There are two types of vocabulary question on the SAT.  The first provides contextual clues and asks you to define a word or give its synonym.  The length of the surrounding context might change, but your strategy will remain the same: substitute.  Replace the suspect word with each option and see if the sentence makes sense. While you may be given a variety of synonyms which have similar broad meanings, only one will truly fit.  What makes these questions tricky is that you’re being asked to distinguish between nuanced shades of meaning. Note that you are asked for the word which “most nearly” or “best” resembles the first.  That means the correct answer may not be the one you would use if you were writing the paragraph, but it’s the best one available. That caveat applies to the entire Reading section: you’re looking for the best option, not the perfect word.

The second type asks you to summarize the author’s tone or their argument’s thrust in a single word.  For instance, one of these questions may ask you to explain how a passage characterizes a historical event.  The best way to answer these questions is to reread the passage and underline the contextual clues that color the writing.  Then you can return to the answers and see which one fits the best. You shouldn’t waste valuable time by rereading additional parts of the passage surrounding the one given.  Everything you need to know is there and you might trip yourself up by consuming extra, unnecessary information.

In addition to using the strategies outlined above, you should use the process of elimination.  This is an important tool throughout the test, but it’s particularly effective on vocabulary questions.  There will often be two to three potential answers which you can tell are flat out wrong just by context.  If you can successfully knock out at least two possible answers then guessing becomes a winning proposition.

The single best way to ensure you do well on the vocabulary section is simple: prepare.  This trumps any of the aforementioned methods. There’s no need to know linguistic roots or practice smart test taking if you know the answer immediately.  While rote vocabulary memorization has become less important as of late, it’s still an easy way to boost your score. There’s are a variety of resources online including Quizlet and Quiz Tree to aid in building your vocabulary.  Whenever I come across a word I don’t know in my personal life -which happens often if you’re a fellow David Foster Wallace fan- I immediately look up the definition and write it down.  Later, I make flashcards so I can commit the words to memory. Regardless of how you decide to prepare, make sure to supplement it with our strategies to ensure a great score on the Vocabulary section.