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The Slammin' Way to Learn Vocabulary

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Study Tips and Info for SAT-Bound Students

Ask Mike: How many vocabulary words should I learn?

Dear Mike,

How many vocabulary words should I learn before I take the SAT?



Dear Maddie,

Of course, there are so many factors that will influence how much vocabulary you’ll need to learn to reach your goal score on the critical reading, but here’s my general rule:


As a very rough guide, students starting in the 500s and shooting for the 600s will want to aim for close to 1000 words from a list targeting common SAT vocabulary, written by a reputable source.

Anyone who knows anything about the SAT critical reading knows that it is largely a test of your vocabulary, and I would be very wary of any tutor or advisor who says that memorizing a ton of vocab is a waste of time. It most certainly is not (in most cases).

The critical reading is made up of 19 sentence completions- almost all of which depend upon your vocabulary- and 48 passage-based questions, and many parents and students think there is some other key, besides vocabulary, to success on the latter. This is partially true: if you’ve been an avid reader all your life (and we all know there are SO many of you out there*), you will probably have a much easier time reading the passages. However, quickly and confidently spotting the correct answers to a passage-based question is frequently dependent upon knowing the definition of a word either in the passage or in the answer. Furthermore, as most of the passages are peppered with challenging words, vocabulary plays an enormous role not only in understanding the passages’ main ideas but also in reading the passages as quickly as possible.

So, again, if you’re looking for a critical reading score anywhere north of 600, you’re going to need to get serious about building your vocabulary. Of course, if you’re already scoring 650/700 and above, you’ll probably have to learn fewer words, but you will still benefit from learning some of the more difficult words that tend to appear on the test (calumny, treacle, halcyon, vituperative, lugubrious, sententious, winnow, wry…if you already know these, you’re in pretty good shape).

If anyone needs recommendations for vocabulary sources (to use in conjunction with the inimitable SAT Word Slam, of course!), I’m happy to help.

Finally, remember that memorizing vocabulary isn’t just a benefit to your SAT score: it’ll likely help your reading speed and comprehension, your writing and your conversational skills, as well.

*see “facetious” in the dictionary

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