The SAT Prep Black Book

SAT Sentence Completion

5 Reasons Why Memorizing Vocabulary Is Not The Best Way To Go

Most students try to approach SAT Sentence Completion questions by memorizing hundreds, or even thousands, of vocabulary words. This is a terrible idea, left over from the days when the SAT had analogies and antonyms on it (it was a terrible idea even then, but it’s an even worse idea now).

Even though there’s a whole industry built around teaching SAT vocabulary to high school students, there are a lot of problems with the idea of cramming vocab in order to raise your SAT score. Let’s take a look at some of them now.

The Questions Are Clearly Not Designed To Test Vocabulary Directly

Because most people never stop to think about the SAT from the College Board’s standpoint, it never dawns on them that the Sentence Completion format is actually a really bad one if you’re trying to evaluate somebody’s vocabulary. If the College Board wanted to measure vocabulary knowledge in the most simple and direct way possible, it could have simply created a question format in which it would provide a single word as the prompt, and then five potential definitions as answer choices, and asked you to select the correct definition for the word in the prompt. That would be a much more direct test of your vocabulary knowledge. Instead, the Sentence Completion format gives you a variety of potential clues and connections to make, both within the sentence and among the answer choices.

Further, most students will find that they know all the necessary words to answer at least half of these questions, and possibly nearly all of them, without feeling like they’re going outside of their comfort zone in terms of vocabulary. Why would the College Board include questions with these kinds of simple words if the goal were purely to test your vocabulary? For that matter, back when the College Board dropped the analogies from this part of the test in 2005, why did they change the name of this section from the “Verbal” section to the “Critical Reading” section? In my opinion, the most likely answer to all of these questions is that the College Board recognizes there’s a lot more going on here than just vocabulary knowledge.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I agree that, all things being equal, it would be more helpful on these questions to have a larger vocabulary than a smaller vocabulary. I also agree that there are sometimes questions (often the last question or two in a page of Sentence Completion questions) that would definitely be easier if you knew all the words in the answer choices.

But even recognizing the existence of the more vocabulary-intensive questions forces us to admit that the rest of the questions just aren’t like that. And even in the more vocabulary-intensive questions, the more challenging words tend to involve multiple syllables, and they also tend to be derived from, or similar to, words from Latin, French, or Spanish, or even popular brand names. In other words, they’re often (not always, but often) words that students have a fighting chance at figuring out.

If the College Board wanted to test vocabulary directly, it would use single-syllable words derived from sources that were less likely to be familiar to test-takers, like “dun” or “kith.” The potential meanings of these kinds of words would be nearly impossible to figure out unless a student already knew them.

The Questions Aren’t Standardized For Vocabulary

Despite what students seem to think, and despite what many test prep companies want you to believe, the SAT does not appear to be standardized for vocabulary.

In other words, we won’t find the same set of challenging words being used over and over again on the Critical Reading part of the SAT. It’s not as though there is a list of 200 words that the College Board consistently draws from when creating Sentence Completion questions. If there were, then it might be a good strategy just to invest our time in learning that list of words.

This is why the companies that sell you vocabulary lists must constantly update the lists they publish to reflect the words that have appeared on the most recent tests. If the College Board were sticking to a standardized list of vocabulary words, those commercial lists wouldn’t need to be updated every year. But it doesn’t, so they do.

Even the so-called “high-frequency” SAT lists demonstrate the lack of standardization on the test. Many companies sell a list of hundreds of “high-frequency” SAT words for students to memorize. If we accept the idea that there are 500 “high-frequency” words (which is already a little odd, since each test only has approximately 150 words that appear in answer choices for Sentence Completion questions, and a large portion of those words are pretty common words), how many “low-frequency” words would we expect? Another 500? One thousand? If we apply the Pareto principle we might expect that there could be another 2,000 potential “low-frequency” words.

Contrast this situation with the idea of preparing for the Math or Writing sections. Both of those sections are clearly standardized for a defined set of relevant principles that the test-taker is clearly supposed to know. On the Math section, students clearly need to know how to solve for a variable, the sum of the degree measurements in the angles of a triangle, and so on. On the Writing section, students need to know about subject-verb agreement, dangling modifiers, and other clearly defined principles of grammar and style. If you were to write books explaining all the math and writing concepts that were necessary for the Math and Writing section of the current version of the SAT, you would literally never need to update them (assuming you did a thorough job in the beginning) because the concepts that are tested in the Math and Writing section literally never change. That’s the whole purpose of standardizing a test.

But the commercial vocabulary lists need constant updating, because the same words don’t appear over and over again on each SAT. Can it be that the College Board, which did such a good job of standardizing its Math and Writing subject matter, just forgot how to standardize stuff when it created its so-called “vocabulary” test? Of course not. The much simpler explanation is that the Sentence Completion questions were never intended as a vocabulary test in the first place.

The Vast Majority Of Time Spent Memorizing Vocabulary Is Wasted On The SAT

We just discussed the idea that some test prep companies sell lists of so-called “high-frequency” words that appear on the SAT, which might imply the existence of as many as 2,500 challenging words in total that could appear on any particular SAT. Those are fairly large numbers.

They seem even larger when we think about how many challenging words a test-taker is even likely to encounter on any given test, and how many of those challenging words she actually needs to know in order to answer a question correctly.

But it’s also important to remember that most challenging words are irrelevant to the test. In other words, for every Sentence Completion question on the SAT, it’s actually possible to arrive at the correct answer knowing only the correct answer choice. In some two-blank questions (definitely not all, but some), it’s possible to figure out the correct answer if we only know one of the ten words in the answer choices. It’s sometimes possible to figure out a correct answer choice by eliminating other choices that we might be more familiar with, even if we don’t actually know the meaning of the correct answer choice. And so on—we’ll see many actual examples of this a little later in this book.

In my experience, after having worked with tens of thousands of students from a variety of educational backgrounds and through a variety of media and formats, I can say that, on average, most test-takers will encounter somewhere between 2 and 8 questions per test in which challenging vocabulary actually poses a serious obstacle.

So we’d be potentially talking about memorizing anywhere from hundreds to thousands of words in order to have a better chance—hopefully—of answering maybe a half-dozen questions or so on the actual day of the test. When we consider that there are so many easier, more reliable ways of improving performance on other areas of the test, it’s a little ridiculous, in my opinion, to devote all that memorization effort to the hope that it might help us answer 6 more questions correctly.

And that reminds me—there’s no guarantee that the words you memorize will actually be the words that trouble you on test day, because the test isn’t standardized for vocabulary anyway.

Knowing The Words Doesn’t Guarantee A Right Answer, And Not Knowing Them Doesn’t Prevent One

More times than I could possibly count, I have seen people miss Sentence Completion questions even when they knew all of the necessary words. This tends to happen for two reasons: either the person didn’t know how Sentence Completion questions on the SAT were designed, or the person didn’t read the question carefully enough. (Remember: it’s not by accident that the College Board calls the part of the test with the Sentence Completion questions the “Critical Reading” section.)

I have also seen students find clever ways to work around holes in their vocabulary, in order to find correct answers with certainty, even when they might not have known all (or any) of the words in the answer choices before answering the question. This can’t be done in every case, of course, but it can be done much more often than most people think.

The prevalence of both types of scenarios (people missing questions when they know the words, and people getting questions right when they don’t know all the words) strongly supports the idea that these questions are not primarily about vocabulary, and that memorizing definitions is generally a waste of time and energy, at least for the SAT.

It’s Often Possible To Score Above 750 While Omitting 3 Or 4 Questions

A lot of people don’t realize this, but the “curve” on the Critical Reading section is typically much more generous than the one on the Math section. Often, you can miss a question (sometimes even 2) and still have a “perfect” 800 on the section. In fact, if your goal is to be above a 750, your cushion might be a handful of questions. If you want to be in the 650+ range, you can often omit a dozen or so questions, assuming all of the answers you do mark are correct.

So it’s not the case that you’ll need to answer every single Sentence Completion question correctly in order to have any hope of an elite score on this section of the test.

Memorizing Definitions Is A Bad Way To Learn Vocabulary Anyhow

One of the dirty little secrets of the vocabulary business is that forced memorization doesn’t usually help people learn vocabulary anyway—at least, not in an ideal way.

Time after time, I’ve had students remark to me that they know they memorized the definition of a particular word once, but they can no longer recall what it means. Sometimes, even when they do think they recall a word’s definition, they’re wrong—either because they’re remembering incorrectly, or because the definition they memorized was incorrect or inexact in the first place.

This happens because our brains aren’t designed to think of the words in our vocabularies as entries in a database, as things that can be memorized efficiently from flashcards. Think about the words that you feel comfortable with, and how you learned them. Nobody ever sat you down and taught you the word “table” with a flashcard. You learned the word “table” by living in and around people who used the word consistently and correctly, and you automatically picked up its meaning because that’s what your brain was designed to do: extract the meaning of a particular word through repeated exposure in its correct context. Think about all the other words and phrases you’ve probably learned over the past few weeks or months: nicknames for celebrities, the names of popular dances, specialized techniques for playing an instrument or a video game, who knows what. In every case, I’m willing to bet that you learned these words without giving them much thought. You just picked them up because they were constantly around you, and because you actually cared what they meant.

Now contrast this with the plight of someone trying to memorize the definition of the word “ameliorate” off the back of a flashcard. The context is gone. The exposure is limited and artificial. And, more importantly, you have no real interest in it—if you really cared what the word “ameliorate” meant, you’d probably know it already. No real learning is going to happen in that situation.

I’m not saying you can’t force yourself to remember a list of definitions and then recall those definitions when presented with the appropriate words. I’m not even saying that you can’t do that with 5,000 words if you feel like it, or more. You totally can. People do it all the time.

I’m just saying that these feats of memorization aren’t really the same thing as actually knowing how to use the words you’re studying.

I’ve seen this kind of artificial memorization cause a lot of problems for a lot of people. Perhaps the most extreme example was a student who wrote in an essay that something happened “for the inaugural interval in 20 years,” instead of writing “for the first time in 20 years,” because he had memorized that “inaugural” meant “first,” and that “interval” meant “time.” More subtly, and more problematically, I’ve seen students answer Sentence Completion questions incorrectly because they had memorized an incorrect, misleading, or inadequate “definition” of a particular term.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m fully in favor of having the largest vocabulary possible when it comes to real life. But the value of forced memorization is negligible at best when it comes to building a powerful vocabulary. And a powerful vocabulary isn’t as important on the SAT as most people think, anyway.

(By the way—not that you asked, but the way to develop an advanced vocabulary is to become genuinely interested in advanced stuff (politics, art, philosophy, history, whatever), so that you read about it and seek out other people who are also interested in it. If you do this for any period of time you’ll quickly learn all sorts of new words and phrases, and you won’t even notice it.) (Not that it’ll probably help on the SAT, though.)

Okay . . . So Now What?

After our thorough discussion of some of the major reasons why memorizing vocabulary isn’t the best way to go for most test-takers, you may be wondering how to approach Sentence Completion questions.

The answer is that you approach SAT Sentence Completion questions in much the same way that you would approach Passage-Based Reading questions: the correct answer to a Sentence Completion question will restate a concept from the sentence, just as the correct answer to a Passage-Based Reading question will restate a concept from the text.

So, if you happen to know what all the words in a particular Sentence Completion question mean, answering that question correctly is just a matter of reading carefully and paying attention to details.

But what if you don’t know what all the words mean?

Every single test-taker is going to run into at least one question on test day that involves a word he doesn’t know. Most of us will run into a handful of them. Some will run into even more. For these situations, we have backup strategies that can often (but not always) help us figure out how to answer the questions.

We’ll talk about those back-up strategies in just a moment, but, before we do, I want to lay out the proper way to prioritize all this stuff, from a preparation standpoint.

Now that we know that the entire Critical Reading section on the SAT basically rewards us for choosing answers that restate things directly from the page in front of us, we should focus on making sure that we never miss a question in which we know the meanings of every relevant word. This is basically just a matter of reading carefully, remembering how the test works, and paying attention to details.

So the first order of business, and the most important concern from here on out, is this: make sure you grab every possible point from the questions where you know all the relevant words!

After you get to a point where you can correctly answer any SAT Critical Reading question you come across when vocabulary isn’t a problem, your next priority should be to focus on improving Math and Writing as much as possible.

Finally, after you feel you’ve made all the progress you can make on the Math and Writing stuff, and after you’ve reached a point where you basically never miss a Critical Reading question when you know all the relevant words, then, and only then, would I say it’s a good idea to devote serious consideration to the Sentence Completion questions with difficult words.

So let me reiterate that, because this is important and most people get it very, very wrong. My list of priorities would be the following:

oBasically perfecting Passage-Based Reading and Sentence Completion questions in which vocabulary is not a significant issue.

oJust about anything SAT-related that doesn’t involve worrying about vocabulary (in other words, Math, Writing, et cetera).

oWorrying about questions that involve difficult vocabulary words placed in positions that cannot be ignored or worked around.

In other words, the thing that many people consider to be the single most important SAT prep task—memorizing vocabulary words—is actually the thing that I would rank as the single least important in the grand scheme of the test. I place it dead last in my list of SAT priorities because the payoff is relatively small (or even nonexistent) for the amount of effort that it requires. I can’t possibly over-emphasize how important it is to focus on perfecting the process of correctly answering the Critical Reading questions where you know the words before you start spending any time memorizing definitions that are unlikely to help you on test day anyway.

But What Do We Do About Words We Don’t Know?

When my students hear me say that I don’t recommend memorizing vocabulary as a strategy for the SAT, they’re often quite surprised. Their surprise quickly turns to doubt, and sometimes even indignation. Sometimes they ask, “Well, if I’m not building my vocabulary, what am I supposed to do when I run into SAT words that I don’t know?”

And this is when I have to break it to them that there will almost always be words you don’t know on the Critical Reading part of the SAT . . . no matter how many words you try to memorize beforehand.

Remember what we said earlier:

oThere are tons and tons of words the College Board can use.

oThey seem to use new ones all the time.

oThe lists people study only reflect the words that have appeared on past tests instead of accurately predicting words that will appear on future tests.

For all of these reasons, it’s impossible to avoid that scary feeling of running into unknown words on the SAT.

On test day, you’re going to run into words you don’t know. It’s going to happen, whether you memorize words or not. Count on it.

So we were going to need strategies for dealing with unknown words in Sentence Completion questions no matter what.

Since you’ll need backup strategies for dealing with unknown words anyway, my recommendation is that you just get really, really good at those backup strategies. So we’ll talk about those kinds of strategies in a little bit—but only if you promise me you understand that these strategies are the least important part of taking the SAT. Before you worry about this stuff, you should be worrying about picking up all the Critical Reading questions in which vocabulary is not an issue for you.

(You’ll notice that I repeat this idea of de-prioritizing vocabulary a lot. There’s a reason: I’ve tutored tons and tons of people, and many of them have deliberately ignored my advice about not trying to memorize vocab words for the SAT. They even seem to do well on their practice tests, because most of the words they memorized were taken from the available practice tests. Then they go take the test officially and run into a lot of words they don’t know, and they have a hard time since they haven’t worked on any backup strategies for that situation. Do not be like these people. Take me seriously when I say that memorizing vocabulary should be your last priority, not your first one.)