“But I was told not to study vocabulary because it is a waste of time.”
90% of Reddit users on r/SAT.
Words are the basis of language. If you don’t know what words mean, how can you understand the language? There needs to be a distinction made between how the pre-2015 SAT tested vocabulary and how the current SAT tests it. First you need a college level vocabulary in order to read and comprehend the passages. If you are unsure of even 5% of the words in a passage, it is unlikely that you can score highly on the SAT.
You need breadth, complexity, connotation, jargon and familiarity with antiquated English in order to have a solid footing on the SAT Reading section. Breadth in SAT vocabulary just means that you know multiple words for the same concept. For example, in addition to thin, you know slender, skinny, emaciated, willowy, slight, and several more synonyms.
You also must understand the complexity of words. Most words in English have multiple meanings and context plays a part in the intended meaning. You need to understand that bolt can mean to lock or to run away, and fast could mean to stop eating for a period of time, to go quickly, or to lock up. Sometimes in English, simple words have the most complexity of meaning.
Connotation is the implied or cultural meaning of a word. Connotations can be positive, negative, or neutral. They can be related to a specific circumstance or group. For example, if someone calls you smart, you would probably consider that a compliment, but what about shrewd? It means smart as well, but its connotation is a little more negative, and its usage in the past was related to intelligence used to trick others.
Pay attention to the circumstances the word is appearing in. In science passages, language tends to be neutral and definitions should be more literal whereas in literature and history passages, writers are more fluid with their definitions. So you should be more flexible in your interpretations.
While the SAT is not supposed to be a content test, there is a level of knowledge that is key to understanding the passages fully. If a passage is about the coelacanth, you might have to read a lot of the passage to gather the pieces of information to understand the passage is about an ancient fish that had been believed to be extinct until one was discovered in 1938. I ,on the other hand, am familiar with the coelacanth and know the story of its rediscovery. This means I find the passage much easier to follow because I can orient myself in the information. Knowing scientific jargon such as correlation versus causation, hypothesis, and placebo or political jargon such as constitution, parliament, and federalism will help you understand passages more quickly. Because the SAT is a timed test, this is important.
Just to be clear. The passages on the SAT are all written in Modern English. But the style of writing before 1900 tends to be more complex and uses vocabulary in unfamiliar ways. Understanding that some words were used in distinct ways in the past can help you understand the literature and history passages. For example the word “nice” in modern usage mean okay, so-so, not bad. It is kind of a nothing word with a slightly positive connotation, but tone can turn it into a negative. However in the 1800s “nice” meant something exact, perfect. A nice dress was perfectly made and fit someone exactly right. The tone is much more positive and admiring.
You can see that SAT Vocabulary is much more complex than merely memorizing long lists of words and definitions.
How do I improve my vocabulary?
Improving your SAT vocabulary will take time and effort. Sorry, if there were a trick or hack everyone would already know it. You need to expose yourself to words be reading College level texts and stories, listening to podcasts where the speakers use sophisticated language, and watch video (TV, Movies, Youtube) where the speakers are higher level words.
Note unfamiliar words or words that you know but are used in unfamiliar ways. Make an effort to learn any words you encounter on SAT prep materials that you are unfamiliar with. Use subtitles when watching video to increase familiarity and comprehension. Listen to the audiobook version while reading a novel.
You can start with my FREE daily reading practice articles found through the link below. Try one article with with its accompanying vocabulary list a day for a few weeks and see how much better your comprehension is.
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