This tip for improving your SAT score was provided by Emma Chominj at Veritas Prep.
Anyone who’s ever watched a nature documentary knows that observing animals in their natural environment can be much more valuable to scientists than watching them in captivity. Unlike rare tree frogs, SAT vocabulary words find their “natural environment” in formal writing, and they’re easy to track down and study. The words tested in the sentence completion and vocabulary-in-context questions of the Critical Reading section are used in academic and literary contexts but not often in normal conversation. You can learn a lot about a word by finding out how effective writers use it to communicate concrete ideas in the real world.
As part of familiarizing yourself with a new SAT vocabulary word, you should seek it out in its natural environment. This is especially helpful if the word is one you might want to use in your SAT essay, as well as study for the vocabulary questions in the Critical Reading section. This strategy serves to both cement the word’s definition in your mind and give you clues about its connotation (the “feel” of a word) that are difficult to fully absorb from an SAT vocab list definition that might only be a couple of words long. An efficient way to hunt down a word in the wild is to search for it on the website of a newspaper or magazine. There’s no need to read an entire article; just do a text search (Ctrl+F on a PC; Command+F on a Mac) for the word and read a bit before and after it occurs to get a sense of how the author is using it. Let’s look at a few examples of SAT words used by folks writing for Bloomberg Businessweek:
Definition: adj. rural, non-urban
Real-word example (source): “‘Oh, we had more than 50 cafes in Dworp,’ she said of the bucolic village 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Brussels, part of a hilly area of pastures whose landscapes and beers figured in the paintings of the famous artist Breughel.”
How this can help you: This example describes a “hilly area of pastures,” which is a great concrete image to associate with “bucolic.” Without this context, it might be tempting to think of a word meaning “rural or non-urban” as having a neutral or even negative connotation; reading the word in this context shows you that “bucolic” has a positive connotation because it’s being used as part of a glowing description of the village of Dworp.
Definition: v. dispute the validity of, challenge
Real-world example (source): “Cogent Solutions sued Hyalogic in 2011, saying the company used negative advertising to make false and misleading statements about how Baxyl worked and how it performed. [...] Trevor Wells, an attorney for Cogent Solutions, told the judges that, even though Baxyl isn’t mentioned by name, the obvious intent of the video is to impugn his client’s product.”
How this can help you: This example demonstrates that “impugn” is sometimes used to mean “[making] false and misleading statements” about the noun being impugned. It also gives you a concrete example of a situation in which something is impugned: a company making unflattering statements about the product of its competitor. By expanding this concept, you can now easily weave “impugn” into an SAT essay in ways that might not have clicked before. For example, in an essay about challenging authority, you may write that “While one should not impugn those in positions of authority impulsively or without just cause, pointing out problematic actions of authority figures serves the public good.” The more such connections you can draw to real-world situations, the closer you are to learning the word and having it stick for good.
Definition: n. mistake, error, blunder
Real-world example (source): “[...] Japanese media often have overlooked politicians’ gaffes. Politicians’ aides also help them avoid making embarrassing comments on TV and in print media.”
Why it’s helpful: This example, which equates “gaffes” with “embarrassing comments on TV and in print media,” helps to flesh out your understanding that “gaffe” is used mainly to describe errors that are significant, public in nature, and potentially embarrassing. For example, you wouldn’t want to describe a mistake you made on your math homework as a “gaffe” in your SAT essay, because that usage doesn’t jibe with the way “gaffe” is typically used in writing. Remember: you want to convey to the essay grader that you have a nuanced familiarity with the word, not simply that you’ve memorized its technical definition.
While this in-depth strategy may not be necessary for every single SAT vocabulary word you encounter, it’s absolutely worth the effort for words that you see pop up again and again in your SAT prep materials, words you have continual difficulty remembering, and words you’re considering for use in your essay. Looking for words in the wild can help break up monotonous study sessions and provide excellent critical reading practice using real-word texts.
For more practice, take a full-length SAT practice test to sharpen your skills.