For many, critical reading is the hardest section to improve on. While writing and math can be improved through rules and techniques, there’s not as many quick tips and tricks you can use for reading. I totally agree. But what most students don’t realize is just how important vocabulary is to their score. Yeah, yeah we all know we gotta memorize the top whatever vocabulary words. But how many of you take it seriously?
Forget the reading strategies, the question types, and the passage note-taking. None of that matters unless your vocab is solid. In this post, I’m going to break down why vocabulary is the single most important factor in your performance and how to learn the most frequent words as painlessly as possible.
The Best Possible Score Without Studying Vocabulary
If you’ve ever looked at the answer sheet to a released past exam, either in the Official Guide or in a test booklet, you should know that the College Board assigns a difficulty level to each question from 1 (easiest) to 5 (hardest).
The three reading sections will have a combined total of 19 sentence completion questions (the ones that directly test vocab). Of those 19, there are typically 6 to 9 level 4 and 5 questions (the ones that are really tough). Now let’s consider a best-case scenario. Let’s say that you deliberately leave those 6 to 9 tough vocab questions blank and you manage to get everything else right. What score would you end up with?
On the right is an official scale for a past exam. Although scales change from test to test, it’s a pretty typical one. If you left 6 to 9 blank, your raw score would drop from the maximum of 67 to a 58-61. Looking at the scale, your score would be somewhere between a 700-740. By not knowing just the toughest vocab, you’ve already lost 60-100 points. And that’s the best case scenario. Imagine if you were punished for answering them incorrectly or if you were to get other questions wrong.
It Gets Worse
If you’ve read any SAT passage, you’ve probably been frustrated by the seemingly incomprehensible gibberish that shows up, not only in the passages themselves but also in the questions. Take a look at this official SAT question:
The author’s tone in lines 26-28 (“Through some…circumstances”) could best be described as
Here’s the next one:
The author uses the phrase “equipped with a flock of sheep” (line 29) to
(A) satirize the conditions of rural life
(B) downplay the importance of artistic instruction
(C) evoke the pleasures of a bygone age
(D) jeer at Cimabue’s discovery
(E) mock conventional biographies of artists
And those aren’t tough questions. Students find them tough because of the vocabulary. So the truth is, by not studying vocabulary, you are probably capping your reading score at 650 and below. The good news is that memorizing vocabulary is not as painful as you think it is.
First, prioritize the top 400 words. Certain words show up much more frequently than others. Why 400? In my experience, it seems to be the magic number to maximize the improvement for the least amount of effort. My students have improved by as much as 200 points just by studying the top 400 vocabulary. Of course it’s always better to learn even more words, but the returns are smaller.
Second, follow this step-by-step tutorial in using Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard program that makes sure you review the words you forget instead of the ones you already know. The tutorial will also show you how to install the free SAT Panda Vocabulary Deck, which contains pre-made Anki flashcards for the top 400 words. Trust me. Anki will make memorizing things so ridiculously easy that you’ll wonder how you got through school without it.
Make it a Habit
Look up any word you don’t know and add it to the Anki deck. The best words to add are those that come from past exams that you’ve done.
If you’re on a Mac, the Oxford Dictionary app usually comes pre-installed and you just need to find it (try the Dashboard). Put the dictionary app in your dock for easy access.
If you’re on a PC, download a dictionary program for your desktop. Furthermore, use a browser like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, which allows you to add a small popup dictionary in your browser. The one I use is Google Dictionary for Google Chrome. The goal is to make learning new words as easy as possible. Nothing deters studying more than having to navigate to dictionary.com or actually looking it up in a physical copy (does anyone do that anymore?)
If you have a tip for learning new vocabulary or you just want to share your favorite SAT word, please post a comment below.