How Much Vocab is Tested on the SAT vs. the ACT?

SAT Expert, Magoosh

Feb   2014



If “interesting” just never cut it for you, especially when you could use “titillating,” “captivating,” or “uncanny,” then the SAT is probably the test for you. As far as the Critical Reading section goes, it is, to a large degree, a test of vocabulary: $10 words, rhetorical devices, vocab in context, and words that would give even a college professor pause.

By contrast, we have the humble little ACT, which, as far as vocab goes, doesn’t even have a section that strictly tests you on words. About the most vocabulary you’ll get is in the long reading passages. But even the questions that accompany these passages typically use pretty basic words. The SAT writers, on the other hand, never pass up a chance to use words such as “ambivalent,” “didactic,” and “erroneous.”

Following is a breakdown of the types of words you can expect to see on the SAT and the type of words you can expect to see on the ACT.

On the SAT, the Sentence Completion questions are all about vocabulary. You have five answer choices, which are sometimes all difficult words, that follow a sentence that itself is often full of tough words. The interesting thing about the questions is that they are staggered, so the first few are generally easy, the middle ones medium, and the last ones nasty. To give you a taste, I’ve chosen words at random from the easy-level questions all the way up to the toughest.


  • Deficient
  • Imprecise
  • Sparse
  • Negligible
  • Muted


  • Irrefutable
  • Succinct
  • Edifying
  • Mundane
  • Obtrusive


  • Bucolic
  • Diaphanous
  • Perfidy
  • Lassitude
  • Supercilious

If your eyes were already glazing over during the “easy” section, you’ll either want to seriously considering taking the ACT, or even more seriously consider brushing up on your vocabulary. If you knew all but a few of the toughest words, you shouldn’t struggle too much with the SAT format.

To give you an even better sense, you might want to try some of the Sentence Completion practice questions available on the College Board website.

The next type of question in the Critical Reading secion is Reading Comprehension. Don’t let the name fool you: these passages are full of tough vocabulary, as are the questions and answer choices.

Words that show up in passages (taken from a couple passages)

  • Ambivalent
  • Scrupulous
  • Unencumbered
  • Ostensibly
  • Uncanny

Words that show up in answer choices (taken from one question!)

  • Whimsical
  • Callous
  • Remiss
  • Didactic
  • Impetuous

All of this is not meant to scare you (sorry if I did!), but to orient you to the test that is best for you. So if none of these words rang a bell, taking the ACT may be the best road for you. Of course, that's not to say that the ACT won’t have any vocabulary words. But most, if not all, will be around the easy-level list above for the Sentence Completions.

And if you didn’t do well on the SAT Critical Reading section, that doesn’t mean you won’t do well on the ACT English or Reading sections. The ACT to SAT conversion, as far as verbal goes, isn’t that accurate. It really depends on each person’s verbal strengths and weaknesses. So if you’d still rather use “interesting” instead of those other words, that’s fine—one of these tests will still play to your abilities.

Need help brushing up on your vocabulary? Check out Magoosh's SAT Vocabulary Flashcards! And for more advice on taking the SAT, visit Magoosh's SAT blog.

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About Chris Lele

For the last 10 years, Chris has been helping students excel on the SAT, ACT, and GRE. In this time, he’s coached five students to a perfect SAT score. Some of his GRE students have raised their scores by nearly 400 points. He has taken many GMAT students from the doldrums of the 600s to the coveted land of the 700+. Rumor has it he does a secret happy dance when his students get a perfect score. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh High School Blog and study with his lessons using Magoosh SAT Prep.