SAT Tips: Vocab Sleight of Hand


 

On February 10, the College Board posted a Sentence Completion question that bamboozled 219,021 of the 331,851 people that attempted to answer the question. This question once again got us thinking about SAT vocabulary, the way the SAT tests vocabulary, and why so many people got this question wrong. And as usual whenever SAT questions get “stuck in our craw,” we have to blog about it to help you conquer this test.

This question of the day was not only a great example of how to attack Sentence Completion (click here to see our blog on mastering SC) but it was also a good example of why learning word roots (as many people who are not intimately familiar with the SAT may suggest) is no more effective than learning commonly tested SAT words.

 

English Roots, SAT Roots, and Test Prep

Generally, learning word roots is a great way to improve vocabulary, but it’s actually a pretty slow way to acquire new words. If you’re in your junior or senior year it’s probably not the time to try to pick up Latin and Greek roots as a vocabulary strategy for the SAT.

The SAT seems to go out of its way to not give those who study Latin an advantage over those who don’t. They do this by peppering the test with an equal number of words that are taken directly from established roots as they do with words that could very easily send you down the wrong path if you depend on roots. We scoured the lists of vocabulary words we pulled from recent SATs and confirmed an almost 1-to-1 ratio of words based on clear roots and words that would have led you astray if you kept that strategy.

For every word like circumspect, there is circumstantial. For every trivialized, whose roots would lead us to its definition of “made trivial,” there was an indefatigable, which seems to mean “not-not-able to be tired out” (or simply “able to be tired out”), but actually means the opposite. For every fractious, which logically leads us to “causing to break apart,” there is skittish, which has nothing to do with skits or humor.

So what’s a savvy test-taker to do to get ready for the SAT?

First and foremost, use order of difficulty to help you out. Remember that Sentence Completions come in order, and thus the last few will be the hardest. In that last hard section, if there are words like redoubtable, it’s a fair bet that it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Had the 219,000 people who guessed incorrectly on the above Question of the Day known that it was a hard question, they might have made a better guess. Its placement on the test suggests that redoubtable had nothing to do with doubt and you might have to make a good guess, especially if you knew the other words and were able to eliminate many of them.

Second, study more words. It’s especially important to learn some of these highly tricky and distracting words that are likely to show up on the SAT and try to lure you into picking them. Here are some of our favorites:

ambivalent
bemused
bucolic
calculating
commonplace
dearth
discrete
disinterested
droll
duplicitous
enervate
enormity
enumeration
facetious
factitious
fecund
foolhardy
fortuitous
fulsome
groundbreaking
histrionics
indifferent
inflammable
killjoy
machinations
masticate
meretricious
noisome
plethora
precipitous
prohibitive
pulchritude
recapitulate
reprove
scurrilous
specious
spendthrift
standoffish
suffrage
temerity
tortuous
unflagging
unanimous
unintelligible
watershed

 

Good studying!

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