Words outside of the zoo

I have never been a huge advocate of monstrous vocabulary lists like those in the back of some of the popular SAT guides, and I always avoided flashcard vocabulary words as if they were coated with battery acid. Fortunately, I had a long bookshelf, and I read almost everything on it. Through some mystical process of repetition aided by the weekly dose of vocabulary in school, I absorbed a huge vocabulary that helped me ace the SAT.

Those of you who don’t spend your time reading literary essays on J.R.R. Tolkien and Dostoyevsky, however, have to get the words another way. Studying efficient, well-made vocabulary lists are one part of that process. Don’t start with the massive lists I discussed above. Instead, go to Direct Hits and buy both books. Their approach is interesting. Instead of giving you a list with a definition and a little sample sentence, they provide a rich paragraph with each word. These paragraphs talk about interesting topics like Spiderman and vampires, and they’re seeded not only with the word under discussion, but also with other words from the books, providing you an easy way to continue to test your knowledge. There are also some SAT-style tests in the back.

But you need to do more than just memorize–you need to see these words in the wild. I am not about to recommend that you slog through thick tomes of world literature in your spare time. You should, though, look into some magazines. Read anything. Read everything. Read National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Popular Science, the newspaper.

I hate to say this because it goes against everything that is good and beautiful, but read Twilight. My niece was reading me some deleted scenes from the first book last weekend (I consented under duress), and I noticed a rich density of SATable words nestled in the gauzy descriptions of cute, sparkly bloodsuckers.

Expose yourself to language, and you will encounter the words that you will see on the SAT. All of them? No. “Phlegmatic” and “lucubration” are unlikely to make an appearance in your hometown newspaper. But the majority of the words on the SAT aren’t so obscure. Go find them. You won’t even need binoculars.



The Importance of Vocabulary

The writing section of the test is incredibly teachable: learn to do a few simple tricks, and you can boost your score by hundreds of points. Reading is a different beast entirely. Because it requires you to untangle the meanings of complicated sentences, you have to know the meanings of words that constitute those sentences, not just their grammatical status.

So I have bad news: you probably need to study vocabulary. If you are an avowed reader who tirelessly treks through mountains of books every year, congratulations, this advice probably isn’t true. I barely glanced at vocab lists before diving into the SAT, and I was somehow able to score a perfect 800 on the Critical Reading section. But I was also reading scholarly analyses of T.S. Eliot’s poetry during driving school in tenth grade. You were not. Trust me: study a vocabulary list. The most efficient one is the Direct Hits series.

You could also try to read some Modernist poetry. Or even some non-Modernist poetry. Just read. See the words that you learn on the lists in the wild, roaming free on the pale savannas in your book. Identify them there. Tag them and remember their meaning. The next time you stumble upon one, you will recognize it more readily. Eventually, you’ll have your own private menagerie of exotic words.