Vocabulary based questions appear on the SAT in the form of Sentence Completions. Sentence Completion questions omit either one or two words from a sentence, and ask you to choose from a list of possible word choices to complete the sentence. Because Sentence Completions appear in order of difficulty from easiest at the beginning to hardest at the end, the hardest of these questions lie at the end of each Sentence Completion question group.
Don’t get stuck on hard Sentence Completions and waste time that should be spent on Passage Reading. Hard sentence completion questions are some of the most challenging questions on the entire SAT. The sentences are difficult to interpret and the vocabulary answer choices are even tougher. What’s more, hard Sentence Completion questions usually include trick answers (known as ‘attractors’) that sound like the correct answer, but in reality mean something completely different than the word the question is looking for.
Beware! Hard Sentence Completion questions can mess up your entire Critical Reading score. The temptation here is to waste valuable time pondering vocabulary words you don’t know, only to then desperately guess at the attractors. When you do this, not only are you likely to answer these hard questions incorrectly (and lose points!), but also, and even more importantly, you lose the precious time you need to answer the later Passage Reading questions that make up the bulk of your Critical Reading score.
Skip hard Sentence Completion questions and come back to them at the end if you have time. If you do not know the word the Sentence Completion question is looking for, or cannot confidently eliminate at least THREE answer choices, skip the question. Remember, it is far more important to finish the Critical Reading section than to waste too much time trying to answer some of the hardest questions on the whole test – especially if you can’t even eliminate most of the incorrect words.
Adapted from my SAT training guide: SAT Unlocked.
With so much to read and so many questions to answer, Critical Reading is for many students the most difficult SAT section to finish within the 20-25 minutes allowed.
To finish each Critical Reading section, limit the amount of time you spend on the earlier, shorter questions.
One big reason students have trouble finishing Critical Reading is that they spend too much time on the Sentence Completion and Short Passage Reading questions at the beginning of the section. As a result, students do not leave themselves enough time to complete the Long Passage questions at the end.
Try to spend about:
30-45 seconds on each Sentence Completion question
45-60 seconds on each Short Passage question
This will leave you with well over a minute per Long Passage question, which is enough time to both read the passage(s) and answer all of the questions.
From my SAT training guide: SAT Unlocked.
For most students, spending hours studying raw vocabulary words using flashcards or other study aids probably won’t improve your SAT score all that much. Don’t believe it? Find out why. Then, discover a more efficient vocabulary solution that actually can help you achieve a higher SAT score.
How often is vocabulary tested on the SAT?
The SAT consists of a total of 170 questions in three subjects: Critical Reading, Writing, and Math. Within these three subjects, questions that test vocabulary are confined to Critical Reading (SAT Writing, which primarily tests grammar, does not use difficult words).
Critical Reading consists of 67 questions within three types: Sentence Completions, Short Passage Reading, and Long Passage Reading. Within Critical Reading, questions that test vocabulary are primarily confined to Sentence Completions.*
Each Sentence Completion question provides a sentence with one or two words missing. It is up to you to select the appropriate word or combination of words that best completes the sentence.
There are a total of 19 Sentence Completion questions on the SAT, yet only about half of these test difficult vocabulary words that a typical high school student does not already know.
So, out of 170 total SAT questions, only about ten questions (a little less than 6%) specifically test difficult vocabulary words that you would probably need to study.
Because difficult vocabulary questions make up such a small portion of the entire SAT, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a large amount of your limited SAT study time on raw vocabulary.
What’s more, Sentence Completion questions do not simply test the depth of your vocabulary. These questions also test your ability to recognize the proper use of the word in context of the sentence, so even if you know the meanings of all of the difficult words, that is still no guarantee you will be able to answer all of the Sentence Completions questions correctly.
Don’t study flashcards. Practice questions.
Instead of wasting hours and hours studying raw vocabulary, a better, more efficient way to improve your SAT Critical Reading score is to practice with real SAT questions. This way, you can both learn new vocabulary words AND familiarize yourself with the way in which this vocabulary is actually tested at the same time.
If you haven’t already done so, get yourself a copy of the Official SAT Study Guide (OSSG) published by the College Board. The OSSG includes eight full tests worth of official SAT questions (with answers).
Each of the eight tests in the book has three Critical Reading sections. Each of these sections always begins with a set of 5-8 Sentence Completion questions.
As you work your way through a Sentence Completions set, keep a list in a notebook of any words (either in the questions or the answers) that you do not know.
After you finish each set, look up the words on your list in a dictionary.
WRITE DOWN the definitions so you remember them.
Using this method, you can both target vocabulary words you do not know and practice answering actual SAT questions at the same time.
OK, but isn’t there anyone who should study flashcards?
While most students are better off simply practicing SAT Sentence Completion questions, there are two types of students who can benefit from studying raw vocabulary using flashcards.
A student scoring below 400 on Critical Reading usually lacks the vocabulary knowledge necessary to understand the SAT’s college level reading material. For these lower scoring students, intensive vocabulary training can prove effective at improving Critical Reading performance.
Similarly, students looking to score above 700 on Critical Reading have very little margin for error, and the ability to answer the hardest Sentence Completion questions is often the difference between a good Critical Reading score and a great one. For these higher scoring students, extra time spent rounding out vocabulary is also recommended.
However, while students who score at the extreme ranges of the SAT scale may benefit from using flashcards, if you are among the vast majority of students who score between 400 and 700 on Critical Reading (between the 15th and 95th percentiles), spend your time practicing actual SAT Sentence Completion questions rather than memorizing vocabulary.
*note: definition questions within short and long passage reading sets also occasionally test difficult words.