Dispatches from the Test Prep Team: Can I increase my TOEFL and SAT Scores at the Same Time?

Many students feel that the TOEFL and SAT tests are mutually exclusive. The TOEFL is a test of English language proficiency for non-native English speakers, both in generalized use and in academic English.

On the other hand, the SAT goes beyond just language proficiency, and requires students to apply more reasoning, logic, and general problem-solving skills. Both native and non-native English speakers take the SAT.

While it is recommended that students give themselves enough time to focus on specific question types and strategies for each test independently, there are some study activities that are beneficial for both tests. Vocabulary building and extensive reading/listening are two of these activities.

Some of the vocabulary on the SAT will be more obscure and require a wider range of low-frequency vocabulary (words one encounters less often in texts) knowledge.  But we all must start with a solid foundation, and learning academic vocabulary beginning with high-frequency words (words one encounters more often in texts) is important. Knowing the words one is most likely to come across is vital for reading comprehension.

This is one area where the TOEFL and SAT definitely overlap. Students must have a strong foundation of high-frequency vocabulary. One way to do this is by reading over the Academic Word List (AWL; see links below) and identifying unknown words. The AWL is comprised of the most common words exclusive to academic texts, not often found in general English. It is imperative for students to learn these words by any means necessary in order to comprehend academic texts. Flashcards, a vocabulary notebook, or even an app like Quizlet would work. Students should be focusing on not just the most common definition but also alternative meanings and how the word is used in context (by including example sentences).

Once this foundation has been laid, students should begin studying more low-frequency words typical of the vocabulary questions they’ll be asked on the SAT. Not only will this vocabulary knowledge ensure their understanding of texts, but it also offers more options for incorporating these words into their TOEFL speaking and writing responses. If used correctly, learning those low-frequency words will definitely increase speaking and writing scores.

Second, reading academic texts in English is beneficial for both the TOEFL and SAT, not just to practice comprehension, but to see academic vocabulary in context. Memorizing vocabulary from flashcards, for example, can be helpful, but seeing these words in real texts reinforces knowledge of the word and will give additional information about how the word can be used in various ways. Frequently reading articles in English-language newspapers, introductory-level textbooks, and websites such as Scientific American, Science, and Nature are great places to start. Seeing a word in context gives clues as to what words it typically appears together with in texts. Although the SAT doesn’t have a listening section, listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and lectures in English will help reinforce vocabulary knowledge much in the same way that reading does, while also providing a mobile study option for busy students. There are many wonderful online resources that can be streamed or downloaded and played while on the way to school, while exercising, or at any other time when sitting down to study isn’t always an option.

In general, however, we recommend that students first focus on the TOEFL before beginning SAT prep. TOEFL preparation can help students acquire that foundational language necessary to do well on the SAT. Start preparing early by learning academic vocabulary and then reinforcing your vocabulary study with reading and listening. In this sense, the TOEFL and SAT are not mutually exclusive.

Below are some resources to learn about high- and low-frequency academic vocabulary.