Remembering SAT Vocab
Remembering SAT Vocab
Anyone can study vocabulary by reading over a list of words and definitions. Simple. But not that helpful. It’s another thing entirely to remember the words you study.

NOTE: Pronounced ni-‘mä-nik

devices are tricks of the memorizing trade. A mnemonic could be an image, a rhyme, a formula—anything other than straight repetition of a word and its definition. So, let’s say you want to memorize the word mnemonic. You could come up with an image of the word mnemonic branded into some guy’s brain as he correctly answers a Sentence Completion. The image will stick in your head much more readily than any dry old definition. With mnemonics, you’ll remember words permanently and with less effort.
When you use mnemonics, the more outlandish the image or rhyme you can make up, the better. The farther out the mnemonic, the more sticky it will be in your brain. If you’re trying to memorize the word sacrosanct, which means “holy, or something that should not be criticized,” go all out. Imagine that scene in the Raiders of the Lost Ark when the holy “Ark of the Covenant” gets opened, and then everyone’s face melts off because they dared to touch this holy, sacrosanct object. Boom. You know this word. You’re not about to forget someone’s face melting off. From now on, whenever you encounter an especially tough SAT vocab word, generate a detailed phrase or image that burns the meaning of the word into your memory.
Below are five mnemonic examples that we came up with to help you remember the definitions of some tough SAT vocab words:
SAT Word Definition Mnemonic Word in a Sentence
buttress a support Having a big butt gives you extra support, like a buttress. Without a strong buttress, the building’s front structure would collapse.
conundrum a problem or puzzle Having only one-drum is a conundrum for a rock drummer. The explorers figured out how to deal with the conundrum of having only two days to hike 100 miles.
cursory brief and to the point People tend to curse when they want to get straight to the point. His boss took a cursory look at the memo and came to a decision.
malevolent wanting harm to be done to others Violent males tend to be malevolent. The villain confirmed his malevolent wishes by cheering when the tree fell and crushed his neighbor’s foot.
boon a gift or blessing Pirates consider booty a boon. The teacher’s decision to make the test open-book was a boon to her students.
Where the Wild Vocabs Are
SAT vocab lurks in lists and in life. You will be tempted to ignore life and focus only on the lists. That’s up to you, but we think that’s a mistake. You’ll learn and retain more vocabulary if you focus on both.
Vocab in Lists
Studying vocab from a list of words seems easy, but it’s actually quite tough. That list of words lulls you to sleep, so you think you’re remembering what you study, but you’re actually not. (This is another reason mnemonics are so helpful: You can’t fool yourself into thinking you came up with a mnemonic. You’ve either got one or you don’t.) You really need to focus to seal the meaning of the word into your mind. Breezing over a list won’t make that happen.
There is another pitfall in studying vocab from lists. Your mind memorizes in context. One thing clues you into another. This can trick you into thinking that you know a word even when you don’t—you may know it only when it’s in the order from your list, not when it’s sitting there alone in an answer choice. So, when you study from a list, don’t always go through it in the same order. Switch things around, go backward, skip every other word. Keep your head on its toes. Or use flashcards and frequently reshuffle the deck.
Vocab in Life
Remember the other day when you were watching a movie like The Matrix and one of the characters said a word you didn’t recognize, but you shrugged it off so you could just enjoy the show? Those days are over. From now until the day you take the new SAT, if you hear a word you don’t know, try to guess its meaning from context, then look it up to see if you were right and make a mnemonic.
This takes some effort. And if you don’t want to put out the effort to make the world your personal vocab oyster, well, we’re not going to come track you down. But we will tell you that paying attention to words you encounter on lists and in life will go a long way toward building the vocabulary you need to beat the new SAT.
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