Test Prep

Finding Solutions for Vocab in Context on the SAT

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Impecunious. Perspicacious. The SAT used to throw obscure words like these at you, and if you didn't have them memorized, you were out of luck. Now, however, the SAT uses vocabulary-in-context questions to test your reading comprehension. The emphasis there is on "in context" — that is, you won't just find these words in the wild. You'll be able to use the surrounding passage to help you figure out what each word means. Here are two tips for tackling this type of question.


Define With Caution

On the test, you'll see plenty of words that look familiar, which may tempt you to default to the definition you're most familiar with. Be warned that while these words may be familiar, their usage on the test will rarely be. Do not try to answer vocab-in-context questions simply by defining the word in your head and looking for that definition. Here you'll need to go back to the text and look at the context for the word. As with other questions, you have to rely heavily on the evidence given and not on your own opinions.

For example, say you're given the following sentences:

"Much of what happens in society is a numbers game," Rohall says. "If you have more people, any phenomenon starts to appear more common if you focus on any one event or behavior. Even something that is very infrequent may start to appear to be a trend," he says, "when you aggregate those events."

The test may ask you to choose the nearest definition for the word "common" in the second sentence, giving the following options:

  • A) tasteless.
  • B) popular.
  • C) frequent.
  • D inferior.

The SAT is hoping you'll get tangled in a number of thoughts here. One of those might be that because something is common, it must be popular since you see it everywhere. Another might be that because something is common, it must be inferior since you see it more often than something that might be more luxurious or expensive. Both of these will lead you astray! Instead, focus on what the text is actually saying. In this case, you only have evidence for "common" having something to do with numbers and frequency, not how the general public feels about something. Therefore, the answer is (C).

Insert, Eliminate, Repeat

Even if you find yourself facing a few words that are unfamiliar to you, the SAT vocab questions don't need to be tricky. If you use Process of Elimination (POE) effectively, you can narrow your answers down and still score well.

First, read the context to understand what the passage is talking about. (You're just guessing if you try to answer without the context.) From there, read the sentence with each answer choice plugged into the place of the original word, crossing out the ones you know don't make sense. Note that students answer more accurately when they read the sentence from start to finish for each word. And don't worry if the last word you have left to choose is the least familiar to you — just because you don't know what a word means doesn't mean it isn't the correct choice, especially if you know the other three can't be correct.

Vocab-in-context questions on the SAT can be conquered with some strategy just like any other portion of the test. For more tips to utilize on test day, check out our book Cracking the SAT and take a free practice test if you haven't already in order to familiarize yourself with each section.