The SAT Tutor: What You Need to Know About Vocabulary on the New SAT

Posted by Ann-Marie Elvin on 1/26/15 7:01 PM

new sat vocabulary boston sat verbal tutors

Cambridge Coaching tutors are here to help you master some good words. 

When the College Board announced the overhaul of the SAT earlier this year, questions abounded. Why the need to restructure? How would the test be affected? How would test preparation be affected?

As a Boston-based SAT verbal tutor, I encountered both parents and students voicing concerns over how to prepare for the SAT amidst so many ‘unknowns.’ In this series of blog posts, I hope to assuage some of these doubts by highlighting a few specific changes to the SAT format. Today, I’ll start with changes to the way in which the SAT tests knowledge of vocabulary, which has long been a source of anxiety for students.

What Changed

In officially released materials for the Redesigned SAT, the College Board explains the following:

The redesigned SAT will focus on relevant words, the meanings of which depend on how they’re used. Students will be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear.”

A few things to consider for the new SAT:

  1. A shift towards vocabulary-in-context questions, with focus on ‘high-utility’ words that students will encounter throughout their educational lives and beyond;
  2. Emphasis on words with multiple context-specific connotations, in order to gauge students’ understanding of how diction influences both tone and meaning; and
  3. Greater importance placed on relevant words, (perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of the rote memorization and flashcards that have often dominated SAT prep).

Why it Matters

As test representatives have explained, these changes are not haphazardly being implemented. Rather, they are intended to better gauge a student’s integrated understanding of the word in question, apart from what the director describes as the ability to “know the word’s meaning from studying it in isolation.”

Although memorization remains important to building a strong vocabulary, much more significant, they argue, is the ability to recognize and apply these definitions as they appear in context. To this end, the redesigned SAT will emphasize passage-based vocabulary questions, where students must demonstrate an applied understanding of the way in which word choice influences meaning, affects author attitude and tone, or otherwise inflects point of view. If needed, your SAT verbal tutor in Boston (many of our private SAT tutors are based in the Harvard or MIT neighborhood) will be able to help you navigate this new landscape.

Consider the following example

(from the College Board’s explanation of the redesigned SAT):

             [. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs,

            innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and

            city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity

            of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by

            inadequate human or other resources.

Adapted from Richard Florida, The Great Reset. © 2010 by Richard Florida.

As used above, “intense” most nearly means

A) emotional.
B) concentrated.
C) brilliant.
D) determined

What you’ll note from the above is that the difficulty of the question does not lie in the word itself. Most students are probably familiar with ‘intense,’ having seen and used it in various domains. The challenge of the question, then, is to consider how, specifically, the word is used in this instance and indeed, to separate that from any preconceived understandings of its use, meaning, or connotations.  


The redesigned SAT gauges an understanding and application of context clues, rather than focusing on obscure definitions that students often wash from memory after putting their pencils down. Though it remains to be seen, this shift seems to reward the skills that students work to develop throughout high school. By engaging them in close reading and requiring sensitivity to the way in which context affects both meaning and impact, the new test format measures students’ application of skills that will serve them throughout their lives – in high school and beyond.

For additional SAT tips from our private SAT tutors at MIT, Harvard, and the overall Boston area, check out these posts: How to Learn Vocabulary, Bird by Bird, 4 Tips for Writing the SAT Essay, and How to Use Rubrics to Hack the Writing Section.

Cambridge Coaching offers SAT tutoring in Boston, New York, and online around the world. Feel free to get in touch with us via this form – we’d be happy to see how we can help.    

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Tags: SAT