Credit: the very talented Mike R. Baker

I’ve already covered the importance of a good vocabulary, and I hope that you’ve been clicking the red vocabulary links on this site as you meander through. They’re meant to teach you a few good words, and to show you that strong vocabulary doesn’t have to be shoehorned into writing; it can and should flow naturally. I basically taught myself javascript to make those links, which took an obscenely long time, but I did so because I think it’s useful. So, yeah: You should actively try to improve your vocabulary as you prepare for the SAT. Period.

I want to take a (slightly controversial) step back from that, though, and caution you that a single-minded obsession with vocabulary will, in all likelihood, backfire on you. Not only is there much more to the Critical Reading section than just vocabulary, vocabulary isn’t even #1 on the list of necessary skills!

Some folks incorrectly claim that the 19 Sentence Completion questions on the SAT test only vocabulary, but even if that were true those account for less than a third of the 67 questions in the section. Want to include the passage-based questions that ask you to define a word in context as pure vocabulary questions? That’s even more of a stretch, but including them still doesn’t get you to a third of the questions.

But I don’t want to argue about question distribution. The truth is, even the Sentence Completion questions test you on your comprehension skills as much as they test your vocabulary; not only do the difficult questions contain difficult words, they contain much more subtle context clues than do the easy ones. Let’s look at an example of a tough one:

  1. Because of his devotion to economy of expression, the computer programmer’s code was ——- despite its incredible ——-.
    (A) elegant . . complexity
    (B) spare . . utility
    (C) labyrinthine . . usefulness
    (D) prosaic . . beauty
    (E) mawkish . . magnanimity

This is an example of a question that goes to great lengths to make it difficult to predict the contents of the blanks. A good vocabulary might help you eliminate one answer, but without good comprehension skills it’s very difficult to nail this one down. There are two clues in the sentence:

  1. The easier clue is the “despite” between the blanks, indicating that there should be some amount of surprise that both blanks are true about the same code.  If you know both words, you know that mawkishness and magnanimity have very little to do with each other, so you can kill (E). But even if you know all the other choices, that’s as far as you can go using the easy clue. All the rest of the choices kinda work: if something were prosaic it’d be slightly surprising to also call it beautiful; if something were labyrinthine it’d be a little strange to also call it useful; things that are spare do not always have great utility; elegance and complexity are often at odds.
  2. The really difficult clue is the phrase “economy of expression.” Neither “economy” nor “expression” is a difficult word on its own, but think for a minute about what they could mean together. Sure, you read a lot about “the economy” in the paper, but what does “economy” mean here? When a car advertisement touts a vehicle’s “fuel economy,” what does that mean? It means the car goes a long way on one tank of gas. “Economy” means getting a lot out of a little. It means getting the maximum return on a limited resource (which, if I may just break the flow for one minute, is not what you’re doing when you study endless word lists). So “economy of expression” means, in the programming context, accomplishing a lot without using many lines of code.

And that, friends, is why the answer to this question is (B). Note one more devious aspect of this question: the relatively rare definition of “spare.” I doubt that word shows up on any SAT vocabulary lists, but it absolutely can mean “elegantly simple.” Just so we’re clear, I’ve changed some things about the question, but I based this on a real question from a real SAT that contained both “economy of expression” and “spare” used in the same ways they are used above. This kind of question exists.

So, what lessons have we learned?
  1. The SAT will throw words at you that aren’t on most vocab lists. “Mawkishness” was on the May test, and most people who I’ve spoken to had no idea what it meant until they looked it up afterwards. THIS IS NOT A REASON TO STUDY LONGER LISTS! The other words in the question were much more common and would have been familiar to you if you spent a few hours with any well designed list of a few hundred words. You could have answered the question correctly anyway.
  2. The SAT will often use common words in less common ways (like the obscure definition of “spare”). You won’t get those definitions from flash cards or word lists, you’ll get them from being a voracious, insatiable reader and coming across them in the wild.
  3. Difficult Sentence Completion questions are difficult not only because of hard words, but because of complex sentence structure and esoteric usage. You will need to be a very good reader to get them right.
The bottom line

I’ve spoken with too many kids lately who seem hell-bent on memorizing all the words in Barron’s 3500 Word Black Hole From Which No Light Escapes, and it breaks my heart. If you do that, you will memorize literally thousands of words you won’t need for the SAT, and you’ll use valuable time doing so that would be better spent practicing your reading comprehension, writing practice essays, drilling circle questions, or trying to count the number of hairs on your head.

Remember a few paragraphs back, when we were talking about economy? Those were good times, right? Trying to memorize 3500 words is not good economy. To put it another way—and to finally incorporate the awesome illustration at the top of this post—if you pursue vocabulary obsessively, like Ahab did Moby Dick, your scores might remain in Davey Jones’ locker.

You, intrepid student, need to find a balance between the reasonable and the obscene. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing is. Godspeed.

Finally, here’s a thread where Xiggi, the much-ballyhooed College Confidential SAT guru, basically argues the same thing (and gets a lot of pushback, naturally).

Comments (6)

Ironic, though, that the reasons you give for your example question being difficult are basically just vocab!

And why would you assume students who study vocab won’t learn “spare” and “economical”?

It’s not pure assumption—it’s supported by my experience tutoring a bunch of students over the past 7.5 years. Most students eliminate “spare” right away, because they’re familiar with its more common definition (as in “spare parts”). Most students know “economy” only in the context of the nightly news saying “the economy is weak” and don’t know how to interpret it in this context. Both of those are fairly common words that students think they know and therefore don’t study when they study vocab, but they’re used in less common ways in that sentence.

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