Questions & AnswersProductsAbout Mitch Adler


 Dear Mitch,

I've looked through several books that everybody says are the ones to prepare you for the SAT and PSAT, and when it comes to the vocabulary section, they give a list that is WAY too long for any normal person to memorize. Is it really that important to have them all completely memorized by the time you take the test? Because I know someone who is a senior and he memorized a giant list of words from a book like the ones I have and he said that after he spent all that time memorizing them with flashcards, only a few of them showed up on the whole test! He said it was really annoying, even though he did get a pretty good score.

Can you please tell me what you think about the lists of words in the books, and can you tell me if you think one book has the best list?


Sal Rodriguez

Mount Prospect, IL


Dear Sal,

Oh, as someone who has spent a great deal of time and energy working with students to increase their vocabularies for the big tests (and, more importantly, for life in the real world), I have a bunch of answers to your question(s). But for purposes of this q&a forum, I'll limit myself to the ideas that will help you the most in the short amount of time you have between now and the PSAT.

First of all, I think it's important to tell you something about your friend's experience memorizing a ton of words and then becoming disappointed to come across only a few on the test: That does not surprise me at all. In fact, I was impressed. Why? Because that is the concept behind trying to swallow hundreds of new words for a three-hour test. The idea, which I admit is not one that students seem to enjoy hearing, is this: Since you cannot know which words the writers of the test will choose for the particular exam that you meet on your lucky day, the only way to guarantee that you will know them is to memorize the dictionary. And that would probably be a bad idea. Why? Well, talk about wasting time! You will have memorized many thousands that don't show up, and probably get so overwhelmed that ones you should know you no longer do. So instead, most books and courses have modified the idea and give a fairly large list of the types of words that the test tends to have on it, though such a list cannot avoid extra words that the test leaves out that year, and the book cannot include every possible word that would show up, because two or three words are picked using a seemingly random method, and those are in a category of words that include thousands of others. So what to do?

First, you have to grasp the way the test is scored. The idea of memorizing hundreds of words to get eight to ten correct on the test that you would not have known otherwise is considered pretty GOOD. Why? Did you know that, depending upon how high or low your score is on the verbal sections overall, for each word you know on the test that leads to a correct answer that would not have been correct before, your score goes up 10 points OR MORE. The scoring is a little more complicated than most people grasp, so it does depend on your overall score, but if your score is on the high side or the low side relative to other students, a correct answer could be worth more than ten points.

And so if your friend learned two hundred new words and 8 showed up, he/she raised his verbal score by at lest 80 points! Two more, of course, would mean an increase of at least 100. But consider even the 80 points: the difference between a 620 and a 700, possibly, or a 530 and a 610. Not bad. In fact, some people who do what I do truly believe that knowing more words is the easiest way to increase your score without obtaining a new brain.

However, there are other questions you raise, which I find even more interesting. First, by mentioning flashcards, you make me incapable of containing myself from sharing my view of that method. By itself, it stinks.

If you give a student two hundred cards with one word per card on the front and the word's definition on the back, and you lock him or her alone in a room for a day, there are studies that show that at the end of the day he/she will either know about the same number of them that he knew when entering the room, or FEWER. Without some method to USE in learning the words besides the rectangles of paper, it's not a very productive use of time. (Of course, everyone is different, and there are some students who do benefit from that method, but most do not, and even the ones who do would often be better off with a better way.)

Long story short, there have been many studies on learning and memory, and most seem to indicate that although everyone learns differently, there are some methods that work very well for most students. In fact, there are currently 7 methods recommended by books and experts and courses for the purpose of memorizing words. The interesting part is that of the 7, only 2 actually work.

So today I will give my favorite of those two, because I have found it to be remarkably successful with a wide range of students, and later this week I will give the other method, which is also effective but less important to know immediately.

METHOD: mnemonics. That is a fancy word which simply means memory tricks, and there are many different kinds. There are picture mnemonics, in which each word is accompanied by a scene to make connections in your memory. There are sound mnemonics, and visual mnemonics, and others.

I will present a bunch of them between now and the test, but just to introduce what I am talking about, here are a couple of words that frequently appear on the standardized tests we are talking about:


Definition: to taint or dilute, as in adding water to a can of paint to try to get more coverage (only to find out later that the paint does not resist rain as well as it would have). Or, a blood sample to be used in court, onto which the judge accidentally sneezed before it was placed on a screen for examination.


Definition: brief in words, as one might describe a person who only answers questions with one-or-two-word answers.

Okay, now, writing them on cards is great. It's fun to play cards.

But, in addition to the cards, look at the words one at a time.



Again, it means to dilute or taint.

Look again, and break it up a little:


Something that is diluted or tainted is NOT as good as it was in its pure form. In fact, if judged, the new substance would get A DULL RATING.


Think about it, and see if it helps.


Again, it means brief, or of few words.

Long ago there were many crazy diets for people wishing to lose (or gain) weight, each with a gimmick to make its inventor seem clever. One such diet said that a person could eat all he wants of any food he wants, but it had to be in miniature portions. Go figure! Anyway, about half of these diets were devised in California, and more than two-thirds of those were from Los Angeles. (L.A.)


The ice cream diet said you could eat as many ice cream CONES as you like, as long as they were all about one inch high. Miniature. The CONES had to be short, or BRIEF.


L.A.-CON-ic means BRIEF

In L.A. the CONES are BRIEF


L.A.-CON-ic means BRIEF

In L.A. the CONES are BRIEF


L.A.-CONic means BRIEF...In L.A. the CONES are BRIEF...L.A.-CONic means BRIEF

Try it!

Hope this helps,