Building a strong vocabulary is crucial for success on the SAT. The verbal section is filled with difficult words that appear not only on vocabulary questions, but also in passages and even answer choices. You’ll also want to use advanced vocabulary in your essay. How can you make sure you’re prepared?


First, it’s critical to get hold of an excellent vocabulary list. Avoid lists that just offer advanced vocabulary for high school students – make sure you get a vocabulary list specifically tailored to the SAT. The list should be drawn from words that have frequently appeared on former tests. This should be explicitly noted. One good example of a list of this kind is Barron’s, which contains as many as 3,500 words.

So what do you do now that you’ve gotten hold of all these words? Decide how many words you’re going to learn before you take the test (the more the better) and then figure out how many you need to learn each day to reach your goal. The key is to space your learning out over a long period of time – neuroscience research has shown that you remember and understand better when you do a little learning each day over a period of days than when you cram all your learning into one day.

Make flashcards so that you can test yourself on the words. Not only do we learn best by being actively tested, but it’s too easy to fool ourselves into thinking we know the words otherwise. Consider using Anki, a powerful free flashcard tool that spaces flashcards in a way designed to help you best retain them.

As you study, try to think of unique ways to remember each word. For ignominy, which means shame, you might think of a group of shameful gnomes who have been tearing up people’s yards. The more striking and sensory the image, the more likely you are to remember the word.

Studies have also shown that the more you recall and use the new words you’re learning, the more likely you’ll be to remember them. When you’re in the shower or going to school, try to recall the words you’ve recently learned. Then put them to use in sentences. Use them in conversation, in your papers at school, and in your practice essays for the SAT. Make these words truly your own!

If you follow these steps, you’ll be on your way to building the type of vocabulary you need for success on the test. In addition, you’ll be building core foundations for future academic and professional success.

What happens if you don’t know a word on test day? Here’s what to do.