How To Memorize Vocabulary

Another Twitter discussion inspired me to share what I’ve found to be a most effective vocabulary memory technique.

Let me begin by saying that this technique is not for everyone. Some students excel at visual memory; many of them prefer flash cards. However, in my experience, 85 percent of my students have benefited from the technique I’m about to describe.

Let me cut right to it: use your word in a “high imagery” sentence – one which is as silly as possible, and which plays on the sound or root of the word you’re trying to memorize.

The point is that, not only will you have an effective mnemonic, but you will enjoy greater retention, because you went through the creative process yourself. That works better than just reading a vocabulary guide, no matter how cute the memory tricks are.

If you follow Scorebusters on Twitter, you know that we post an “SAT word of the day” (usually in the morning). I’m going to demonstrate the imaging technique with the most recent 5 words we posted on Twitter.

1) *facilitate* definition: to make easier

As I looked at this word, the first thing I thought of was “face.” Then I saw “tate” and thought of “tater,” as in potato. I thought of Mr. Potato Head’s face from Toy Story next. So I wrote:

“Mrs. Potato Head can facilitate making Mr. Potato Head’s face.”

Great! If you have difficulty making these sentences at first, don’t despair. I’ve found that my students get good at it after just a few tries.

Important! – your work isn’t done here. Once you’ve made your sentences for a handful of words, you should go back and read them again. Then make an active effort to insert the words into your conversations. You’ll be amazed how many more words you retain, compared with when you just cram word lists for exams.

English: Mr. Potato Head and Friends

2) *exonerate* definition: to free from guilt or blame

For this one, I went by sound. “Ex” sounds like “eggs,” and “oner” sounds like “honor.”

“I was exonerated when I proved I didn’t throw the eggs dishonorably.”

3) *languid* definition: sluggish

Note that there is also a verb form: languish. You can use an alternate part-of-speech if you find it easier (and you’re more likely to notice that your word has multiple forms if you do – e.g. facilitate, facile).

To be honest, the first thing I thought of was the filmmaker Fritz Lang, but I’m going to let that thought go, since most of my students won’t have heard of him.

“Languid” also sounds like “language,” so I’ll just say:

“Languid turtles speak their language slowly.”

I was originally going to write “Languid people,” but I realized that turtles are sillier and would help me remember the sluggish thing.

Photo of a Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carol...


4)  *sanguine* definition: confident

I immediately recognized that “sang” means blood in French (that’s also where the word came from), but many of you may not know a foreign word for blood (Spanish and Italian use the same root), so I’ll go with the obvious: the past tense of “sing.” And “uine” sounds like “win” here.

“The sanguine cheerleader sang for the win, for she knew our team would kick butt.”

5) *equivocal* definition: uncertain or undecided

This one practically plays itself: “equi” means and sounds like “equal,” and we can just use the word “vocal.”

“Since both idols sang their vocals equally well, the outcome was equivocal.”

Now it’s your turn. Use this technique for your vocabulary words in school, as well as your SATs.


A Little Logic, Please!

Time for a quick rant. Yesterday, several good folks on Twitter pointed me to an article entitled SAT scandal shows tyranny of standardized testing. For awhile, it was ranked at the top of the Education page on Google News. The author blames high schools and colleges for requiring standardized tests such as the SAT, and putting undue strain on students.

Today, I’m not even going to bother debating whether the pressure of taking the SAT is unfair, or whether our nation’s permissive ethos is making us soft. My point of this rant is that, if you want people to take you seriously, don’t begin your article with patently absurd logic.

A handful of students cheated on a test which is administered to over 2 million students each year, and that’s supposed to prove that it’s tyrannical? Sometimes kids steal their classmates’ pocket change – does that mean that lunch is tyrannical? A student recently cheated on his girlfriend – love must be monstrous.

And now back to my Gummi Worms.

Gummi Worms

Should You Apply to SAT-Optional Colleges?

SAT-optional colleges have grown from one (Bowdoin) in 1969 to 280 today (according to FairTest). Note that “optional” doesn’t mean these colleges disregard the SAT entirely; as of 2007, only one college (Sarah Lawrence) has done that (according to U.S. News).

The other SAT-optional colleges have a variety of policies. Some require the SAT (or ACT) only from out-of-state applicants. Others require the test only for certain majors, or only for students whose GPAs aren’t high enough.

Why did these colleges decide to become test-optional? There appear to be two primary reasons. For one, some colleges seek to admit otherwise-worthy students who perform relatively poorly on standardized tests. The second reason is that schools can achieve higher rankings by not reporting the scores of those who did not submit them for application (presumably, these tend to make up a large proportion of their lowest scores).

Standardized Test

Before I seek to answer the question posed in the title of this article, let me point out that the stated purpose of the SAT (and ACT) is to predict students’ grades in college. To some extent, that is the purpose of the entire application process. Colleges want students who will get good grades. I suppose that, to some extent, they would also like to admit students who will be successful after graduation, but that’s a lot more difficult to predict.

Now, getting good grades in college is heavily tied to – guess what? – scoring well on tests. True, there are other factors, such as reports, homework, labwork, etc. But tests are of prime importance (particularly at large colleges that have large classes). They may differ from standardized tests such as the SAT, but the fact remains that poor SAT takers are likely to be poor test takers. So competitive colleges have a big incentive to avoid admitting those students who score very low on SATs.

When you don’t send SAT scores to many of these colleges, you are in effect writing “I suck at the SATs” in big red letters across the front of your application. Remember, the SAT score reporting is optional; you can send your scores if you wish. And you can be sure that students with good scores are sending them.

So why bother applying? Clearly, some students who withhold scores (or don’t take the tests) are being accepted. And some SAT-optional schools are highly ranked.

So my conclusion would be: first, check on the policies of any SAT-optional schools to which you are interested in applying. Second, unless your SAT scores are so low as to be totally out of whack with your GPA and other qualifications, send them on. Admissions officers aren’t stupid. If your GPA is slightly above the school’s median, and you withhold your SAT scores, those officials will figure that your SATs are below the median, and decide accordingly. So you haven’t helped your cause if your SAT scores are slightly below the median, and you probably hurt your chances if you’re right around the median.

To sum up, I am saying that test-optional policies are of little help to those students who underperform a little on their SATs. However, they can help if you underperform a lot. For example, suppose you wish to apply to a school, and you see that 75 percent of its freshman class had a high school GPA over 2.5, and 75 percent had SAT scores over 1500. If you have a GPA of 2.6 and an SAT score of 1430, send it and hope for the best. But if your SAT score is 1300, withhold it (note that this is an oversimplified analysis; other factors may influence your decision).

List of SAT-optional colleges from FairTest

Should you guess on the SAT?

There’s a ton of conflicting advice about this on the web, and many teachers/guidance counselors/test prep tutors get this wrong.

I’m not the only one who will give you sound advice here. Experts whom I recently recommended, such as PencilNerd and PWN The SAT, got it right also. The math isn’t that hard to understand. I intend to add some information about students’ psychology to the discussion.


When you take the SAT, you are initially given a raw score based on how many questions you get right, wrong, or blank. That raw score is then converted into the scaled score you see on your report, but we don’t have to worry about the scaled score here.

On all multiple choice questions, your raw score is equal to the number of questions you get right minus one quarter of the ones you miss (R – 0.25W). Blanks count as zero. (on the student-produced answers on the math section, nothing is subtracted for wrong answers).

If you close your eyes and guess randomly, on the average you’ll guess 1 out of 5 right. For those 5, you score 1 – 0.25(4) = 0. That’s exactly the same as you’d have gotten by leaving them all blank. No penalty for guessing!

Of course, students can guess worse than random by choosing trap answers. But since you know all about traps (if you don’t, just read my recent post about them), you should know to avoid them and guess better than random even if you have no idea what you’re doing. Eliminate even one answer, and the odds shift way in your favor.

But the truth is, I have been telling my students to guess for over 25 years, and many of them still don’t follow my advice (at least not without a lot of pushing). Why is that? The math is simple, and the logic unassailable. When those students finally do guess, their scores go up (a little bit – no one ever aced the SAT by guessing alone). So why don’t these students want to help themselves?

The answer is psychology. Some are afraid to guess. Others lack self-confidence. And a few students actually think guessing is unfair. If you’re already convinced you should guess, fine. Otherwise, read on. You may learn something about yourself.

Fear of Risk-Taking

This is very common. Some of us like to take risks; others simply don’t. Studies indicate that a higher percentage of men than women are risk-takers, but there are plenty of exceptions of either gender. Do you like to play poker? If yes, you probably don’t mind guessing either.

Suppose you’re fairly sure you can eliminate one answer. Chances are, some of the other answers look better than others; the trap concept tells you which ones to guess. Even if you can only guess 1 out of 4, you’ll add 1 – 0.25(3) = 0.25 to your raw score for every four questions. If you have a 1-in-4 chance to win $100, and you stand to lose $25 the rest of the time, you should certainly take the bet. But many folks won’t. “I’m not a gambler,” they protest. “The game must be rigged.”

But the truth is that most successful people are risk-takers. The key to succeeding is knowing which risks are worth taking. But you can’t win if you won’t take any risks.

“If I guess, I’ll probably get it wrong, so I’m better off just leaving it blank.” No, no, no! The reward is 4 times as large as the penalty! It’s worth a shot at glory.

Suppose you’re not a basketball player, and someone offers you an iPod if you can hit a foul shot in front of some friends. Win – iPod, lose – look a bit foolish. Shoot!


Lack of Self-Confidence and Pessimism

This is not quite the same thing as fear of risks. Some people believe that the laws of probability don’t apply to them. They think that some higher force has stacked the odds against them; most people win a coin flip half the time, but they do worse because they’re “cursed.” The easiest way to convince yourself (or someone you know) that this isn’t so is to try it empirically. Flip that coin 30 times or so (a small wager can add substance to the lesson – bet on cookies if you don’t want to gamble for money).

Guessing is Unfair!

It may strike some of you that this kind of thinking is very strange. But I’ve found that the “moral anti-guessers” are quite vehement in their beliefs; it can be very hard to change their minds. The idea is that society rewards you for hard work (in this case, learning how to solve SAT questions), and guessing is a form of “cheating the system,” since you’re getting points for problems you don’t know how to solve. That’s nonsense. The reason you lose only a quarter-point for a wrong answer is that The College Board wants to give you partial credit. If you can eliminate 3 answers instead of just 1 or 2, you will tend to score higher by guessing. So students who eliminate more answers are rewarded with higher scores – what could be more fair? If you don’t guess, you chuck away that advantage – that’s unfair.

Finally, is there ever a reason not to guess on the SAT? Let’s just say that such circumstances are so rare that you can effectively ignore them. If you’re 5 seconds away from finishing the next-to-last math problem, yet suddenly decide to guess the last two instead, that might be a poor choice. Of course, if you rarely solve the last few questions anyhow, it might be a good one. Just…

“Guess Your Face Off!”

There are Nerds on the Web!

In an earlier post, I provided some links to other SAT blogs that I found on Google. Since then, I’ve interacted with several experts whom I met through social media sites, and learned of their very helpful blogs. These are presented in no particular order, save for the order in which I met the authors.

PencilNerd’s Test Prep Blog

PencilNerd (Douglas Groene) is a lawyer, test prep expert, and fellow Long Islander. His blog contains SAT tips and articles about education. Other tests (LSAT, GRE, ACT, GMAT) are covered as well. You can order a free SAT Writing manual here. This was the first SAT blog that truly impressed me, and I was flattered when Douglas contacted me about writing a guest article.

Sheldon the Word-Nerd

This blog includes mostly general knowledge about testing and applying to college, but there are also helpful SAT tips scattered throughout. You’ll have to dig around to find them, and you may get sidetracked along the way, because the articles are interesting and easy to read. What kind of music do nerds listen to? Sheldon likes the Bee Gees and 50 Cent.


“Tips, tricks, sample questions, and advice from a guy who scored a 2400 and knows the test cold.” This isn’t braggadocio – this guy really knows his stuff. And PWN’s blog is chock full of tips to help on all 3 sections of the SAT. A book on math techniques is due out shortly. Also check out the sidebar on the lower left (“Brothers and Sisters in Arms”) for links to other blogs.

Bell Curves Blog


This blog covers a lot of ground, but if you’re looking for SAT help, there’s a handy link in the left sidebar. Some of the posts were written by Akil Bello, the gifted founder of Bell Curves, while others are attributed to  ”Bell Curves SAT Team.” There’s a lot more here than straightforward math and English techniques – be sure to check it out.


If you want to look further, I would recommend clicking the links to other blogs in the sidebar to PWN the SAT’s blog that I mentioned. They’re all written by experts, and a few take unusual approaches.

Naturally, I don’t necessarily agree with every tidbit of information in these blogs. Often, there is more than one approach to solving a question. And statements about the philosophy or politics of the SAT are opinions of the authors.

There’s a lot of good material in these blogs. I am a relative beginner to blogging, and I hope to fashion this blog into something as comprehensive and interesting as the ones I’ve cited.

Finally, I’m also a newcomer to social media, and I’m sure I’ll meet up with other test prep experts in the future. So if you have a great blog that you would like me to crow about, just let me know. Perhaps we can even do that guest blog thingie – I love to write.

Troublesome, Tricky Traps

The idea that there are trap answers (“attractors”) on the SAT is hardly new. As far as I know, this sneaky fact was first pointed out by Adam Robinson, one of the founders of The Princeton Review. Furthermore, SAT traps have decreased in frequency since Robinson explained how to spot them in the early 1980’s. All SAT-takers owe a debt of gratitude to Adam and the Princeton Review, since the test is now fairer and less tricky.

Trapped #1

As you probably know, the questions on the SAT are arranged in order of difficulty (except for those on the Reading and Writing passages). At the beginning of each section or subsection (i.e. where questions of a particular type appear), the questions are easy, but the questions that follow are progressively harder. Adam Robinson explained that an average student (whom he called Joe Bloggs) tends to get the easy questions right, has mixed results on the medium questions, and misses all of the hard ones. So if you’re trying to solve a hard question, and you think an answer would look correct to Joe, it’s probably a trap. By avoiding these trap answers, you can raise your score.

Now, I’m not saying that you can get into Harvard solely by avoiding traps. But traps aren’t hard to find (Joe, and those who aren’t as smart as Joe, must be able to see them for them to be useful to the test-makers). So let’s have a quick look:

Math traps:

There are a few types of traps on the math sections. The answer that “would be right if the question were easy” is one.

Q. Joanne drives to work at an average speed of 20 miles per hour, and returns home along the same route at 40 miles per hour…

I’ll cut that question short. If it’s anywhere near the end of the section, don’t answer 30 miles per hour.

Q. An item is normally sold at 20 percent less than retail cost. If another 10 percent is taken off…

No – not 70 percent! Trap!

Other traps are based on the numbers and variables given in the question.

Q. If 2 students each have 3 textbooks…

2 and 3 are easy, low integers. So answers that contain only easy, low integers are traps. On the other hand, if the numbers in a problem are 13.6 and 4/5, Joe would never guess an answer like 2 (so you should).

If a hard problem looks very complicated, guess a simple answer. If it looks easy, guess a crazy-looking answer.

Reading traps:

Joe likes words that are associated with the sentence topic (or a person in the sentence). So if a sentence is about a scientist, don’t choose “research.” Others: warrior – conquer, America – democracy, etc.

Also, the easier words are usually wrong on hard sentences. In fact, the hardest word is a very good guess.

On Reading passages (Critical Reading), avoid answers that sound too similar to the words in the passage. Also don’t go for anything too obvious. If a question asks why something acts as a barrier, don’t chose the answer about walls. As mentioned earlier, the questions don’t go from easy to hard here.

Venus Flytrap at Hirt's Gardens


Writing traps:

There aren’t so many traps on Writing sections. But answers that seem easy and/or obvious on early questions are wrong on the later ones. For example, shorter answers are usually correct on Improving Sentences, but that isn’t so on the hard ones.

Guessing techniques aren’t voodoo. If you avoid what seems to be a trap on a practice test, and that answer turns out to be correct, don’t abandon the technique. Traps are usually wrong. On the other hand, don’t become so obsessed with traps that you don’t do your best to solve questions properly. And finally, remember NOT to eliminate traps on easy questions. Obvious answers are routinely correct on easy questions – that’s why they’re easy.

Study Tips

Naturally, every student is different, so each of you would do best to create your own study regimen. The advice that follows is based on experience and common sense, and I’m sure it’s hardly unique. If you Google “how to study,” you should find other techniques, along with ones that are similar to these.

1) Sleep

This might sound obvious, but an appalling number of high school and college students cheat on their sleep. When I tell my own sons that they’ll learn more efficiently on a full night’s sleep, they protest that they feel fine.

Yet numerous studies have demonstrated that students learn less efficiently if they miss even an hour of sleep. Most adults should sleep for at least seven hours; some need as much as nine. Cheating on your sleep can have other (medical) consequences as well. Don’t mistreat your body for some extra time – it’s just not worth it.

2) Take Breaks

We tend to remember what we learn at the beginning and end of a study period the most. And breaks “recharge your mental batteries.” Just don’t overdo it (study at least 80% of the time you lay out).

3) No Music

…or other distractions. Even professionals disagree on this point. “Music can relax you,” they point out.  But again, studies have shown that we are poor multi-taskers, and we retain more when we study in a quiet environment. Don’t wear an iPod just because “it’s cooler.”


On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with having something to drink handy. Some students reward themselves with a piece of candy after they’ve worked for awhile. Such comforts are often worth the small distractions they carry.

4) Don’t waste time studying what you already know

That sounds quite obvious, yet I find that most students don’t follow this advice. If you need to know the material in a chapter for a test, and you read it over and over, you’re not learning efficiently. Go over the chapter once, and write down what you don’t know as you go. Then do the same with the notes you just made. You’ll end up with a few facts, and be finished in time for dinner.

The same applies to vocabulary, geometry, or almost anything you need to learn. Don’t study hard – study smart, and you’ll feel better about yourself, have more free time, and become a better student.

5) Use Mnemonic Devices to aid retention

Mnemonics are like (legal) steroids for the brain. Suppose you’re trying to remember that “gregarious” means “sociable.” You could repeat that several times and still forget it. But think of a friendly guy named Greg, and you’ll probably remember the word for life.

6) Study soon after class – don’t procrastinate

I was a “last minute crammer” in school, and I thought I was in the minority. Then I learned that nearly all of us tend to put things off. “Deadlines motivate me!” my students protest. But if you study (memorize, solve problems, take practice tests, etc.) shortly after class, you will naturally do it better.

I know most of you will read this, think “good idea,” and put off studying anyway. Be strong! Make a resolution to study early.

7) Write stuff down

I was going to use another word in place of “stuff,” but this is a family-friendly blog. 🙂 You’re more likely to memorize a fact if you write it down yourself. An you’ll become more proficient at a technique if you work though it on your own, rather than only watching your teacher.

I’m not saying you should copy an entire chapter out of a textbook in order to learn it. Instead, follow the procedure in Tip #4.

8 ) To group or not to group

Study groups can be productive, if each member is serious about learning, and if other members’ insights will help you understand the material. But all too often, study groups are merely excuses for social interaction, and actually hurt learning. It’s up to you to make the call.

9) Set up a proper Study Area

Home Office









If you like to study at the library, that’s fine. But you’ll probably do most of your studying at home (perhaps at a dorm room when you’re in college). You want a distraction-free workplace, with good lighting, a comfortable chair in which you can sit upright (and stay awake!), and ample desk space. The comfy couch does not qualify.

Parents – why not help setting up your child’s study area? It’s a win-win.

...i'll catch up...






10) Sometimes you shouldn’t study

Obviously, you won’t learn very well when you’re tired, angry, depressed, sad, etc. Since you’re resolved not to be a procrastinator, you can wait until you’re well rested and good to go.

If you take your studying seriously, and become better at it, you’ll actually find you enjoy it more. And your scores will love you for it.