How Important is Vocabulary on the SAT?

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The SAT is known for testing difficult vocabulary, or so-called “SAT words,” so studying for the SAT tends to evoke images of long lists of definitions and teetering stacks of flashcards. However, the latest version of the SAT (updated in 2016) no longer tests high-level words in isolated vocabulary questions (i.e., sentence completions or analogies). 

So the logical question is, how important is vocabulary on the SAT? Are lists of vocabulary words outdated?  

The revised SAT does still test vocabulary, now exclusively in the context of passages in both the reading and writing sections. While the passages themselves are, if anything, more lexically challenging than ever before, the words on the reading section that are directly tested are meant to be basic words. (Be careful, though, before you assume they are too easy. The word “caveat” was tested on a recent exam.) On the writing section, don’t be surprised if you see occasional esoteric words. 

What this means, in short, is that vocabulary still matters! Vocabulary will always be in style—but like styles, the role of vocabulary on the SAT has changed a bit with the times. Let’s look a little more in depth at what to expect and how to prepare. 

SAT Reading Section 

Because the reading passages are written by a diverse range of authors from modern and historical periods alike, you are likely to come across words you are not familiar with. Moreover, the question stems and answer choices themselves may contain some unknown words as well. This is where studying those higher-level vocabulary flashcards can particularly help. 

To assess your understanding of certain words as they’re used in the passages, the reading section will ask vocabulary-in-context questions, for which you’ll need to pick a synonym for the indicated word. The words may look easy but will often require you to know their less common, secondary definitions that you may have not even been aware of. For example, the word “list” looks like a no-brainer, but did you know it can refer to a ship leaning to one side? Fortunately, the contextual clues can help, and so can the elimination of incorrect answer choices. 

Lastly, keep in mind that the SAT doesn’t test words that are used figuratively, so stay focused on literal dictionary definitions. 

SAT Writing and Language Section 

The writing section also has questions asking you to identify appropriate words within the context of passages. Unlike the reading questions, these questions aren’t asking for synonyms of selected words but are asking about proper diction. You may see four answer choices with similar meanings, and your job is to select the most appropriate one for the situation described. This means understanding connotation and the typical applications of the words. For example, the words “adopt,” “raise,” and “foster” have some similar meanings and associations, but a pond’s nutrients can only “foster” plant growth, not “raise” or “adopt” it.

A broad vocabulary is so important for understanding SAT reading, writing, and essay passages, as well as communicating clearly and precisely in your essay writing. 

More importantly, beyond standardized tests, the hundreds of thousands of words in the English language help us communicate ideas with precision, clarity, and style—a gift worth taking advantage of.

So keep studying your vocabulary, making sure to study words in simple sentences or phrases so that you remember their proper usage. 

And, as always, the best way to improve your vocabulary—and comprehension, and focus, and speed—is to just read! 


Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance.