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The SAT Essay: Basic Principles

RocketRule #4: Use Smart-Sounding Words
I know that English teachers often tell students not to use big words just because they're big, but trust me, on the SAT essay, big words have a better chance of impressing graders than do their smaller synonyms.

I wish I didn't have to write this—and I know that many teachers will object—but, smart people do use certain words to connect with other smart people. Yes, it's almost a code language.

Don't great writers tend to use simple language? Yes, but so do simpletons, and SAT readers blitzing their way through a mountain of essays can't afford the time to distinguish between the two.

While it's true that the best word is the one that says precisely what you mean, it's also true that big words impress SAT graders. Don't go overboard or it will seem like you're trying to impress. Just sprinkle your essay with at least a few big words so that your opinion sounds authoritative.

100 Words That Really Impress SAT Graders—Make Sure Your Essay Includes at Least a Few
It's likely that you'll be able to use certain big words more frequently than others because the same topics and themes show up time and again on SAT essays. The following list emphasizes those SAT words that you can probably work into just about any assigned essay topic (they're also great words to know in any event).

This list is compiled from the words professional writers use most often when writing persuasive essays. It isn't intended to be complete. Examine any op-ed ("opposite-the-editorial") piece in your local newspaper and you'll find at least one word, or a variation of it, from this list. I wouldn't be surprised if you found half a dozen or more. Again, this list gives special weight to the rhetorical concepts that occur most frequently in SAT essays.

  • acute
  • adage
  • addressing
  • aesthetic
  • allusion
  • altruism
  • anachronism
  • anecdote
  • antithesis
  • aphorism
  • aspect
  • aspiration
  • assess
  • attribute
  • autonomy
  • coherent
  • compromised
  • concede
  • contend
  • context
  • conventional
  • conviction
  • culminate
  • depict
  • dichotomy
  • discord
  • disparate
  • distinct
  • distinguish
  • doctrine
  • dogmatic
  • echoed
  • egalitarian
  • empirical
  • enduring
  • entail
  • epitome
  • epoch
  • ephemeral
  • ethical
  • evoke
  • exemplify
  • explicit
  • facet
  • feasible
  • ideology
  • immutable
  • implication
  • indifferent
  • indigenous
  • inequitable
  • inevitable
  • inherent
  • intrinsic
  • irony
  • lament
  • legitimacy
  • manifest
  • momentous
  • notably
  • notion
  • nuance
  • objectivity
  • orthodox
  • paradigm
  • paradox
  • pervasive
  • plausible
  • pragmatic
  • predominant
  • premise
  • presumably
  • prodigious
  • profound
  • prominent
  • proponent
  • proposition
  • provocative
  • quintessential
  • realm
  • relentless
  • reminiscent
  • resolve
  • revelation
  • revere
  • rhetorical
  • scrutiny
  • secular
  • subjective
  • subtle
  • sublime
  • thesis
  • tantamount
  • transcend
  • ubiquitous
  • undermine
  • unparalleled
  • unprecedented
  • viable
  • widespread

Don't get overwhelmed and think you have to use every word on this list. Just try to include a few of these words or similar ones in your essay. These words are especially effective in the first and last paragraphs of SAT essays, which the graders read most carefully.

By the way, all these words are "good SAT words" that you should know for the critical reading section; half of these words even make it to our core Power Ranked List of the 323 most valuable words to know for the SAT Reading Test.

Practice the List
Try to use these words in your everyday school papers. Here's another idea. How about astounding your friends by casually dropping these words into your lunchtime conversation around the cafeteria table?

Instead of this Common Essay Word Consider Using a Variant of One of These SAT-Words

A lot Prodigious
Argue Contend
Based, basic Premise, fundamental
cause, because, result Evoke, endgender, prompt, provoke, elicit, precipitate, animate, inaugurate, attribute
Common, typical, everyday Prevalent, pervasive, conventional, orthodox, status quo, ubiquitous, widespread
Consequence, result Implication, outcome, aftermath, tantamount, ramification
Difference Disparity, dichotomy, discrepancy, diversity, distinction, distinguish
Hard, difficult, difficulty Dilemma, paradox, vexing, quagmire, arduous, intricate, inextricable, problematic
Easy, practical, quick Pragmatic, expedient, viable, tenable
Example, evidence, instance, illustration Paradigm, archetype, empirical, epitome, exemplify
Experience, story Anecdote, chronicle
False Untenable, fallacious
Free, freedom Autonomy, sovereignty
Help, assist Facilitate, bolster, foster, expedite
Hurt, hinder Compromise, undermine
Illustrate highlight, exemplify, epitomize, substantiate, embody, underscore
Important Paramount, momentous
Main character Protagonist
Mother, father, brother, sister maternal, paternal, sibling
Natural, essential, need, necessary, require Inherent, innate, intrinsic, quintessential, implicit, underlying
New, unique, unusual Unparalleled, unprecedented, singular, novel
Opposite Antithesis
Part Feature, aspect, attribute, facet
Period, time, era, centuries, history Epoch, millennium (millennia)
Possible Plausible, credible, tenable, viable
Show, obvious Manifest, ostensibly, explicit, depict
Similar, equivalent Parallel, analogous, affinity, reminiscent, echoed, coherent
Situation Context, domain, realm
Statement, idea, view, opinion, belief, phrase, theme, expression Notion, proposition, adage, maxim, doctrine, tenet, credo, thesis, contention, dogma, presupposition
True, absolute, definite Irrefutable, immutable, objective, categorically, inescapable, incontrovertible
Unfortunately Lamentably
Very, quite, really Particularly, notable, exceptionally, singularly

Refer to the list frequently, especially as you write your school papers. You'll quickly become more comfortable using these words in your everyday conversation and writing. Plus you'll impress your teachers!

Squeeze at Least Two SAT Words into Your Very First Paragraph
My research shows that including just two SAT words in the first paragraph or your essay can raise your overall essay score by as much as a full point on the 2-to-12 scale. That translates to a quick 20 points in your overall 200-800 score on the Writing Test!

The typical SAT essay instructions includes a statement to be commented on—usually you will be asked to agree or disagree—and asks you for examples to support your view. The instructions alone open the door for you to include the words "statement" and "example" in your essay answer. And luckily for you, those words have synonyms on our list of impressive-sounding words. See below:

For instance, instead of ending the first paragraph with this sentence:

    The idea that our most careful plans sometimes go awry is illustrated by examples in history as well as in literature.
Clever you could write this:
    The notion that our most careful plans sometimes go awry is exemplified by a number of prominent instances in history as well as in literature.
Hey, that's three SAT words. A little finesse like that would have boosted your final 200-800 Writing Test score by 20 points or more!

Next: Page 7 >>

From The RocketReview Revolution: The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT and the PSAT by Adam Robinson. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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