High School 2 College

October 26, 2011

How to Learn Vocabulary for the SATs

Vocabulary used to be a bigger deal on the SATs.  When I first started tutoring 24 years ago, there was a section on the SATs called “antonyms,” which was solely — you guessed it — antonyms.  They took that section away about 18 years ago, but left the analogy section until 2005.  You needed to have a clever mind and a sharp vocabulary for the analogy section.

The good news is you need to have an impressive vocabulary much less now than when your parents or teachers took the SATs.  The bad news is that if you’re a typical American teenager, your vocabulary is much, much worse than your parents’ or teachers’ vocabulary was at your age.

I’ve ranted elsewhere on my blog about my view of the causes of this decline, but you’ve come to this column to learn how to improve, so here are some suggestions.

1.  Use big words.  When you learn a new word, use it.  Use it with your friends.  Use it with your parents.  Use it in your next school assignment.  If you use it once, it’s yours.  You don’t have to memorize it any more; it’s part of your own vocabulary.

2.  Have fun with big words.  If you have a list of English vocabulary words to study, try to make a sentence using two or three of them.  Try to make a story using 10 or more words.  Try to make a sentence in which nothing but a synonym for your word would work.  For example, if I wrote, “I am ambivalent about my decision,” I might mean I am positive about my decision or I’m unsure about my decision or I’m depressed about my decision.  But if I said, “I’m ambivalent about my decision because both choices have so many pros and cons that I just can’t make up my mind,” you’re no longer ambivalent about what “ambivalent” means!

UPDATE:  I just learned about a program online in which you can make up your own flash cards, games, and quizzes to learn vocabulary – and pretty much anything else.  The good news is that there are already dozens of sets of SAT words available to learn, play with, and quiz yourself on.  Go to the quizlet link, look for SAT on the right, and have fun!

3.  Read big words.  Read books that are slightly harder for you than those you’d typically pick out.  If you like romance novels, read Vanity Fair by Thackeray.  If you like murder mysteries, read anything by Agatha Christie. Because each genre has its own vocabulary, read out of your usual area of interest.  If you like suspense novels, try a biography.  If you like chick-lit, read a play.  And if you just don’t like reading books, read a magazine with big words in it, like TIME magazine or Newsweek.  A subscription (check out prices online) is much cheaper than individual magazines, and once the magazine is floating around the house, most likely you’ll read articles here and there while you’re waiting for dinner to get done.

4.  Listen to big words.  Jon Stewart on the Daily Show (Comedy Central) has one of the best vocabularies on television.  His show keeps winning awards for writing because smart people write the show, and smart people watch the show.  If you watch the show, either on TV or online, you could just get smart, too.  A bonus is that the SATs are filled with political words, and Jon Stewart uses them correctly and with a wry sense of humor.  I love Stephen Colbert, but for vocab, Jon Stewart’s the man.  Sure, he’s a little ribald, but get your kid brother out of the room and tell your parents it’s homework.

5.  Play with big words.  Learning seems to be more palatable when it’s on the computer.  Sign up for the College Board question of the day.  Sign up for Merriam-Webster’s word of the day . Start playing on freerice.com, a site where you can learn vocabulary as you feed the world’s hungry. The words get harder as you get more correct.

6.  Work with big words.  Sometimes, you just have to do a little work.  If you’re serious about learning vocabulary, get a good vocab book.  Not all vocabulary books that say they’re good for the SATs are actually well thought out or effective.  For students with an average vocabulary who want to improve, the best book out there is SAT Vocabulary for Dummies.  I wish it were a bit less expensive and a bit smaller so it would fit in a backpack better, but it does an outstanding job at introducing and reinforcing just the right vocabulary words for the SATs without being too pedantic.  For those who already have a fairly accomplished vocabulary but still want to learn those tricky SAT words, I strongly recommend Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis.  How do you think I got my expansive vocabulary?  My teachers assigned chapters in this book way back in the olden days when I was in something we called “Junior High,” because my teachers were assigned that book when they were in Junior High.  It’s still packed with words you don’t know, presented with a sly wink and a dose of erudition that’s hard to come by these days.

It’s never too early to start improving your vocabulary.  That sounds pedantic, I know, but I can’t help it.  I am, after all, a teacher.

Tell me your favorite ways to learn new words.

Wendy Segal


October 16, 2011

SAT/ACT FAQ: SAT/ACT Questions I Wish People Would Ask

If you search back over all my previous posts, you’ll find the answer to many of your SAT and college application questions.  But some questions bear repeating.  So here are some questions I get asked all the time – and questions I wish people would ask before they make poor choices.

Question: I’m not even in my junior year yet, but I want to get started early.  What should I do to prepare for the SATs?

Answer: One thing NOT to do is take the 10th grade PSATs.  What a waste of time and money!  There’s no value in taking that test, and it might do you harm, because if you don’t do well, you won’t be able to take the 11th grade PSATs with confidence.  Another thing NOT to do is take practice tests given by testing organizations, even free ones given in libraries or community centers.  I’ve found the difficulty of the tests is unreliable. Either the tests are too easy so they can build your confidence, or they’re too hard so the testing organization can get you to sign up for a course of prep sessions.  Don’t do it. The best thing you can do to prepare early is pay attention in math class, asking for extra help if there are concepts you don’t understand, and read.  Read.  READ.  It’s especially useful to read TIME magazine or Newsweek, especially the letters to the editor (“inbox” in TIME) and the back page essay.  The more you read essays, the better you’ll be at reading essays. Makes sense.  If you think your vocabulary is particularly weak, try SAT Vocabulary for Dummies.  I hate the name of that book, but it’s very useful.

Question: I’m a high school junior.  I know my PSAT scores will be available by around Christmas break.  But when should I take the SATs?

Answer: I recommend that most of my students take the March and May SATs in their junior year. If you have a commitment when the March or May test is scheduled (March 10, 2012 and May 5, 2012), you can take the January test (1/28/2012) or June test (6/2/2012), but the January test is often difficult and is too soon after the PSATs come back for you to use that info to prepare for the next test.  And the June test conflicts with finals and SAT Subject Tests (SATIIs).  So for most kids, March and May SATs are just right.

Question: What about SAT Subject Tests (SATIIs)?  When do I take them?

Answer: SAT Subject Tests are one-hour multiple choice tests that are given in a variety of subjects, like math, science, foreign language and history.  The most selective schools require two or more SAT Subject tests.  The fairly selective schools like to see two or more.  The less selective schools don’t much care.  You can take up to three in a day, but DON’T!  Don’t take more than two in a day.  You’ll be wiped out. Most kids take those either in June of junior year  or October or November of senior year. They’re given the same day as SATs (except no SAT Subject Tests are given in March), so you cannot take both SATs and SAT Subject tests on the same day.

Question: I’ve heard about the ACTs.  Do I have to take those, too?

Answer: The ACTs used to be popular only for kids attending school in the mid-west.  Now nearly 100% of my students take the ACTs.  Some kids do substantially better on the ACTs, some do better on the SATs, and some score pretty much the same on both.  The ACTs are shorter and less stressful, and that’s reason enough for some kids to take them.

Bonus: If you take the ACTs and score well, you may not have to take SAT Subject Tests — and if you score really well, you don’t even have to take the SATs.  I’d recommend juniors take the ACTs in April.  They also give the ACTs in June, but why not take them in April?  That way, you’ll have your scores back in time to decide whether you have to take June SAT Subject Tests.

Question: Do I really have to take the SATs more than once?  How many times can I/ should I take them?

Answer: Don’t stop at once, even with score choice, unless you get something spectacular the first time, like above 730 on each section.  This isn’t a good time to be lazy.  And don’t take them more than three times.  After three times, your score isn’t likely to improve so significantly that it would be worth the extra time and effort.  So, take the SATs twice or three times, usually twice in junior year and once in senior year.

Question: Should I send my scores to schools when I sign up for the SATs to take advantage of the four free score reports?

Answer: I used to insist that my students send their scores to different schools each time they took the test, but now that they’ve instituted score choice (you can hide entire seatings of SATs if you want), there’s not enough benefit to sending scores now.  Wait until ALL of your tests are done, which means the fall of senior year for most students, then decide which SATs, which SAT Subject tests, and/or which ACTs to send.  Don’t send anything anywhere until then.

Question:  They’re offering a course at my school/church/temple/community center.  Should I take it?

Answer:  For most students, the answer is a vigorous NO!  Whether you hire me to help you with your test prep (and I hope you do), or whether you find another tutor, almost no one gets anything from those courses.  I used to teach at one for the first two years I did SAT prep, and I stopped because it was a disappointing waste of time and money for nearly every student.  For those students who are bright but need a bit of test technique,  the course is a waste of time.  You’ll sit there texting while the teacher patiently explains things you already know.  If you really need some help, you’ll be lost.  The teacher has to move at a steady pace whether any particular student understands or not.  The first time the teacher asks if there’s anyone who doesn’t understand, you might raise your hand.  The second time, you might raise your hand.  By the third time, you’ll be embarrassed and lost.  If you want to get an overview of the test, buy a good SAT review book and read the introduction.  Save your time and money.  If you really want your score to improve, find yourself a tutor who not only knows math and/or grammar and reading, but really knows the SAT and/or ACT inside and out.  I hate to blow my own horn, but when a prep course teacher teaches the SATs, he or she teaches it once in the spring and once in the fall.  When I teach the SATs or ACTs, I teach it 20 – 30 times every spring and 20 – 30 times every fall, year after year.  I can help you correct your particular weaknesses and I can help you strengthen your own particular areas of accomplishment.  Can a course do that?

Question:  I hear there are colleges that don’t require SATs or ACTs at all.  Is that true?

Answer:  Yes, but.  Yes, there are colleges that don’t require SATs, including some less selective schools and some very prestigious selective schools.  But many of those schools require two or more SAT Subject Tests in lieu of the regular SAT Reasoning test, or they require you to submit a graded writing sample in lieu of a test score. SAT Subject Tests aren’t easy, and I’m embarrassed to say that in my school district, students don’t really have a graded writing sample to submit.  Furthermore, if you don’t take SATs or ACTs, you are drastically limiting the schools to which you can apply.  So presume you’ll have to submit your scores, and practice!

Do you have any other SAT/ACT or college application questions?  Just ask!

Wendy Segal

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