While you may have read that the SAT doesn’t test vocabulary, this is only partly true. No, you won’t have to define “splendiferous” anymore, but you will need to know, as the test-maker the College Board puts it, “high-utility academic words and phrases.” What’s that mean? In short, these SAT words are words that are likely to crop up in college readings.
It’s important to note that not all vocabulary questions on the SAT test your knowledge of these high-utility words. In fact, questions that deal with vocabulary—also known as “Vocabulary in Context” questions—tend to be focused on how more common words with multiple meanings are used in specific contexts than on knowing one definition for particularly difficult words. Because there’s no guarantee of which words will appear on the SAT and knowing a single word typically doesn’t have a huge impact, that effort is better spent locking in your strategy for “Vocabulary in Context” questions (e.g. using context clues to figure out the answer) than memorizing a bunch of difficult words.
That being said, if you’re close to your target score, improving your vocabulary with high-utility words can be just what you need to put you over the edge. This post will look at how the SAT tests vocabulary in different sections before zooming in to look at some of the key vocabulary terms to know for test day, what they mean, and how to use them in context to build a strong vocabulary. Finally, you can test your knowledge with our SAT vocab words quiz and download the 100+ SAT Vocabulary Words to Study on the Go PDF for future reference.
- How Does the SAT Test Vocabulary?
- Top 104 Most Common SAT Words (+ Bonus Quiz!)
- Where to Find Additional SAT Word Lists
- Top Three Tips for Improving Your SAT Vocabulary
How Does the SAT Test Vocabulary?
You’ll see “Vocabulary in Context” questions in two sections: Reading and Writing. Basically, the two sections that contribute to your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score. But the way vocab shows up in each is slightly different! Here’s what to look for by section.
SAT Vocabulary in the Reading Section
Here’s the good news: the SAT doesn’t test vocabulary in and of itself on the critical reading section. You won’t be asked to define words. And some of the more intense SAT vocab questions haven’t been around since your parents had to take the test. (For example, analogies like runner is to marathon as oarsman is to regatta? Come on, we can’t all grow up Kennedys.) On the other hand, having a broad knowledge of words with several different meanings is still important (don’t worry, “regatta” only has one).
Why is it important to know words with different meanings? Because vocabulary is primarily tested (and most directly tested) through the SAT’s Words in Context questions. Yep, in context. This is great news because it means that you’ll have plenty of clues to help you figure out the answer. And as stated before, many of these words are quite common. However, you’ll have a huge leg up on SAT Reading if you already know the definitions of the more difficult words.
Take a look at a sample SAT Reading question to get a better sense of what we mean:
geology, hydrology, botany, and others converge in an attempt to make sense of the complex systems that give rise to, support, and respond to a given organism.
Want to know the answer? Click here!
SAT Vocabulary in the Writing Section
In some ways, knowing the definitions of vocabulary words is almost more important on the Writing section as knowing it on the Reading section. Why? Because here, you’re asked to select the best word for a given context. You’re not looking for a synonym; instead, you’re going to find the best word to create the desired meaning.
While this may seem like this is trying to get you to learn grammar rather than vocabulary, it’s actually not. In the College Board’s words:
“It’s worth noting here that these language use questions aren’t directly about grammar, usage, or mechanics. Instead, these questions try to get you to think about how language should be used to accomplish particular writerly aims, such as being clearer, more precise, or more economical.”
Take a look at the following passage:
I should be honest: upon walking into the exhibit I did not expect much. After all, how edifying can one Air Jordan sneaker encased in a wall possibly be? But the exhibit offers much more than an endless procession of athletic shoes.
Now take a look at its corresponding SAT vocab question. Don’t let the form of the question scare you! In the context of the passage, is there a better word than “procession”?
Now, can you answer this question without knowing what the three harder vocabulary words (“procession,” “secession,” and “regression”) mean? Possibly…but probably not. It’s key to know definitions of words in advance so that you can spend your time figuring out the context, rather than trying to figure out what the words mean on test day.
(Oh and the answer and explanation for this question can be found here!)
Top 104 Most Common SAT Words (+ Bonus Quiz!)
Let’s be real: there are thousands of possible SAT words out there. But there are a few—well, to be exact, 104—that show up time and time again. Because of this, they’re crucial to SAT vocab success. Learning these top 104 is a great way to start off your SAT vocabulary study!
|Word||Definition||Used in Sentence|
|abolish||to officially put an end to (its noun form is "abolition")||Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his efforts to abolish slavery.|
|abrupt||sudden or curt||Although she was trying to be nice, her response was still abrupt.|
|agitation||anxiety; the fast stirring of a liquid||The night before the big game, I was in a state of agitation.|
|alteration||change from a previous norm||After we missed the bus the third time, our homeroom decided that serious alterations in the schedule were needed.|
|ambiguous||open to more than one interpretation; unclear||My teacher's instructions about the paper were ambiguous; nobody knew what to write.|
|ambivalent||having mixed feelings||Due to his ambiguous instructions, I had ambivalent feelings about my teacher despite his warm manner.|
|arcane||difficult to understand||I fell asleep moments after I opened the arcane and academic book.|
|aromatic||having a pleasant smell||Smelling aromatic oils can be a good way to reduce stress.|
|assumption||an idea accepted as fact without proof||My mother made the assumption that I wanted to go to State, but she hadn't talked to me first.|
|begrudging||to envy; to give reluctantly||I begrudged my sister her new laptop, since I hadn't had a new one in three years.|
|belligerent||war-like, inclined to fight||It is hard not to provoke my cat, who is belligerent with all other animals.|
|bias||inclination for or against a group of people or a particular outcome||The scientific study seemed compelling at first, but eventually scientists found that it showed numerous biases.|
|characterize||describe distinctive features; to be typical of||I shouldn't have been surprised that Jess was so spontaneous, since that was characteristic of her.|
|condescension||disdain||My father loves to deliver lectures at the dinner table, not realizing how condescending they can make him sound.|
|consequently||as a result||I got a C on the midterm; consequently, my final grade will not be higher than a B.|
|conserve||protect||The importance of conserving our natural environment has become increasingly clear.|
|contentious||controversial||Rebecca would have become student body president if some of her proposals hadn't been so contentious.|
|conventional||aligned with general beliefs||Jake, who won the election, had much more conventional beliefs, in line with what most students thought.|
|convey||express||I tried to convey my disappointment to my parents without telling them directly.|
|corroborate||confirm; support||Lucy said that she'd been in the house all day, and her sister corroborated this statement.|
|corrupt||dishonest for personal gain||Politicians are known for being corrupt, but I think some of them must have more altruistic goals.|
|counterargument||an argument opposing an idea set forth elsewhere||While I thought I made a strong case, my debate opponent's counterarguments were just too good.|
|curtail||cut short||My neighbor had been talking for two hours and eventually, I had to curtail her.|
|deplete||use up||I was only two blocks from home when I realized that I had completely depleted my car's gas supply.|
|dismay||disappointment and distress||My father was dismayed that I wouldn't attend his alma mater, but I'm happy with my decision.|
|ebullient||highly enthusiastic||Luke laughs a lot at everything; he's always been ebullient.|
|eloquent||well-spoken||Very few presidents have been known for their eloquence, even though they give many speeches.|
|emerging||beginning; new||The emerging music scene had few followers at the beginning but soon became very popular.|
|empathetic||feeling sympathy||When I volunteered at the hospital, it was hard not to be empathetic to the patients there.|
|engagement||participation; an appointment||One component of our grades would be based on our engagement in class discussions.|
|enigmatic||mysterious||The enigmatic guy seemed compelling at first, but once the mystery was gone, so was my interest.|
|entrenched||solidly established||It can be difficult to get rid of deep-rooted, entrenched beliefs, since we often take them for granted.|
|enumerate||to list||I didn't think I was late that much, but my mother enumerated many occasions on which I had been.|
|ephemeral||short-lived||My interest in the boy band was embarrassing but thankfully ephemeral.|
|equivocal||vague||My mother's answer to my question about how she'd met my father was equivocal, and I could tell she was embarrassed by the story.|
|esoteric||known only to a select group||I thought I should have known the book they were discussing, but later I discovered it was esoteric.|
|exertion||effort||Running a marathon would take so much exertion that I just don't feel up to it.|
|exhilarating||wildly exciting||The day I got my college acceptance letters was exhilarating.|
|exonerate||free from blame||My aunt thought I'd taken the car until she saw me in the living room; I was then exonerated.|
|fastidious||nit-picky, fussing over details||There are some typos in my essay; I just hope the teacher isn't too fastidious.|
|fluctuate||to change irregularly||My grades fluctuated for a while when I was a freshman, but they're consistent now.|
|foreshadow||to allude to coming events||Looking back, my early interest in dancing foreshadowed my life in my teens.|
|fundamentally||centrally||Fundamentally, I don't believe that certain human rights are up for debate.|
|garner||gather||Before submitting my applications, I had to garner several letters of recommendation.|
|garrulous||talkative||My grade would have been better but I was too garrulous in class; my best friend sat beside me and we could never shut up.|
|gregarious||flocking, sociable||Sometimes I wish I were more gregarious, but I prefer having one or two close friends instead.|
|hasten||to do something quickly||Realizing the deadline was the next day, I hastened to put together my application.|
|hypothetical||based on a hypothesis; theoretical||Hypothetically, I'd love to travel the world, but I don't have the time or money right now.|
|imperative||absolutely necessary||The principal insisted that taking an interest in our classes was imperative to our success.|
|indifferent||expressing no opinions on a matter||The school newspaper reporter wanted to interview me about the issue, but I wasn't a good source because I was too indifferent.|
|indigenous||native to a certain area||Planting indigenous plants is one way to begin setting up a carbon sink.|
|indiscriminate||without consideration||There were so many random people at the party that it felt like Tom must have handed out invitations indiscriminately.|
|indispensable||vital||I've found that keeping my planner up to date is an indispensable practice.|
|indistinct||unclear||Her voice was indistinct and so I missed most of what she said.|
|infrastructure||the organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or project||One major challenge to foreign aid is distributing it, since infrastructure—including roads and local organizations to help with distribution—can be lacking in remote areas.|
|keen||eager; incisive; to wail||He had a keen wit, but sometimes his observations hit too close to home.|
|magnanimous||kind-hearted, likely to forgive||I'd really insulted her, but luckily she was magnanimous and we were soon friends again.|
|malevolence||hostility||I don't think that political campaigns have to be characterized by malevolence, even though many politicians see their opponents as enemies.|
|melodramatic||exaggerated||I wasn't sure how worried I should be, since his stories were always a little melodramatic.|
|menacing||inspiring fear||The grey sky was menacing, and I was sure it would rain later.|
|modification||change||I always revise my essays because I find that modifications are usually necessary to make my ideas clear.|
|naïve||innocent; likely to believe anything||I used to think it was easy to get into a top-10 school, but I was a little naïve.|
|neglect||fail to care for||I've never been able to keep a plant alive, mostly because I tend to neglect them.|
|null||invalid; related to zero||We spent years researching the problem only to find that our hypothesis was null.|
|obsolete||no longer useful||My dad thought I could use his old word processor without realizing that the technology was totally obsolete.|
|omnipotence||having unlimited power||David acted like his position as editor gave him omnipotence and was always a little mean to his "subordinates."|
|opaque||not transparent||I really prefer my tights to be opaque, because I hate how shiny the transparent ones can be.|
|oppress||to keep in a state of hardship||While we thought our allowances were low, it wasn't as though we were being oppressed.|
|ornate||highly decorated||My sister loves having a really ornate holiday season, but I think it's better to be more subdued.|
|pantheon||the group of gods of a people||I didn't know about the Greek pantheon until I read about legends containing Zeus.|
|pending||awaiting decision||Even after three days, I could see that my status hadn't been decided and was still listed as "pending."|
|preclude||to prevent from happening||To preclude my tendency to procrastinate, I set aside the same hour every day to study.|
|profuse||excessive||She thanked me so profusely that it was embarrassing and, after a minute, I had to ask her to stop.|
|regression||return to an earlier state||My uncle saw my low grade as a regression, but I just saw it as a step in the learning process rather than a set-back.|
|reinforce||strengthen; back up||I studied for the SAT in different ways to reinforce my knowledge.|
|render||to provide; to make||I was on the fence about which school to attend until one offered me a full scholarship, rendering my indecision a thing of the past.|
|renounce||to declare the abandonment of something formally||After the club refused to let Julie in, I renounced my membership in it due to the unfairness of the decision.|
|repeal||to revoke||Our school tried to pass a strict dress code but soon repealed it when students ignored the guidelines.|
|repose||rest||When the competition was over, I was exhausted and in desperate need of repose.|
|reproach||express disapproval||My mother's behavior is always perfect, completely beyond reproach.|
|restorative||possessing characteristics that allow it to return health or well-being||I felt so much better after the restorative massage.|
|reticent||not saying much||My cousin can be reticent sometimes, but I know his mind is going a mile a minute.|
|revere||respect deeply||I wouldn't say I revere my teacher, but I do like her a lot.|
|sampling||a representative group||It turned out that the three people we'd used weren't a representative sampling of the whole group.|
|scope||the extent to which something is relevant||The comments on my essay were all good except for one which called the evidence "out of scope."|
|secession||formally withdrawing from membership||The South's secession from the United States in the 19th century was unprecedented.|
|selfless||unselfish||My sister is entirely selfless and always helps me with anything I ask for.|
|simulate||imitate||The program was meant to simulate what it was like to be in space, but I didn't feel like I was there at all.|
|soporific||causing sleep||The archane book was so boring that I found it soporific.|
|spawn||produce, often in terms of offspring||Her idea, while later disproven, spawned many more hypotheses that changed the face of science.|
|spectacle||a visually impressive performance||The play used red and black scenery covered in glitter, making the performance into more of a spectacle than a simple play.|
|stimulate||build interest in||The simulation was not at all realistic and failed to stimulate my interest in the subject.|
|subsequent||following||While I didn't do well on my first paper, I used my teacher's advice on the subsequent essays and got better grades.|
|suffrage||the right to vote||Although not well-known, Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a key figure in the New York women's suffrage movement.|
|supremacy||predominance; the state of being in control of all others||Our principal was so kind that nobody ever challenged her supremacy in the school.|
|synchronized||occurring at the same time||Our answers were synchronized, as though we'd practiced speaking together.|
|tenacious||not giving in easily||I knew that to get into the school of my dreams, I'd have to work long and hard; I'd have to be tenacious.|
|undermine||make less effective||Her argument seemed compelling, but when I left her house I thought of six examples that would undermine it.|
|urbane||refined, of the city||Going to college in New York seemed like a great idea; I thought I'd come back more sophisticated and urbane.|
|venerable||deserving of respect||My grandfather didn't speak much, but he was wise when he did, making him a venerable figure in our family.|
|verbose||using too many words||If you used all these words in the same sentence, you would definitely be verbose.|
|vitality||being strong and energetic||I was exhausted and weak, but a nap soon restored my vitality.|
|warrant||justification; to justify||Andrew didn't think the punishment was warranted and argued against it successfully.|
|yield||to produce; to give way||The apple crop was great this year and yielded way more than we thought it would.|
Don’t know all those SAT words yet? You will soon! Here’s the words from above in a handy SAT vocabulary PDF version—print it out and review on the bus or during any spare moments!
Want a real-time snapshot of your vocabulary acumen? Try your hand at Magoosh’s SAT Vocabulary Quiz to see which you actually do know, and which you might need some more SAT vocabulary practice with before taking the next quiz. Then, check below for our tips on learning and storing SAT vocabulary terms in your long term memory!
Don’t worry about your overall time for the quiz right now. But do keep in mind that the more you practice, the quicker SAT vocab questions will be to answer–and even eliminating one possibility from the answer choices has the potential to boost your score!
If you're studying for the SAT, you may not realize just how important SAT vocabulary is! Our experts have gathered the top 100+ SAT words you should know to make learning them easier. Test out your knowledge of those SAT vocab words in context with this quiz!
Where to Find Additional SAT Word Lists
If you got a great strategy for “Vocabulary in Context” and are pretty familiar with these 104 words and are looking to learn more, here are some additional resources:
- Barron’s Premium SAT Guide comes with a flashcard app featuring 3000+ words. Do you need to learn all of these before the official test? No (particularly not the super difficult vocabulary, which the SAT will define in context)! Are they nice to have? Definitely.
- The terms on this SAT vocabulary list are all useful for test day! Pick out the ones you’re least familiar with to create your own flashcards.
- Magoosh vocabulary for Google Chrome. Every time you open a new tab, a new vocabulary word shows up. Simple but effective!
- Magoosh’s Vocabulary Builder Workbook: a great way to learn words in context using sample sentences (so you’re less likely to forget them!)
- With 700+ high-frequency words, Seberson Method’s SAT vocabulary workbook has the bonus of being free with Kindle Unlimited!
Top Three Tips for Improving Your SAT Vocabulary
Read as Much as Possible
The most effective way to study vocab for the SAT is by reading. It’s simply the best way to have a great strategy for dealing with “Vocabulary in Context” questions.
A great—but often neglected—way of learning vocab is by reading. That’s right, whether you are reading a book for your English class or simply skimming a magazine you should always look up unknown words. Here’s why:
- You’ll encounter words in context. Reading allows you to see how a word functions in the context of what you are reading. Oftentimes you can guess what the meaning is. Sometimes you may be right. Regardless, you should always consult a trusty dictionary.
- You’ll use the dictionary better—not just looking up any old word. I do not recommend that you start reading through a dictionary. In addition to becoming bored by words that look very similar, you will not retain much of what you read. Running to the dictionary after seeing a word you do not know is a very different experience. You will be far more likely to remember that word because you are only looking up that word. The moment when your mind sees the definition should be somewhat special (versus seeing one definition after another the way you do with flashcards).
- You’ll bump into flashcard words. There is nothing like bumping into a friend. The surprise alone makes us giddy. We are also far more likely to remember such surprise encounters. In the same way, if you see one of the words you have been studying in a vocabulary list suddenly pop up while you are reading, this reinforces the memory of the word. And if you can’t remember the meaning, just run to your dictionary.
Use Effective Memorization Techniques
If reading’s the best way to learn new vocabulary words for the SAT, what’s the worst way? By far, through rote memorization (just looking at lists and trying to memorize). Think about math as an analogy: just learning the formulas isn’t going to get you very far. You need to see those formulas in action–and preferably put them into action yourself–to pick up on the nuance of each and every one. The same is true with vocabulary.
In the end, there’s no fast way to memorize vocabulary to retain it long-term (the SAT is all about systematic vocabulary improvement), but the following tips and practical advice will speed up the process!
Spaced repetition sounds like a complex system, but it’s actually an evidence-based technique you can use to move vocabulary words into your long-term memory. In short, you study the material repeatedly, increasing how much time you spend between each session.
You can use apps like Anki, which rely on spaced-repetition algorithms, to help you master this.
You’ve probably used verbal mnemonic devices at least once before. For example, in math, you can remember the abbreviation PEMDAS, which describes the order of operations, as “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” When you need to use it, remembering the sentence helps you get the acronym, from which you can find the operations in order: parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.
However, there are also visual memorization techniques you can use to retain vocabulary words. Drawing pictures on your flashcards is a simple way to do this. But you can also go more Sherlockian and create a mind palace in which you think of a standout image for each new word that you learn! (It doesn’t have to be a palace–it can be an abandoned house or a modern apartment–anything that works for you!)
Use It or Lose It
The more you use these words both in practice AND away from either language section, the better you’ll do on test day. Often I’ve had students in class use SAT words to describe something in class. “I’m feeling phlegmatic.” While this is by no means the most eloquent sentence, the fact that a learner is using the word correctly, including its pronunciation, means that they have a strong grasp of a word. If you just learn hundreds of words without ever using them, they will eventually evaporate. The key to doing well on the SAT is to make sure vocabulary words stick in your head. Saying them aloud is a great way to make this happen.
Another great way is to describe people you know, celebrities, or even random people using SAT vocabulary. We all know a friend who is garrulous (talkative), a celebrity who is contentious (controversial), and a random person walking by as saturnine (sand and morose).
Another way? By writing! Storytelling is a special form of application. It’s not for everyone, but if you journal, blog, or just like to write random stories, then telling stories using SAT words will be a great way for the words to stick in your head. The stories don’t have to be Pulitzer Prize-worthy, but as long as you are having fun, that’s the important part.
Also, don’t simply look up words and write a nonsensical sentence with 10 vocab words. You should be using the words that are already inside your head (which means that you already have to be studying vocab).