Changes in vocabulary between the old SAT and new SAT format

 By James Rodkey

(ACT, SAT, SSAT, English Builder, ESOL, and Latin tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Old / New SAT

How Important is Vocabulary on the new SAT?

One of the most dramatic changes from the old format of the SAT, which the College Board administered from 2005 to 2016, to the current format is the way in which vocabulary is tested. In the old SAT format, vocabulary was a significant hurdle for many students, as each exam had 19 questions that explicitly tested difficult vocabulary words, questions that often looked like this:

The commentator characterized the electorate as ________________________ because it was unpredictable and given to constantly shifting moods.

(A) mercurial

(B) corrosive

(C) disingenuous

(D) implacable

(E) phlegmatic

These questions were difficult for several reasons. First of all, rather than appearing in the context of a paragraph or passage, sentences appeared in isolation, limiting the information students could use to deduce the meaning of the missing lexical items. Secondly, the vocabulary words given as answer choices were often extremely difficult, like “phlegmatic” and “mercurial” in the example question, words that few English speakers likely know. How many of those five answer choice words do you know? Take this moment to consider the serendipity of your situation if you’re taking the SAT now rather than a year ago or more.

In response to years of criticism of questions like the example above, the College Board completely rethought how vocabulary should be tested on the SAT. Now, vocabulary-centered questions appear in both the Reading and Writing and Language sections of the test, and always in the context of larger passages. The words that appear on the test are also decidedly more common, as the College Board has consciously endeavored to include only those words that high school students are likely to encounter in their scholastic activities. All of this means that intensive vocabulary study is no longer a necessary component of preparation to take the SAT. That is not to say, however, that vocabulary doesn’t matter anymore. Let’s take a look at how vocabulary is tested on the new SAT.

As I mentioned before, vocabulary questions now appear in both the Reading section and the Writing and Language sections of the test. In the Reading section, vocabulary really only appears in what we call “Vocabulary-in-Context” questions, which look something like this:

As used in line 1 and line 65, “directly” most nearly means

A) frankly.

B) confidently.

C) without mediation.

D) with precision.

Immediately it should be clear that this question is quite different from the example on the old SAT. Notice that the vocabulary words, both in the question stem and in the answer choices, are not particularly difficult, and that context is much more vital in answering this question. We can’t answer the question without reading and understanding the passage, even if we know what all the vocabulary words in the answer choices mean.

The Writing and Language section tests vocabulary slightly more traditionally. A typical vocabulary question might look something like this, in what we call a “Precision and Concision” question:

Planned obsolescence, a practice whereby products are designed to have a limited period of usefulness, has been a cornerstone of manufacturing strategy for the past 80 years. This approach increases sales, but it also stands in austere contrast to a time when goods were produced to be durable. Planned obsolescence wastes materials as well as energy in making and shipping new products.


B) egregious

C) unmitigated

D) stark

In this question, we simply have to consider the context of the sentence and choose the word that most precisely (hence, “Precision and Concision”) fits the sentence. In these questions, the answer choices are usually words that have some overlap in meaning but differ in their usage, as in this example. All four of the answer choices generally mean “severe,” but only one of them works best in describing the noun “contrast” that follows. Here some students with less developed vocabularies may begin to run into problems – if you don’t know what “egregious” or “austere” or “unmitigated” means, you can’t confidently choose or eliminate it. For questions like this, work methodically: read the sentence in context, make a prediction that encapsulates your understanding of the word in question, and eliminate answer choices based on that prediction. If you have to guess, at least make the guess as educated as possible by eliminating based on your prior knowledge.

Students who struggle with questions like the last one often want to know how they can improve their vocabularies. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer for the new SAT, as there is no magical list of words that you can memorize and instantly improve your scores. That doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to improve your vocabulary, however. The best thing that you can do, that we can all do, to learn new words is to read. Read a wide range of materials targeted at educated adult audiences. When you see a word you’ve never seen before, make a note of it. Write it down somewhere; curate a list of new words that you want to incorporate into your lexicon. Learn them, use them, make them your own; an expansive vocabulary is an asset that will benefit you throughout your college years and into your professional life.

(For those of you dying to know the answers to the sample questions mentioned above, they are, respectively, A, C, and D. Now go learn what “phlegmatic” and “austere” mean.)

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