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Chris Lele

How to Determine the Context for Synonymous SAT Words

The kicker with many SAT questions is you often know what the answer should be. But…those dastardly SAT writers have come up with two answer choices that seem so close, yet—as we know—only one of them can be correct.

Below are some of these common words that students have trouble distinguishing. Yet, the words have important differences—differences that can make the difference on a Sentence Completion or Reading Comprehension question.

Indifferent vs. Ambivalent

Some people think these words are the same. They are actually very different. The first means you don’t care at all. Like, if I were to ask you if you cared about the World Cricket Championship you’d probably be indifferent. Ambivalent means you have conflicting emotions. So not only do you care, but you also care in two different ways. For instance, people are typically ambivalent about school: all your friends are with you (yay!), yet you have to study (nay!).

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Petulant vs. Fastidious

A Sentence Completion question actually tested the difference between these two words. The first means whiny and irritable, like a little kid. The second means overly tidy and fussy. The clue in the sentence had to do with throwing little fits, and nothing to do with tidiness. So the answer was petulant.

Other Helpful SAT Synonyms Tips

These are just a few such words. To get good at learning the subtle differences between words look words up frequently—even if you think you know the definition. Often, you’ve been living life with the wrong definition of the word in your head (yes, I know, there are worse misconceptions one can have).

Also, watch out for synonym lists. Oftentimes, publishers will lump words together and call them “synonyms”. One notable publisher out there pairs “gainsay” and “reprimand” together. The first means to contradict; the latter to formally scold.

Synonyms in Critical Reading

Finally, on those pesky Critical Reading tone questions, where you have to discriminate between words like “mocking” and “severe”, a good idea is to think like the SAT. What I mean is once you know which of the two answers it is reread the passage and get a sense for what the SAT considers mocking, or, if the answer is severe, then severe. Students often try to fight the answer and convince themselves that their answer has some merit. Doing so is dangerous because it prevents you from understanding why the other answer is better, even though your answer probably has some merit. (By the way, both words imply criticism. However, mocking is when you poke you finger in someone’s face, so to speak, and laugh at them faults. Severe just means to be highly critical—like a teacher who always finds something wrong with your essays).

One Last Thing

And finally, finally, when the dictionary definition of a word just doesn’t give you enough clarification, head over to, where each word is given a little story that provides context, so you’re unlikely to ever mistake that word for another.

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About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 10 million views. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog! You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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