passage “most nearly means” in the context in which it appears.
Let’s consider an example of what a Reading WIC might look like.
Example Question 1
The group’s songs were catchy, and its shows had an energy that was at the same time unique and powerful. As a result, it was soon drawing large crowds.
As it is used in line 2, “drawing” most nearly means
Our first step in answering this Words in Context question is to read the entire sentence in which the indicated word, “drawing,” appears. In doing so, we see that “drawing” must be something a group could do to crowds. So, we can immediately eliminate choice (C), since “concluding large crowds” is nonsensical.
If we were still unsure which meaning of “drawing” is correct, we could read the preceding sentence and thus see that the “drawing” the group was doing was the result of the fact that its “songs were catchy, and its shows had an energy that was at the same time unique and powerful.”
Thus, the only remaining choice that makes sense is (D), attracting. It does not make sense that the group would be “sketching” or “extracting” (removing) large crowds as a result of having catchy songs. Notice that those two incorrect answers are alternate meanings of “drawing” but not meanings that make sense in this context.
Now, let’s discuss the Writing and Language section.
Whereas Reading WICs essentially ask you, “What does this word mean in this context?,” Writing WICs basically ask, “Which word is appropriate in this context?” So, instead of presenting possible definitions of a specified word, answer choices in Writing WICs present alternate words that you can choose to replace the current word in the passage with, if the current word doesn’t make sense in that context. So, your job will be to determine what word should be used in a particular sentence in order to produce a clear and logical sentence meaning.
In the Writing section, Words in Context questions ask you to determine which word is appropriate to use in a particular context.
Let’s consider an example of what a Writing WIC might look like.
Example Question 2
Having seen her peers achieve great things, she finalized that she could also.
- NO CHANGE
- ended up
Notice that the answer choices in the example above could all, in a vacuum, convey similar or closely related meanings. However, in the particular sentence in which the underlined word appears, only choice (C) concluded makes sense, because only “concluded” could possibly mean “arrived at an opinion by reasoning,” which is the meaning that is logical in this context.
Even though the other choices have meanings that in some contexts are very similar to or even the same as “concluded,” none of their meanings are logical in the given context.
Now, let’s discuss another, less obvious way the SAT tests vocabulary knowledge: commonly confused words.
Commonly Confused Words
In the Writing section of the SAT, you are likely to come across some questions in which the answer choices contain commonly confused words. Commonly confused words are words that look and sound very similar to each other, and in some cases may even convey similar meanings — the words that people can easily mix up. For instance, than/then, their/they’re/there, its/it’s, affect/effect, and advice/advise are all examples of commonly confused words. Notice that these words may test our knowledge of grammar, meaning, or usage — or any combination of those.
The thing about commonly confused words on the SAT is that they are sprinkled into answer choices that contain other elements. In other words, unlike Words in Context questions, which test us just on our understanding of a word’s meaning in a particular context, commonly confused words may appear in questions that also require us to evaluate sentence structure, punctuation use, and so on.
So, whereas we’ll immediately be able to recognize when we come to a WIC, the fact that we’ve come to a question featuring commonly confused words won’t always be immediately obvious, in part because the question often tests other concepts as well. Thus, unless we train ourselves to recognize when commonly confused words appear in answer choices, we won’t necessarily be on the lookout for these errors in usage.
In the Writing section, you are likely to see some questions that feature answer choices containing commonly confused words.
Let’s consider an example of what a Writing question featuring commonly confused words might look like.
Example Question 3
By 1940, Hattie McDaniel had succeeded in becoming arguably the most famous African American woman on the big screen, despite the omission of her name from the credits of |1| more then half of the films in which she appeared.
- NO CHANGE
- more, then half
- more than half
- more than half,
If we are focused on the comma usage in the question above (a common concept tested on the SAT), we may not even notice that some choices incorrectly use the word “then,” instead of “than,” to denote the quantity “more than half.” In fact, if we know that a comma is not necessary in this context, we might even think choice (A) is correct.
If, on the other hand, we recognize that “then” and “than” are commonly confused, we can quickly cut our answer choices down by half, eliminating choices (A) and (B), which both incorrectly use “then.” With only two choices to choose from, we can then focus on the punctuation issue and see that choice (C) is grammatically correct:
By 1940, Hattie McDaniel had succeeded in becoming arguably the most famous African American woman on the big screen, despite the omission of her name from the credits of more than half of the films in which she appeared.
Now that we know the different ways your vocab knowledge can be tested on the SAT, let’s discuss some SAT vocabulary study strategies.
How to Study SAT Vocabulary
The following are the 2 most important tips I could possibly give you for studying SAT vocab words.
Tip #1: Tests Don’t Teach
Most of the words tested in Words in Context questions are fairly common words that you’re probably quite familiar with already. Thus, the main way that you’ll study for these types of vocabulary questions is by learning about them and completing them. In other words, doing numerous realistic SAT practice questions will be a cornerstone of your vocabulary study for both the Reading and Writing sections.
You cannot rely on official SAT practice tests alone to get the type of practice you’ll need to really hone your vocabulary skills. Let’s look at the reasons why.
Reason #1: There Are Not That Many Official Practice Tests
There are only 8 official practice tests available from the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT. Eight tests may sound like a lot, but at the end of the day, with only a handful of vocabulary questions on each practice test, you won’t get much practice solving these questions if you just rely on tests.
TTP PRO TIP:
The 8 official SAT practice tests available do not provide enough practice of vocabulary questions for the typical test-taker because each test has only a handful of vocab questions.
Reason #2: Practice Tests Don’t Allow For Focused Practice
In SAT practice tests, vocabulary questions are mixed in with all the other question types in the Reading and Writing sections. Tackling a realistic mix of questions is great practice when you’re in the later stages of your test prep, because such practice serves as a “test run” for exam day.
However, practice tests are not an effective way to master vocabulary questions (or any question type) or build your vocabulary skills. In order to build those skills, you need to devote study time specifically to vocabulary questions, without simultaneously trying to tackle other question types.
In other words, tests don’t teach! Practice tests are a way to assess your current level of skill, identify topics that need further study, and work on other aspects of your game-day strategy, such as your pacing, focus, and ability to stay calm. Practice tests can’t take the place of dedicated study using lessons and practice questions that are focused specifically on vocabulary.
To get the kind of focused vocabulary practice you need, I recommend studying with an SAT course that has lessons dedicated to the types of vocabulary questions you’ll see on the test and provides you with ample opportunities for realistic practice with those question types. For instance, the Target Test Prep SAT Course features detailed lessons on both Reading and Writing WICs and commonly confused words, along with realistic practice questions after each lesson to reinforce what you’ve just learned, practice tests after each chapter in the course, and the ability to create custom practice tests for yourself.
TTP PRO TIP:
Tackling a mix of questions like you’ll see on practice tests is great in the later stages of your prep, but that type of unfocused practice is not effective for building your vocabulary skills.
Tip #2: Flashcards Are Your Friend
As with WICs, completing many realistic practice questions is an important part of training yourself to recognize and evaluate commonly confused words. However, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you be able to recognize it?
In other words, to prepare yourself for SAT questions that test your knowledge of commonly confused words, you’re going to want to find a reputable commonly confused words list, so you can familiarize yourself with the words that might appear on the test. For instance, in the Target Test Prep SAT Course, students can view and download a comprehensive list of commonly confused words, complete with easy-to-understand definitions and helpful notes on usage.
Of course, the real reason to find a large, reputable commonly confused words list is so you can make flashcards based on it. In fact, I recommend to all of my SAT students that they make flashcards — digital or handwritten — for any SAT vocab words they come across that they don’t know. Remember, although WICs don’t use particularly unusual or uncommon words, you may still come across some questions using words you don’t know, or don’t know well.
So, you can create flashcards to study words from your commonly confused words list as well as other vocab words you come across in your SAT studies, including words that you don’t recognize in reading passages.
Let’s discuss a couple of reasons why flashcards are such a great tool for learning vocab words.
TTP PRO TIP:
Make either digital or handwritten flashcards to study both commonly confused words and other SAT vocab words you come across in passages and questions.
Reason #1: Flashcards Make Memorizing Words Easier
Flashcards are great memorization tools because they isolate each word and its definition, so you can really focus on what you’re learning and form an image of it in your mind.
Additionally, you can shuffle your flashcards from time to time to give your brain an added challenge and ensure that you’re truly memorizing the words you study. Shuffling is also a great idea if you’re quizzing yourself on previously learned words.
TTP PRO TIP:
Shuffle your flashcards from time to time to give your brain an added challenge and ensure that you’re truly mastering the words you study.
Reason #2: Flashcards Allow You to Study on the Go
Flashcards are an extremely convenient way to study vocab words. Since they’re highly portable, you can use them pretty much anytime, anywhere, and get in a “quick hit” study session.
For example, if you take a bus or train to and from school, use your commute to study some new words with your flashcards. Waiting in line at the movies? Whip out your flashcards and give yourself a 2-minute quiz on the words you’ve learned that week. Or hand your flashcards to a friend and have her quiz you.
Flashcards make it super easy to study SAT vocab words without having to be at your desk or in front of a computer. Trust me, 5 minutes here and 5 minutes there add up to a significant amount of extra study time!
TTP PRO TIP:
Ask family and friends to quiz you on SAT vocab words using your flashcards.
Remember the following key points when studying vocabulary questions for the SAT:
- The SAT tests vocab skills through Words in Context questions in both the Reading and Writing sections and through the use of commonly confused words.
- Practice tests can’t teach you how to master vocabulary questions or build your vocab knowledge. They are tools for the later stages of your test prep.
- Focused practice on one question type at a time is an important part of learning to master each vocabulary question type.
- Vocabulary flashcards make memorizing words easier and allow you to study and quiz yourself on the go and in short, productive bursts.