How to Tackle SAT, ACT Vocabulary Questions

In order to excel on the ACT English, ACT Reading, SAT Reading and SAT Writing and Language sections, test-takers must understand the question types that they will encounter and how to succeed on them.

One question type that appears on both college entrance exams involves vocabulary. As you prepare for either test, practice these four techniques to successfully tackle vocabulary questions:

— Consider the context.

— Choose your own word and select the closest match.

— Make practical vocabulary lists.

— Read more often.

Consider the Context

It may come as a relief to you that on the ACT and SAT, you will never be asked to identify the meaning of a vocabulary word in isolation. Instead, vocabulary words are always passage-based.

Consider, for instance, question 6 from the reading subtest of this past SAT. It asks readers to choose the best definition for “charge” given the context of this passage: “During the drive to the Quabarl mansion Lady Carlotta was impressively introduced to the nature of the charge that had been thrust upon her; he learned that Claude and Wilfrid were delicate, sensitive young people, that Irene had the artistic temperament highly developed, and that Viola was something or other else of a mould equally commonplace among children of that class and type in the twentieth century.”

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

The test question asks, “In line 55, ‘charge’ most clearly means:” with the answer options being A) responsibility, B) attack, C) fee or D) expense. B, C and D are all valid substitutes for “charge,” but the correct answer choice is A. This example is important because it shows that context is everything.

Some test-takers fall into the trap of relying too heavily on background knowledge where ACT or SAT vocabulary terms are concerned. They may simply read the question and choose an answer without rereading the lines where the word is used.

This approach is ill-advised, as the standard definition of a term may not lead you to the right answer choice. This makes particular sense on the SAT, where these question types are labeled as “words in context” rather than just vocabulary questions. Therefore, always use context clues on the ACT or SAT to deduce meaning.

Choose Your Own Word and Select the Closest Match

Another way that students misstep on the ACT and SAT is that they use the answer choices as a crutch. It is crucial to remember, however, that the answer choices are meant to trick you, not help you. This is why a student’s strongest defense against tempting, yet incorrect, answer choices is making predictions.

An example of how the prediction technique works is the seventh question on the second page of Passage Four on this practice ACT. “Scientists are just now realizing how experiences after birth, rather than something innate, determine the actual wiring of the human brain.”

[Read: When to Take the SAT, ACT.]

The student should use a hand to cover the question’s answer choices, then read the question stem: “As it is used in line 30, the phrase ‘something innate’ most nearly means A) a memory. B) learned behavior. C) physical immaturity. D) an inherited trait.” The student should then reread line 30, where the word is mentioned.

Next, the student should substitute the word or phrase in question with his or her own word or words. “Before birth” could be one prediction. The student should then reveal the answer choices. The predicted phrase “before birth” is not present, but “an inherited trait” is the closest in meaning, so the student should select option D as the right answer.

Make Practical Vocabulary Lists

The ACT and SAT tend to test students on words that are commonly used by mature speakers and writers — words that you will also see in college-level reading assignments.

There is insufficient space in this post to provide a full set of words to review prior to taking the exam, but a brief internet search will uncover some terms that can guide your studies. Once you compile a list, create physical or virtual flashcards — for example, with a free tool like Quizlet — that include the possible meanings for each word.

Next, write sentences that use each definition appropriately. Keep your list handy as you write papers for your classes and try to incorporate these words into your assignments.

Writing can help you truly master new words and make them easier to recall under stress. As a bonus, you will also have an impressive arsenal of vocabulary words to deploy in your college admissions essays or on the optional ACT essay.

Read More Often

One of the easiest and most natural ways to broaden your vocabulary is by simply reading more.

Both the SAT and ACT use texts from literary works, as well as historically and scientifically minded documents. Unless your high school is uncommonly rigorous, or you are preparing for Advanced Placement exams in courses like American history or literature, you may have limited exposure to such writings, which can make them intimidating.

[Read: How the Coronavirus Is Pushing Colleges to Go Test-Optional.]

The best way to prepare is to increase your familiarity with these kinds of works. Choose a book from an earlier era, such as “The Great Gatsby,” and mark seemingly important words that are unfamiliar to you, especially the ones that appear several times.

Also, mark any words that look familiar but do not quite fit the context. Look these words up in a dictionary and write down the sentence in which you encountered the word. You can then use that sentence when studying. Do not get carried away, though — you do not want to focus so much on vocabulary as you read that you lose sight of the plot.

If you are not an avid reader, there are still ways you can improve your vocabulary. Keep your ears open for new words you hear on the news, radio or in everyday conversation. Try to deduce their meaning from context but always verify with a dictionary. Then, try to use those words yourself.

The key to success on ACT and SAT vocabulary questions is using the right techniques. Consider context, predict answers and broaden your lexicon over a long period in order to score well.

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