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Tip #6 to Get a Top SAT Critical Reading Score

By Brian Leaf
McGraw-Hill Professional

Okay, right about now, you might be thinking, "Okay professional SAT teacher, you might know what 'sycophant' means, but I sure do not. How does looking for a + or – word help me? How do I know if sycophant is + or – ?" Well, the weird thing is that you can almost always tell if a word is + or –. I call this strategy "Compliment or insult." If someone called you a sycophant, would you feel happy or hurt? Think about it, it does not sound like a compliment, and it kinda sounds negative. You don't want to be called a sycophant. In fact, "sycophant" means "suck-up" and is definitely an insult, a negative word.

Here's another example. The word "lackluster" showed up as an answer choice on an SAT a few years back. We needed a positive word to fill the blank, but tons of kids got to lackluster and said, "I don't know that word." Maybe they never saw the word before, but there is no way "lackluster" is a positive word. It has "lack" in it. In fact, it basically says, "lacking luster" or "without shine." And, that's exactly what it means, "dull." So if you get a sense that a word is positive or negative, trust it. You can always test a word by asking, "Would I want to be called that? Would I feel complimented or insulted?"

Let's look at this question:

Solution: Before you might have said, "I don't know some of these words; I'll just skip it." But now you say, "Well let's see, I don't know 'decry,' so I cross it out. I probably don't need it (Skill 3)." Then choose a word to fill the blank (Skill 1). If it's hard to do that here, decide if you want a + or – word (Skill 3). Since the blank is describing what the critics say, we want a negative word. Go to the choices and cross out any positive words (Skills 4 and 6), and then choose the best from what's left.

1. insightful—Nope, "insightful" sounds like a compliment. ("Insightful" means "perceptive.")
2. profound—Nope, "profound" sounds like a compliment. ("Profound" means "deep.")
3. alleviating—Nope, "alleviating" sounds positive. ("Alleviating" means "relieving.")
4. vapid—Yep, "vapid" definitely sounds negative. You'd be irked if your girlfriend called you vapid.
5. lucid—Nope, "lucid" sounds like the Spanish or French word for light, it's either positive or neutral.

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