No Vocab on the SAT? Not Quite!


It’s already been a little more than a year since College Board debuted its redesigned SAT, but there are some fundamentals that students still miss about the new format of the exam. One of the things that comes up frequently from students is that they don’t need to learn vocabulary anymore because there are no sentence completion problems. They are correct to note that there are no more sentence completion problems, but one of the key areas of the redesigned SAT is “Vocabulary-in-Context.”

Indeed, “Vocabulary-in-Context” is something that appears in the Critical Reading and Writing sections, and while the questions aren’t always asking about high-level vocabulary, each section is interested in students knowing how to decode words in context. And still, the high-level words do appear in these questions and also in the texts themselves, so what may seem like a test that has deemphasized how much you should know about advanced vocabulary, that isn’t quite true.

Of the two sections, challenging vocabulary is more present in the Critical Reading. There are a few scenarios in which you can expect that knowing the precise definition of a high-level word will come in handy:

SCENARIO #1: The text itself uses a vocab word and there is a detail question about that particular part of the text. Usually the detail question’s correct answer will have some basis on the meaning of the vocab.

Ex: (from a literature passage, an except of The Picture of Dorian Gray)

It can be inferred that Dorian’s immediate reaction to Lord Henry’s statement in lines 5-7 was one of

A) indifference.

B) disdain.

C) excitement.

D) disappointment.

Of course, you can’t simply look at lines 5-7, because we need to see the reaction to what was stated in those lines, so here is the full context, using lines 5-13:

‘My dear fellow, I congratulate you most warmly,’ Lord Henry said. ‘It is the finest portrait of modern times.’

‘Is it really finished?’ Dorian Gray murmured, stepping down from the platform.

‘Quite finished,’ said the painter.

Dorian made no answer, but passed listlessly in front of his picture and turned towards it.

There are two words that provide enough context to the get the correct answer, which is “A,” or Dorian reacted to Lord Henry’s statement with “indifference.” We know that Dorian responded to Lord Henry by “mumur[ing],” which means he spoke in a low or indistinct way; in other words, he didn’t really carefully choose his words for a response, so he probably didn’t care.

BUT, if that wasn’t enough of a clue, the passage also says that he “passed listlessly in front of his picture.” While “murmured” is probably not advanced vocabulary, “listlessly” definitely is, and knowing the meaning of this high-level word is crucial for justifying the correct answer. To do something “listlessly” means to do so with little energy or enthusiasm; hence, we are “indifferent” because we are showing that we don’t really care that much about the what Lord Henry is saying and about the painting itself.

So, sure, the question doesn’t ask, “What does the word ‘listlessly’ mean in lines 11-12?” It does, however, require you to know advanced vocabulary to get the question correct.

SCENARIO #2: The text does not use a vocabulary word but the answers in a question include vocabulary. If you don’t know what a high-level word means in the answer, you most likely get it wrong because you are uncertain about the whole meaning.

Ex: (from a history passage in which Thoreau speaks about the importance of simplicity, among other things)

In the final sentence of Passage 1, Thoreau repeats the words “solitude,” “poverty,” and “weakness” in order to highlight

A) the transformative power of austerity.

B) the desperation found in solitude.

C) the ironies of modern life. D) the simplicity of language.

Here is the final sentence, which should provide enough context to get the correct answer:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: In proportion as one simplifies life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.

The language in the text itself should be fairly straightforward; essentially, the more you simplify your life, the more things will appear less complex (obviously), to the point that what you traditionally consider, say, “solitude” will not be the case anymore. At the very least, we can recognize that simplifying life leads to changes in how we perceive the word.

The key operating word in my previous sentence is “changes.” We are looking for how simplicity changes something. Okay, sounds pretty easy.

Now process of elimination may get you to the correct answer, which is “A,” or “the transformative power of austerity,” if you select based solely on the “changes” idea. However, if you are not quite convinced that the idea is enough, you can also use the advanced vocabulary in the answer to back you up. In other words, “austerity” is a higher-level vocabulary word that is a synonym of “simplicity.”

So Thoreau uses all the words stated in the question in the last sentence because he wants to emphasize the “transformative power of austerity.” The comprehension of the text is not necessarily hard, but being confident in your answer is made more challenging when high-level vocabulary is inserted into the correct answer.

Again, the test doesn’t ask you directly what “austerity” means, but it expects you to understand its meaning to make the right choice.

The verdict? You should not take vocabulary study lightly, even if there are fewer questions that directly ask you what a word means. There have been countless times when students look back at a question or a selection of text and realize that if they had only known the meaning of a certain term then they would have had a much easier time getting the correct answer.

There are numerous ways to learn new words--through reading, through writing, through consistent use--so I won’t go into all those methods. I’ll simply leave you with the idea that, yes, the SAT still cares about advanced vocabulary, even if it seems like it doesn’t.

Need help with your vocabulary, critical reading, writing, or grammar? B2A has you covered with our Summer Session classes and tutoring. Don’t let vocabulary be what holds you back from a great score! Learn the tricks on how to decode words in context and also get practice with building your vocabulary.

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