The Evil SAT Verbal


The happiest moment of my life was when I got a 600 on SAT verbal.  You may say it doesn’t take much to make me happy, but you’d be missing my point.  The statement is a reflection on my life-long struggle to achieve competence in verbalism, be it in English or Japanese.

I somehow managed to stumble into a profession full of people strong in verbal skills, but those who knew me in high school (and really didn’t keep in touch since) probably thought I’d end up in a profession involving crunching numbers and/or dollars.

I thought so, too.

I digress, but the fact is, I ended up here because of my math skills, not in spite of it.  On the heels of a high school GPA greatly inflated due to my perfect grade in math (which would have been quite impressive had it not been for the extra amount of money my parents dumped into additional education), I got into Boston College.  Cashing in on a cumulative GPA window-dressed because of my math GPA, I got into law school (although not Boston College Law School, for which I shall remain forever bitter enough to force the school to evenly split with Rutgers University School of Law the donation it otherwise would have received).  Focusing on the only law school courses where numbers are involved–Tax–I graduated above average from law school and entered Shearman & Sterling–where, finally, numbers do me no good and I have comfortably landed in mediocrity.

It’s not all negatives on the verbal front.  I never wrote particularly well, but I’d always been able to write, and write correctly.  I was never a prolific reader, but I didn’t hate reading.  And in this way I could feign (oh look!  a short “big” word)  competence in most areas outside of math.

Except vocabulary.  My god I hated vocabulary, mostly because I never had it.

Because of the profession I’m in, people really don’t take me seriously when I complain about my lack of vocabulary.  But to emphasize the point home, I’m fond of characterizing my (lack of) verbal depth by noting I don’t know any words over three syllables, and I’m being generous by a syllable.  I lack deep vocabulary in both English and Japanese, because English is my second language and because I didn’t get educated in Japanese, respectively.  You’d think after two decades this convenient excuse–that I came to America from Japan–will run its course, but alas, people have continued to accept it with nodding understanding.

This brings me to the SATs, the version before the revamp couple years ago and the one I took.  The way that exam tested vocabulary–analogies–was simply overwhelming.  Word A : Word B = Word C : Word D, with four “Word C : Word D” choices to choose from.  If you count it up, you had to know the meaning of ten words to be absolutely sure of the correct answer.  And there are like seven of these.  In each section.  Of which there were three.  Four if you were unlucky enough to have verbal as the unscored section.  My mathematical ability tells me I need to know up to 280 words to answer every question correctly.  This is borderline inhumane.  Or evil.  Or both.

To overcome these overwhelming numbers, various verbally inclined people gave me advice that were totally useless:

  1. Study the SAT vocab list:  I repeatedly looked at the list, which goes on for pages on end, only to be amazed that there were so many words out there that I hadn’t the slightest idea of its meaning.  You really think I can pick up words by studying a list when I didn’t pick them up while reading a book?  And you don’t think this advice will be particularly discouraging for a person who knows like one word in a page with 150 words?  How would you like it if I gave you a list containing the Pythagorean theorem, law of sine, law of cosine, the angle sum and difference identities, and the double angle theorem and told you to memorize it?
  2. Use Latin Roots:  The nonsensicalness of this advice fascinated me to no end.  So the solution to my not mastering two languages is to force me to learn a third, extinct language.
  3. Look up every word I don’t understand in a dictionary:  sounding nice in principle, this advice is completely unpractical.  I actually tried this method for a while, only to  learn that I didn’t know an average of three words in a sentence and it took me half an hour to get through a page.  My parents understood the futility of this advice: they, like me, skipped words right over in reading a book in English unless they couldn”t understand the sentence without looking up words because otherwise, they’ll never get through the reading assignment.

In the end, I tackled the daunting vocab challenge head on by doing little and hoping for the best.  (Why does this sound familiar?)  The first time was not the charm (550), mostly because I had to suffer through four sections of verbal.  The second time was the charm, mostly because I could sleep through half of the test consisting of math.

Nearly a decade later, I’m curious as to how I’d perform now in the verbal section which mercifully got rid of those hated analogies.  One would think, and hope, that a liberal arts education, a political science major, law school and a legal career would have significantly increased my vocabulary, but I have my reservations.

Remember, this is a profession that uses the word “effect” as a verb, believes “heretoforth” is an acceptable common usage, clarifies a sentence by adding the modifier “in each as the case may be” and starts a letter with the phrase “Reference is hereby made to…”  Lawyers would be considered an affront to the English language if there weren’t so many of them around.  That we have become so accustomed to such terrible English is a travesty on its own right.

James Joyce would be horrified with my rendition of stream of consciousness, which brought me (and you) from whining about the SATs to complaining about lawyers with no logical connection in between.

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5 Responses to “The Evil SAT Verbal”


  1. 1 Chris Schroeck May 7, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    I was 760 verbal on the first try. And, I hate to bring this up, Joe, but…I just have to. When I was a 7th grader, my middle school had a program in which they would have their best students take the SAT, in part to let them know ahead of time what to work on from then until high school. I took the SAT in 7th grade, and scored a 570 verbal.

    Now, I am sure if I took an SAT-equivalent in japanese, I would score approximately zero.

    I probably didn’t have the math scores that you did, though.

  2. 2 joesas May 7, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Your 570 in 7th grade v. my 550 in 11th. Ouch. That hurts.


  1. 1 My Relationship wit Math: it was good, until it got complicated « The World According to Joe Trackback on November 14, 2009 at 2:59 pm
  2. 2 Those Damn Ls and Rs « The World According to Joe Trackback on February 14, 2010 at 5:46 pm
  3. 3 Auspicious, inopposite, statutory neglect « The World According to Joe Trackback on June 8, 2010 at 8:34 am

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