How Hard Is SAT Vocabulary, Really?

If you haven’t taken any practice SATs or done much in the way of prep, you might not realize what, exactly, you’re getting into. SAT vocab is totally nuts. There will be words on the test that you’ve never seen or heard. I mean it.

Oh, you read a lot? And you think you have a great vocabulary? Me too. But here’s the thing: there’s still a word or two on most SATs that I don’t know. And it’s not just me! That’s true of every other SAT teacher I know, too. There’s something wrong with that, right?

Just to be clear about what we’re talking about, take a look at a few of the toughest SAT words that I’ve taken from actual SATs. I don’t think SAT vocab repeats often enough that you’ll necessarily see any of these on the version of the test you take, but you might. Or you might see some other crazy word, like “impute.” Or “diaphanous.” And you’ll most likely see some of these frequently tested SAT words too.


English is a really, really big language

It’s not all that easy to measure how large languages are. Truth be told, it’s totally impossible, because languages aren’t clearly defined things. (Where does English begin and end? Scottish sounds like a whole other language to me.) That means that testing vocabulary is a daunting task. The SAT makers have to decide which words are fair game, and which are too rare, too old, or too localized to test. Is the word “contrariwise” too outdated to include? How do we decide?


The SAT focuses on academic words

For the most part, SAT vocabulary is academic vocabulary. To get a sense of what that means, try to imagine how a caricature of a Harvard professor might speak. I’m talking about the kind of guy who wears a sweater vest. For a complete picture, give him a hint of a British accent. If you didn’t put your napkin in your lap, he’d think you indecorous.

So as big as English is, the test makers have something to focus on. But here’s the problem—“academic” words are sometimes really, really rare words.


Most SAT vocab is reasonable

I don’t want to make it sound like the SAT has insane expectations; there are just a handful of words on each test that are as difficult as the ones I mentioned. And even if you don’t know those words, if you’ve got a sturdy enough foundation of word-roots, prefixes, and suffixes, you can usually do pretty well. It certainly helps to have a bit of strategy in your tool belt, too.



  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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2 Responses to How Hard Is SAT Vocabulary, Really?

  1. Gillian Dunn November 18, 2013 at 5:08 am #


    I am already doing SAT exam preparations and the worst part is that my english i.e the vocab is not so good. I can’t easily grasp words. Can you suggest any good book or any other study plan that will help me in this particular sphere. It would be a great help.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas January 8, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

      Hi Gillian!

      The best way to remember vocabulary words is by using mnemonics and seeing words again and again. Flashcards are great for repetition, especially our SAT vocab flashcard app. Reading difficult English texts is also hugely helpful. That’s the most effective way to really learn words and be able to use them (great for your essay!), but if you only have a short time to study, it’s a bit slow and might not be as immediately helpful as flashcards and mnemonics.

      And we do have some study schedules that can help keep you focused. They all include vocabulary, but remember that’s just part of the test!


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