Studying vocabulary is, for most students, a reasonable use of SAT prep time, However, it's not the number of SAT words you know. It's understanding how the SAT designers use those words. The SAT does not actually test your vocabulary. It tests your reasoning ability. The harder questions are made difficult, not by testing fancy words, but by testing what students ASSUME about the meanings of words, especially seemingly easy words. Here's a famous example of Assuming the meaning of an unknown word...from a past SAT:
Actors in melodramas often emphasized tense moments by being ________, for example, raising their voices and pretending to swoon.
A) imperious B) inscrutable C) convivial
D) histrionic E) solicitous
This sentence highlights the SAT designer's realization that most students will assume the meaning of a word based on “sounds like, looks like, tastes like”. In SelectPrep's experience, over 70% of beginning students quickly crossed out “histrionic”. “No way that “history” means swooning!” Our students learn that roots, prefixes, sounds like, looks like are not to be trusted. “Histrionic” = “raising their voices and pretending to swoon.” Our students learn to think like SAT designers. Quickly eliminating words that seem obviously wrong can get you in a whole bunch of trouble.
Here's another example:
The judges for the chili competition were -------, noting subtle differences between dishes that most people would not detect.
The word that goes in the blank needs to mean "noting subtle differences" and it needs to be positive. Most students got this question wrong, because most students quickly crossed out C-they assumed that discrimination is a bad word. They did not realize that "discriminating" might have other levels of meaning. Like "a discriminating palette". Or, another way to put it, "noting subtle differences". Secondary word meanings, and words with metaphorical meanings are more often right than wrong on an SAT test.
Pay close attention to "easy" words on hard questions: If the question seems hard to you, and you see a simple, everyday word that SEEMS to be obviously wrong, do not ASSUME. Do not automatically cross out that word. The College Board people are about to do a GOTCHA on you. I am not suggesting that you should always pick that word, but if you cross it out and then find it difficult to find the answer, you have probably been snookered. (Also, what does that tell you about the so-called “Eliminate and Guess strategy? But that's a topic of a future post.)
Everyone agrees that a great vocabulary will help a student score higher, but it's such an "odds game" that I have given much more emphasis to understanding how SAT vocab works. Of course I ask my students to study vocab. However, in the limited time that I have with my students, can I "teach" vocab?
In short, my approach is that the SAT people know that students will make an assumption about the meaning of words based on prefixes, roots, suffixes. Or that most students will assume only the first level of a word's meaning. Isn't that what most students learn in school? The SAT people also know that. That's why they set so many traps based on ASSUME.
Here are more examples from The Blue Book. The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd edition.
If you don't already own this book, buy it. http://www.amazon.com/The-Official-SAT-Study-Guide/dp/0874478529/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331660910&sr=1-1
Page 390, Q 4, D Deliberate
Page 425, Q 4, E Currency
Page 458, Q 8, A Mercurial
Page 520, Q 8, C Discriminating
Page 734, Q 6, in the Q itself: Precludes
Page 842, Q 8, A Censures
Page 707, Q6, C Appreciation
Page 725, Q12, B Resigned
Page 825, Q 9, B Qualified
Page 829, Q 21, in the Q itself: Patent