Oddly enough, word choice questions, which look like the easiest to answer, give students a heck of a lot of trouble. If you’re not getting 100% or close on these types of questions, it’s not because your vocab sucks or you’re stupid, your strategy just needs to be changed.
I like to think of these types of questions as “fill in the blank” questions. They are essentially that: the test is asking you to replace one word with another that is a synonym. That means the sentence needs to mean the same thing when you replace the underlined word.
I’ll show you my strategy to get these questions correct every time. Let’s use this passage as an example:
BLACK OUT THE WORD IN THE PASSAGE
Take your pencil and scribble out the word in the passage. It doesn’t exist anymore. Forget about it.
READ THE SENTENCE AS A FILL IN THE BLANK QUESTION
Once the word is gone, you have to find your own word to fill in the blank with.
Akira came ______, breaking all tradition.
Context will tell you what a word is supposed to mean.
The only context in the rest of the sentence (line 3) is “breaking all tradition.” What does that mean? The next sentence clears that up a bit: “Had he followed form--had he asked his mother to speak to his father to approach a go-between….”
Line 65 repeats the same clues, “I ask directly because the use of a go-between takes much time.”
We know that the tradition is having Akira’s mom speak to his dad who will find a go-between to ask Chie the question he comes himself to ask.
So the blank then means something like, “came by himself,” or, closer to what we worked out, “came without a go-between.”
CHOOSE YOUR OWN WORD
Using the phrases you pulled directly from the passage is a great way to save time and brain energy. If you don’t find a direct phrase to use, come up with your own word choice for the answer.
To make the sentence make sense, what word would best fit? Use your brain first before going to the answer questions.
They’re specially designed (thanks, folks) to trick and confuse you, so if you have your own word in your head you’re MUCH less likely to make a mistake.
Now you can look at the answer choices and eliminate everything that doesn’t match your definition.
ELIMINATE WRONG ANSWERS
A -- Frankly, doesn’t mean without a go-between, so that’s out.
B -- Confidently -- well yes, he is definitely confident in the way he came by himself, but that still doesn’t match our definition, so it’s out.
C -- without mediation -- matches exactly with “without a go-between”
D -- with precision, nope, not at all.
Practicing your ability to fill in the blanks well (with the most appropriate definition) is the key that will raise your ability to answer these kinds of questions, not practicing vocabulary or anything else.
What to do if you don’t know what a word means:
Don’t panic. There are ways to get around this.
START WITH THE WORDS YOU DO KNOW
Since you’re already coming up with your own definition, you just need to ask, does it match the words that I do know? If not, eliminate. If one of them matches your own definition, choose that and forget about struggling with the unfamiliar words.
If you’re left with the words you don’t know there a few ways to work around that.
Here’s a tough question from an old SAT test...you won’t find this kind of question on your SAT but you will notice it’s the same format as the “word choice” question from before, so it works as a practice problem.
Fred often used _____ to achieve his professional goals, even though such artful subterfuge alienated his colleagues.
First, figure out what the blank means. Don’t look at the list, you don’t want to get caught up in the feelings of stress when you see a bunch of tough words.
Fred used something to achieve his professional goals, even though such artful subterfuge alienated his colleagues.
Even the sentence itself is tough! If you’re stuck for what “artful subterfuge alienated his colleagues means,” don’t panic. Break it down.
POS, NEG, NEUTRAL TESTING FOR UNFAMILIAR WORDS
Ask yourself, does the blank sound positive, negative, or neutral?
I’m going to say that the context clue for the sentence,“artful subterfuge alienated his colleagues,” sounds negative. I know what alienated means and it’s not good.
So I have a negative outcome.
Reading the sentence again I have a better idea of what that blank should be: something negative that is close to “artful subterfuge.” (Notice you can often use words directly from the sentence to fill in your blank -- they’re there for a reason.)
Fred often used negative ways to achieve his professional goals, even though his colleagues didn’t like him for it.
I changed the sentence so it was easier for me to understand, based on what I did know.
Now, what’s a negative way to achieve professional goals?
Some ideas that come to mind are: devious, dishonest, lying
I’ve definitely got a sense of what the sentence means, so let’s look at the answer choices.
ELIMINATE WHAT YOU CAN
Let’s say I only know one word on this list -- consensus. That means something like “agreement” and that’s not close to what I want, so that’s out.
I’m left with four choices that are all tough.
But wait! Disputation. That’s close to dispute. And I know dispute means to argue. He’s being dishonest and lying, but that’s not really arguing, so that’s actually out.
(Look for words that are similar to other words you know -- they could be a form of that word or closely related in meaning.)
Chicanery, diligence, bombast….down to three!
I want a word that sounds negative and means something like “artful subterfuge.”
A -- chicanery -- no clue. Leaving it.
B -- diligence -- hmmm, diligence. To me that doesn’t sound too negative. If someone said I was diligent, would I be upset? Probably not. So that one can be eliminated.
C -- bombast -- the only word in here I can pull out is bomb. I can’t make any good claim that this word should be related to bomb though. So I have to keep it because I can’t figure out what it means.
**don’t eliminate if you don’t have a clue as to what a word means!**
PLUG IN YOUR ANSWERS
When you’re down to your final answers the last thing to do is plug it in and see how it sounds:
Fred used bombast to achieve his professional goals, even though such artful subterfuge alienated his colleagues.
Fred used chicanery to achieve his professional goals, even though such artful subterfuge alienated his colleagues.
Listen for flow.
When I read this, bombast doesn’t quite sound like it means “artful subterfuge.” To me it sounds to big, like maybe it means something relating to exploding, and not negative enough.
With a 50/50 chance of getting it right, I’m safe to make a guess. I’m going to pick chicanery because it sounds harsh and the flow seems better (the sentence runs more smoothly when I say it in my head). That’s really my only reasoning there.
It may happen that you guess wrong, or think you know what a word sounds like but it means the opposite. Even if that’s the case, this method of elimination when you don’t know a word can be really useful in narrowing down your answer choices.
Here’s a recap of my top 5 ways you can practice to figure out words you don’t know are:
Does the word share a root with another word you do know the meaning of?
Ie: vacillate and oscillate
Ie: aerodynamic and aeroplane
Does the word have a prefix that helps me figure out the word?
Ie: implacable (I know it’s not something, and so maybe negative)
Ie: prognosticate (I know it means something positive (think: pro’s and con’s).
Does the word sound positive or negative?
Ie: acclaimed vs abysmal
Ie distinguished vs belligerent
Does the word flow in the sentence?
Ie: Lady Carlotta stepped out on to the platform of the small wayside station and took a slight movement or two up and down its uninteresting length, to kill time till the train should be pleased to proceed on its way.
Ie: Lady Carlotta stepped out on to the platform of the small wayside station and took a short walk or two up and down its uninteresting length, to kill time till the train should be pleased to proceed on its way.
Although there are only 5 ways to figure out what a word means that you don’t know, you’re going to benefit only if you put these strategies into practice.
You can get a ton of free practice SAT tests on the internet in pdf format, or you can buy an SAT book.
Books are nice because you can carry them around and work through them whenever you have free time, plus, your real test will be on paper, so you need to practice the SAT on paper, not on your computer (if you want to keep things free, print the free pdfs).
If you want personalized help on the SAT, all you have to do is ask! I’m available for for online SAT tutoring. If you book through Wyzant’s tutoring platform, you can save $40 on your first session! (That’s more than 50% off!)