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The SAT has always been famous for its vocab words – lists of obscure words that you have to know in order to get a good score on the SAT. However, since the introduction of the new SAT, it’s no longer necessary to know any of these words at all. Anyone who is trying to sell you a list of ‘SAT words to memorize’ is pretty much scamming you. The truth is, you just don’t need these ridiculous words any more! Part of the reason that the SAT eliminated them from the test is that they just weren’t measuring very much any more. Keep reading to find out how to study for SAT vocabulary … or rather, why you don’t need to!

So good news, right?

Well, for both the SAT and the ACT, you now need to be a master of the Vocabulary in Context question. This is really a totally different style of question (yay!). It asks you the closest meaning of the word in the context in which its used. The words are not necessarily difficult. On one test paper, the word chosen for the vocabulary in context question is ‘best’. That’s a word most 6 year old know! But it’s all about the context.


Should I learn vocab words?

Should I learn vocab words? published on

What I really think about learning vocab…

Ok, so I believe this may be my first rant type post! I couldn’t tell you the number of times someone on a forum or in person has asked me ‘Should I learn vocab words for the ACT/SAT’. It used to be a bigger deal because the SAT Critical Reading (old format) tested it directly, but the only way it’s now tested on both the ACT and the SAT is vocab in context questions. They’re not common on the test (maybe one or two on every reading section), but I’ve posted about these before. I like these questions.

But I hate the idea of vocabulary questions done any other way.


sculpture letters words sky
It shouldn’t be this confusing…


Firstly, it’s not actually a test of your language skills. Those vocab in context questions are – they test whether you understand what you’re reading without knowing the exact meaning of a specific word. Anyone who reads remotely challenging material is using this skill all the time, so it’s a great thing to test. Being able to understand the function of a word in a sentence without knowing what it means is a fundamental reading skill. It’s actually why you can’t always define a certain word, even though you can use it in a sentence.


So why is “learn vocab words” such popular advice?

  1. It’s very easy for a test prep company to claim that they’ve got some magic list of words that will come up on the SAT or the ACT, and that if you learn vocab words, your score will increase. That is complete rubbish – if that list is publicly available, any test maker will also have it, and could easily choose to avoid those words. Also, there are just too many words in the English language. You’d need to learn vocab words by the thousand to have a decent chance of seeing the words you know come up on the test.
  2. A lot of people have a strange perception of what ‘smart’ means. Someone who uses big words is not necessarily smart. You might be able to learn vocab words that sound impressive and drop them into conversation or an essay, but that doesn’t make you smart. You might not even be using them correctly! Someone who spits out random facts is not necessarily smart either.


This is the same mindset that thinks that studying for 12 hours a day is a good idea. It is not. Sure, you should expect to in exam period (maybe), but if that is your regular routine, that’s a problem. I am a great believer in working smart, not hard. I have worked with too many students who think that learning is about cramming all the knowledge in and knowing all the little tricks and tips and getting through the exam. This is not learning, and if you do this, it will not help you outside the classroom. Don’t take this as criticism – take it as a warning. This attitude usually comes from the culture of your family, school or perhaps country, and it’s very hard to go against the grain. If your teachers believe that this is the way to learn, you will have a hard time getting around that. But true learning stays with you, and it’s something that can be applied to new situations.


Why I really hate being asked ‘Should I learn vocab words?’

I find that the students who ask me this question are often struggling on reading type sections. This can be because they are an ESL (English as a second language) student, or because they have difficulty reading at speed. In either case, learning vocab words it touted as a quick fix solution.

There is no quick fix solution to reading comprehension . Again, this is something I’ve written about before. In my experience, I can help a student raise their English or Math score quite significantly – maybe even 10 points on the ACT. But reading is much harder. It’s a skill you’ve built up over a long period of time, and if you haven’t been reading challenging material in English for long enough, you just won’t have this skill. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to improve – there is. But it won’t happen overnight, and you should steer well clear of anyone who offers you a quick fix solution.

As a side note, if your reading comprehension is your weakest point, the SAT will likely be a better test for you than the ACT. Your time limit is more generous, and reading comprehension is also tested on the Scientific Reasoning ACT section, for which there is no SAT equivalent.

Rant over! In all seriousness though, I hope that this has helped you understand a little more about how standardized testing is supposed to work, and what you can do to make a genuine improvement.

How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions

How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions published on


Are you struggling to tackle those vocabulary in context questions? Fortunately, they are the only type of vocabulary questions to appear on the ACT and SAT now. No more memorizing long lists of obscure words in the style of the old SAT. If you are doing this, you are wasting your time – STOP! (Arguably, you were wasting your time in the first place!).


Strategy for vocabulary in context

The best way to tackle these questions is to think of your own synonym (word with the same meaning) for the word in the sentence. Choose something really simple – even a short phrase will do. This way, you get your own idea of what the question means before you look at the answer choices. Make it as simple as possible, and be clear in your mind exactly what the word means before you answer the question. Otherwise, you’ll be falling into the trap of being accidentally persuaded by the answer choices.

What does the vocabulary in context question look like?

The type of question you’ll now see looks like this:

Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government.

Q1: The word “modes” most nearly means:

A. acts
B. reasons
C. methods
D. averages

Q2: Which of the following is not an acceptable synonym for “closed”?

A. removed
B. shut
C. prevented
C. disallowed

The first question asks you about a word you may not know the meaning of, and then to confuse you, throws in the most likely context in which you know it (mode as an average), which would be incorrect here. Think of your synonym, which in my case would be ‘ways’. Now I can clearly identify that ‘methods’ is the right answer.

For the second question, my synonym would be ‘stopped’. That’s the same as prevented and disallowed, and in this context is the same as ‘removed’. ‘Shut’ and ‘closed’ are normally interchangeable, but not in this context.

Let’s try a harder one:

“The Limes,” which had come to him by inheritance without any accompanying provision for its upkeep, was one of those pretentious, unaccommodating mansions which none but a man of wealth could afford to live in, and which not one wealthy man in a hundred would choose on its merits. It might easily languish in the estate market for years, set round with noticeboards
proclaiming it, in the eyes of a skeptical world, to be an eminently desirable residence.

Q3. The word ‘languish’ in the passage above most nearly means

A. bask
B. remain
C. droop
D. rise

A simple synonym here would be ‘stay’, because that’s clearly what’s intended by the meaning of the sentence.

You might be tempted to pick ‘droop’ or ‘rise’, since they are opposites, but don’t be! ‘Droop’ is inappropriate personification for a house – how can a house droop?. ‘Bask’ is also inappropriate personification for a house. ‘Rise’ is the opposite meaning to what’s intended, so ‘remain’ must be the correct answer.

I’d be really interested to hear other strategies for tackling these questions. Comment below!