New SAT Vocabulary: Words Still Matter

Lexicon   The College Board recently released questions for the upcoming test change in spring of 2016. Today I’m going to focus on the changes to SAT reading, particularly the issue of SAT vocabulary. College Board announced that the new test will focus on “high utility” words. The idea is that students will no longer need to study vocabulary. I’ll show you examples of current questions as well as a sample of the newly redesigned test. The new test changes won’t impact current juniors, but younger students and their families will want to pay attention to how the test is changing. There are two significant issues that have been misrepresented by The College Board and major media sources.

1. The current SAT does NOT test obscure and arcane vocabulary.

Stories make it sound like students need to memorize the dictionary in order to succeed on the current test. This simply is not true. Yes, when students take my SAT prep class, I assign vocabulary words and ask students to make flashcards. Why? The current test makes knowledge of vocabulary count for 50% of a student’s score on the reading portion. Vocabulary is key to success in this section. Why flashcards? Why study word lists? Not because the words are so unusual, but because these are college-bound words that many high school students don’t know. The words aren’t the issue. The issue is that most students haven’t yet acquired a college-bound vocabulary yet. They need some extra work. They need to study. What are the words I currently assign? Here are some of the words in my current vocabulary program:
  • candor
  • diligent
  • ambivalence
  • laconic
  • acute
  • belittle
  • vacillate
  • expedient
  • gregarious
  • pejorative
(I’m including definitions at the end of this article if you care to test your knowledge!)

2. The new SAT vocabulary still requires knowledge of college-bound words.

No matter what College Board says in press conferences, vocabulary is not going away. College-bound words have not been eliminated from the test. They are just hidden better. Instead of sentence completion questions, which blatantly test a student’s word knowledge, the new SAT will test vocabulary in the context of reading passages. In other words, College Board is dressing questions up in a new suit and telling you the exam is new, improved, and more “real world”. Let’s see for ourselves. Current SAT sentence completion from today’s online question of the day: SAT vocabulary sentence completion.png You can see the need for a college-bound vocabulary. Students who know the words will get the question right. (The answer to this one is C. This is a medium difficulty question.) So here’s the new “vocab free” redesigned test: new sat vocabulary reading This is considered a medium level question. In other words, this is neither easy nor hard according to College Board. (The answer is A. You can read the entire passage here: Yes, this is more about comprehension. Yes, students are given more context clues to decode unfamiliar words. Yes, I agree that this type of exercise is more “real world” than the previous sentence completion question. But is this free of unfamiliar vocabulary? No. In fact, most high school students will find at least a few challenging words in the passage and that doesn’t begin to address the complexities of concepts, purpose of the selection, or style and tone of the author. Is this a nicer and easier test? No. In order to be successful on SAT reading, current or redesigned, students will still need to read, understand, and interpret on a college-bound level. Here are some of the words I saw in the redesigned reading questions:
  • alleviate
  • varied
  • garner
  • ambivalence
  • evoked
  • vivacious
  • encroachment
  • empirically
  • employed (used as a verb and not related to one’s job)
  • acuteness
The vocabulary in the new test isn’t that much different from what we’ve seen on the SAT for the past 10 years since the last test overhaul.

SAT vocabulary is not going away.

Current freshman and sophomores shouldn’t discard their vocabulary lessons and celebrate. The new SAT vocabulary will be different, but not easier than the current test. Personally, I’m glad. I hate to hear students refer to “SAT words” because it implies advanced language is limited to a single exam. Precise word choice is a sign of thinking people—of educated minds. There are no “SAT words.” There are college-bound and college-level words- the language of an educated person. These are the same words students will see in textbooks, hear from professors in lecture, and hopefully employ themselves one day. So unless you want to be one of those people, you know, the ones who just know the basics and are left to wonder at the big words used by smart people, keep vocabulary on your study list.   If your student isn’t getting regular vocabulary assignments from school, I offer a weekly vocabulary building program for $10 per month. The words will help students prepare for college and the SAT / ACT. For more information and to sign up click here.


Did you test your vocabulary knowledge? Here are the answers:
  • candor – openness, honesty, truthfulness
  • diligent – hard working
  • ambivalence – conflicted feelings, vacillation, uncertainty
  • laconic – using few words sometime to the point of seeming rude
  • acute – sharp, shrewd
  • belittle – disparage, to talk down to
  • vacillate – waver, go back and forth on something
  • expedient – practical, of immediate benefit
  • gregarious – extroverted, sociable, talkative
  • pejorative – judgmental, disapproving
  • alleviate – to relieve or make less severe
  • varied – diverse, assorted
  • garner – to gather or acquire
  • ambivalence (same as it was on the first list)
  • evoked – aroused, brought out
  • vivacious – vibrant, lively, energetic
  • encroachment – intrusion, violation
  • empirically – proven or verified by observation or experiments
  • employed – to make us of or apply

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