image © Antonio Guillem, Shutterstock


Let’s start this post with a short pop quiz.

Which of the following options would have been most likely to appear on the vocabulary section of the old SAT?

A. lateritious
B. petrichor
C. ultracrepidarian
D. discreet
E. absquatulate

If your only experience is with the new test, or if you’ve encountered articles discussing the SAT redesign, it’s probably safe to assume you’ve heard a thing or two about all those “obscure” words that were removed from the exam in order to make it more “relevant” and aligned with “what students are doing in school” (which is… what exactly?)

The point of this little exercise, in case you haven’t guessed, is to establish just what an “SAT word” is and is not, and to thereby conduct this discussion in a reality-based framework. In fact, the only one of these words that stood a realistic chance of appearing on the old exam is D), “discreet,” which would not, by the standards of most college-educated adults, be considered in any sense “obscure.” Unfamiliar to a 16-year old who rarely reads, perhaps, but obscure in the absolute sense, most decidedly not. (In case anyone wishes to quibble with that characterization, a brief search of the NY Times website indicates that as of 2pm EST on 11/4/18, this word had been used 10 times on the site within the previous 48 minutes.)

Now, as I’ve pointed out before, the adult journalists who cover education for major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post tend to have a wee bit of difficulty distinguishing between the types of words they might have considered obscure at the age of 16 and the types of words they would consider obscure at the age of 50. And to rehash one of my favorite points, it is not uncommon to come across articles firmly insisting that the old SAT was full of words no one ever used, that are in fact chock full of such “SAT words” themselves.

So that’s point number one.

Point number two involves the admonition, often sounded by equally well-meaning adults, to avoid the use of “SAT words” in one’s college essay. This was a piece of advice I had always more or less concurred with — who wants to read stiff, stilted prose packed with 10-dollar words? — until, that is, I found myself in the bookstore with a few minutes to kill before an event last week and happened to pick up the most recent of the US News and World Report college-rankings edition.

Among the features was a section on essays, and one the samples was a delightful piece about tying strings in a bakery, written by a member of the Johns Hopkins class of 2018. In terms of content, the essay hits all the right notes for a middle-class, presumably unhooked girl from an ultra-competitive northeastern state (New York): the writer demonstrates a fairly high degree of intellectual maturity and curiosity, an interest in the hard sciences, the ability “make connections” between widely disparate concepts (tying strings in a bakery = string theory), is charming without being cloying, and remains appropriately self-deprecating despite her presumable advantages in life (she knows about string theory and alludes to her memorization of Mozart arias but chooses to focus on her inability to do something as simple as tie strings at her part-time job, although obviously, she’s headed for better things in life than a low-wage position in food service).

Although it comes off as very natural in the essay, this type of balancing act is actually extraordinarily difficult for most high-school writers, even strong ones, to pull off. I don’t think I could have done it when I was 17. Heck, I’m not even sure I could do it today. (Incidentally, I’d be very curious to know what kind of help, if any, the student received.)

I’d actually read the essay before, on the Hopkins site, but what caught my attention this time was the accompanying analysis from and admissions officer. Out of curiosity, I skimmed through it and saw a predictable note praising the fact that the writing sounded “natural — not as if the author was reaching for a thesaurus.”

I didn’t think too much about it and kept reading, but after I few minutes, I realized that something wasn’t sitting quite right, and so I flipped back and took a closer look at the essay. I’d noticed “tenacity,” a high-frequency word on the old SAT, but now I decided to see if there were others. Sure, enough, I counted 10, give or take a few depending on your definition of “hard” word.


Now, the interesting part is that if this list were presented out of context as an example of the types of “irrelevant” words no longer tested on the exam — five syllables in “exasperation,” the horror! — I suspect that most people probably wouldn’t hesitate to accept that description and disparage them accordingly, even if they would not have been originally inclined to view the words that way. (More than once, I’ve found myself in a conversation with an educated adult who, when discussing the SAT, began to mock their own spontaneous and reflexive use of moderately sophisticated vocabulary. To paraphrase Orwell, “big words bad, small words good.”)

And indeed, for many students, this list would in fact fall into the category of big, fancy, weird thesaurus words. But within this particular essay, and for this particular student, these terms are used so naturally and so appropriately that they do not seem the least bit forced.

The same point was made in a recent outcry on College Confidential, in response to a NY Times piece by a college-essay consultant who insinuated that a parent-written essay could be identified solely by the use of words like “henceforth.” The reality, of course, is that some kids do in fact use words like “henceforth” in their writing unprompted, and it seems absurd to ask them to dumb themselves down just to avoid risking getting red-flagged by an admissions officer.

Having considered all this, I decided that a more nuanced approach to the issue of college-essay vocabulary was called for. (Nuance – n., a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.)

So here’s my assessment: I think that broadly speaking, the success of an essay is not really a matter of the individual words used, but rather of how they work together to create a whole. To worry about whether a student uses “big words” is essentially beside the point. Rather, the more relevant questions are “does it flow”? “does it engage the reader”? “does it allow the reader to get a sense of who the student is as a person”?

It is possible to use very small, simple words and write stiffly and unnaturally, and it is possible to use larger, more challenging words and come across as perfectly natural. The real question is whether a term is the most appropriate one for a given situation. In some instances, that might well be “tenacity” or “obduracy”; in others, it might be “stubbornness.” Each one has a slightly different shade of meaning and can be “correct” depending on what the writer wants to convey.

Many strong essays are in fact fairly informal in style — although I’ve also read excellent ones in which students discuss fascinating, and sometimes quite technical, research projects — but it is a mistake to confuse “conversational” with “simplistic.” If you are capable of using sophisticated vocabulary in an easy and natural-sounding way, then by all means go for it. Essays are read holistically: no one is going to sit there and count how many “hard” words you used. Rather, it’s the overall impression the reader is left with. Your goal is to make a good one, and there’s no fixed formula for doing so.