The One Thing That Will Improve Your Reading Score the Most

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.

Vocabulary in the Passages

If you've ever looked at the reading section of a released past exam, you should know that tough words can show up in the passages.

Here's an excerpt from a tough passage on the March 2018 test:

Another prominent feature is the love of 'smart' dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or his observance of the golden rule, 'Do as you would be done by,'' but are considered with reference to their smartness.

I've underlined the tough words. There's at least 9 of them and this wasn't even the full paragraph! Reading this excerpt for yourself, you should hopefully realize that your ability to answer the questions will suffer if you don't know these words. Yes, sometimes you can infer what the meaning is from the context but be aware that the SAT is deliberately designed to mislead those who are guessing. You will always have a rocky performance if you constantly have to guess what the words mean.

Vocabulary in the Questions

Not only do high-level words show up in the passages but they also show up in the questions.

Here's one question from the January 2017 test:

Based on Passage 2, Lincoln would be most likely to agree with which claim about the controversy over slavery?

A) It can be ended only if Northern states act unilaterally to abolish slavery throughout the United States.
B) It would abate if attempts to introduce slavery to regions where it is not practiced were abandoned.
C) It has been exacerbated by the ambiguity of laws regulating the holding of slaves.
D) It is fueled in part by differences in religion and social values from state to state.

I've underlined some of the key words. Now here's the thing: these words can make the difference between an answer being right and it being wrong. An answer choice might sound right but just a single word can make it too extreme or too specific for the question. For example, the word "unilaterally" above, which means that something is done by only one group without the agreement of others, is too strong for (A) to be the right answer. In the context of the passage, which isn't necessary to show here, Lincoln wanted a united country, not one "divided against itself."

By the way, the question above wasn't even a tough one. Students find it tough because of the vocabulary. So the truth is, by not studying vocabulary, you are limiting your potential on the reading section. The good news is that memorizing vocabulary is not as painful as you think it is.

Here's How

First, prioritize the top 400 words. Certain words show up 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 you shouldn't overwhelm yourself at the start.

Second, follow this step-by-step tutorial for Anki, a free spaced-repetition flashcard program that forces you to review the words you forget instead of the ones you already know. The tutorial will also show you how to install the free College Panda SAT 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 (look for it in your Dashboard). Drag the dictionary app to your dock for easy access.

If you're on a PC, download a dictionary program for your desktop. You can also add a small popup dictionary to your browser as an extension. Google Chrome DictionaryThe 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 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.