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Dear Mitch,

First, I'd like to thank you for devoting this period to kids like me who have to take the PSAT in a few weeks. As you probably can tell, we seem to need all the help we can get! Second, if you have any ideas for how to memorize vocabulary words, or how to decide which ones are worth trying to learn out of the thousands out there, that would be great!


Adam Feldman

Bethesda, MD


Dear Adam,

Due to the fact that yesterday came and went too quickly at to get to even a single question, after promising to provide one SAT tip per day until the PSAT test, today I will provide more than one SAT tip.

FIRST: Know this: There has been a trend in recent years (in particular the last four-five years of SAT exams) which has been a steady move away from long and obscure vocabulary words to ones that most people are apt to come across in popular magazines or on some of the better television programs.

However, rather than this being a straightforward gift because the people who write the test like you, there is a twist: Many of the words that students think they know (and often do know), they do not know in all ways. In other words, if you look up any of these words in a pocket dictionary, you will indeed most likely come across the meaning that most people associate with the word. BUT BEWARE: The English language is far richer and more nuanced that a pocket dictionary can convey. And here is where, if you are not so committed to using your computer that you have abandoned all books made from paper and glue, it is time to get your hands on a big fat hard-covered dictionary. The Granddaddy of them all, of course, is the Oxford English Dictionary (often abbreviated 'O.E.D.'), which for many years was printed in as many volumes as a set of encyclopedias, but which now is more often seen in one of its shrunken forms -- or the software version.

My point is this: YES, you may recognize a word on the SAT, and that's great, BUT you may know only the word's first three or four definitions. But definition number seven, for example, which you had never come across, is the one they're using on the test. WHATT????????? Yup. Look up a word in a pocket dictionary, and then look up the word in the O.E.D. If the small dictionary has a few lines for its definition, the O.E.D. may have two pages of fine print. Beware. BEWARE!

Example/HINT: If you come across the word 'prune' on the SAT or PSAT, it will NOT be referring to that shriveled fruit (dried plum) that pops into your head and is famous for popping its way right through the human digestive tract. NO, the SAT writers will use it another way: To trim, as in the bushes and shrubs that landscapers take great pride in shaping so precisely that a passerby would almost swear they were artificial. Yes, people prune their trees and shrubs.

Likewise, the word 'man'. What does it mean? Adult male human? Yes.... Anything else.....

Think: 'Man the ship!'

Yes, 'man' can mean 'control' or 'to take control of'.

SAT Vocabulary Hint #2: There is another 'trick' the SAT writers find pleasure in executing. And that is using the words that may only have one or two definitions, and which students use every day with confidence, but the common usage is not the 'real' one to be found in dictionaries. EXAMPLE: 'fantastic'.

What does it mean? Excellent? Maybe, in most social situations, but for its authentic, non-slang meaning, one needs to consult a good dictionary or an old horror film like 'The Blob' (the original version, not the remake). There, 'fantastic' is used properly, and it is related to 'fantasy', and it means preposterous, imaginary, or NOT believable.

Now, isn't that fantastic?

HINT: It is always helpful to look up every single word once and see its meaning in print. And remember, your dictionary is unlikely to say 'bad' means good, even though you may wish to receive one ba-a-a-ad fat score, got it?

BONUS HINT (#3): If you have to narrow down your lists to study (and who doesn't?), then whenever the choice is between learning a long word and learning a shorter one, learn the shorter one because it is more likely to show up on the next test. Promise.

Hope this helps,