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Lucas Fink

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.

 

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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 Is the word “contrariwise” too outdated to include?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.

 

About 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.


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