By Tobias Joel
Studying vocabulary on the SAT/ACT is the most economical way to raise your overall score: time invested in vocabulary study promises the highest yields vis-à-vis test performance. Still, vocabulary does not receive much attention because it is more mechanical than conceptual—it boils down to raw memorization of words. And students have to do it themselves; outside of general tips, no amount of discussion with tutors can replace the hours each student must invest in the memorization process. But if vocabulary relies on such labor-intensive study, how is it the most economical setting to raise your score?
Vocabulary raises scores because vocabulary questions are the only “winner-take-all” questions on the SAT/ACT. If students know the word in question, they will, in general terms, answer correctly. This is not the case on other exam sections, such as math, science, or reading comprehension. These sections undergo more distortion from purposefully misleading test design. Students have to negotiate each question’s wording and sidestep misleading answers before identifying the best choice, and all in less than 60 seconds. It is a dynamic process that often results in students answering incorrectly, despite knowing the content. In contrast, vocabulary questions offer students a straightforward “winner-take-all” opportunity to get full credit if they know the content.
That is not to say that the SAT/ACT vocabulary questions are simplistic. The questions are also designed to confuse test-takers, but it is simply harder to introduce ambiguity with vocabulary. Like a zebra hoping to pass as a lion, a familiar word is difficult to separate from its true meaning. Vocabulary is an efficient way for students to secure, with relative consistency, higher overall scores on the SAT/ACT.
How to study SAT/ACT vocabulary?
There is no shortage of vocabulary lists for the SAT/ACT, a quick search will return numerous free examples (https://satvocabulary.us/; https://www.vocabulary.com/lists/191545) . But opinions do differ about how to study vocabulary. The best approaches use ‘scaffolding’ techniques, which advance mastery of words by connecting different learning experiences. The learning that occurs when we hear a new word is different from when we see a new word, or from when we write a new word. Effective vocabulary study will cultivate all of these channels in order to create a well-rounded learning experience.
An example of a scaffolded learning approach to SAT/ACT vocabulary would be:
Access a handful of SAT/ACT vocabulary lists and copy their contents into a spreadsheet; browsing through the lists will introduce you to the terms
Create digital flashcards from the list; some tools for this include quizlet.com or Anki flashcards (https://apps.ankiweb.net/)
Study a small number of flashcards daily; 20 new cards and 15 review cards daily is a sustainable pace
Read high-quality journalism: The Economist; seeing difficult words helps solidify your knowledge
Incorporate new vocabulary into your writing
With consistent practice, this scaffolded learning will widen a student’s vocabulary. Practicing words in multiple modalities also insures long-term retention, so that students enter college and beyond with a more advanced command of high-level words.