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The New SAT Will Do Away with 'SAT Words,' And That's a Shame

I’ve tutored SAT prep for years, but I’ve never really understood what an “SAT word” is. Words are just words—how do you differentiate? But as of 2016, the “typical” SAT word—abhor, replete, plaudit—will disappear from the test. In the largest overhaul of the test since 2005, the writing section will be eliminated, and vocabulary questions featuring the infamous “SAT words” will be scrapped. 

There are some good features of the SAT’s new look. Losing the essay is great. And a shorter test is certainly a better test. But it’s a shame to see the vocabulary go. “Words that are widely used in college and career,” as the College Board described the words that would get a greater emphasis according to new standards, sounds an awful lot like code for easier words.

Supporters of the SAT changes hail them as a move toward the egalitarian, and it’s lamentable but true that today’s SAT can be gamed with pointed preparation. My tutees’ scores really do improve with increased exposure to the kind of thinking the SAT demands. Learn how to answer questions whose answers you do not actually know, and learn when to guess, and your score shoots up. There’s no real secret to it, but worried, wealthy parents shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars to have people like me (and my far pricier counterparts) walk their kids through the SAT.

The test prep business is on the whole rather soul-crushing, not just because it’s available almost exclusively to fabulously wealthy students but because it doesn’t offer much in the way of intellectual content. But if there was any section of the test from which a little intellectual stimulation could be derived, it was the sentence completion questions—questions that will disappear with the new revisions. In these questions, students read sentences with one or two words omitted. The task is to choose which word, or pair of words, works best in blank spot. Especially in the double-blank questions, there are more moving parts than anywhere else on the test. Students have to consider the relationship between the two words in question, the context of the rest of the sentence, and the meanings of each of the five options. Maybe, in one option, the first word seems the best fit, but the second word is clearly wrong. It takes a little bit of cleverness to find the right solution. The SAT’s dominant feature is tedium; these small challenges can make it slightly more palatable.

Once, my pupils encountered the word “somnambulist.” No one knew what it meant, but the other choices didn’t work. Somnambulist it was. We could have moved on, satisfied to have found the right answer. But we looked at the word more closely, broke it down. My students noted two similar words: “insomnia” and “ambulance,” both words they knew. Soon enough, they figured it out: sleep and moving. Sleepwalking! The SAT had become fun, and they’d learned a word—and a pretty great word, to boot.

I never liked the term “SAT word.” It marginalizes words, shunting them into the category of arcana that only a dumb or evil test would drum up. Memorizing vocabulary is not necessary for success on the old SAT, but plenty of kids do it anyway. And while memorizing vocabulary can definitely be a boon, the method teaches kids to think of words as the stuff of busywork rather than discovery.

Still, the old SAT contained words students could play with. Future SAT-takers won’t dismiss any new words because of their association with a test. But they also might not encounter those words at all. The SAT is about to get even more boring.