How to Tackle SAT, ACT Vocabulary Questions

On the Reading sections of both the ACT and SAT , test-takers encounter a fair number of vocabulary-in-context questions. As you prepare for either test, practice these three techniques to successfully tackle them:

— Consider the context.

— Create a prediction and select the closest match.

— Plug in to double-check.

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 questions are always passage-based, so you don’t need to memorize definitions of words before test day.

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

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; she 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 mold equally commonplace among children of that class and type in the twentieth century.”

The test question states, “In line 55, ‘charge’ most clearly means:” and the answer choices are A) responsibility, B) attack, C) fee and D) expense.

You could argue that B, C, and D are all rough synonyms of “charge.” To charge at someone is to run toward them violently, and a charge on your credit card is a sort of fee or expense to be paid.

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

Despite this logic, the correct answer choice is A. In the passage, Lady Carlotta is hired as a private tutor, so “the charge,” or responsibility, “thrust upon her” is to teach the three children. Only by revisiting the text could you arrive at the correct answer, proving that with ACT and SAT vocabulary, context is critical.

Some test-takers fall into the trap of relying too heavily on their background knowledge of words. They may simply read the question and choose a standard definition or synonym, an approach that is ill-advised. Instead, always revisit the part of the passage where the word appears and use context clues to deduce its meaning in that sentence.

Create a Prediction 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 often meant to confuse, tempt or even trick you, not help you. For this reason, a student’s strongest defense against tempting yet incorrect answer choices is making predictions.

Now, let’s apply this technique to question seven from the fourth passage on this practice ACT. First, use your hand to cover the answer choices so that you are not tempted to read them. Then, read the question stem: “As it is used in line 30, the phrase ‘something innate’ most nearly means…”

At this point, you should reread the part of the text that contains the phrase. Be aware that reading just the suggested line number is rarely enough to come up with a prediction. Go back to the beginning of the sentence where the phrase appears and read it to the end. In this case, you would read: “Scientists are just now realizing how experiences after birth, rather than something innate, determine the actual wiring of the human brain.”

[Read: How to Answer Main Idea Questions on the ACT, SAT]

Next, substitute “something innate” with your own words. Try to keep it simple. For example, “before birth” could be one prediction. Now that you have a prediction, no matter how plain it may be, it is safe to look at the answer choices: “A) a memory. B) learned behavior. C) physical immaturity. D) an inherited trait.”

Notice that the prediction “before birth” is not an option, but “an inherited trait” is there, and it is close in meaning. Thus, you would select choice D, which is the right answer.

Plug in to Double-Check

If you followed the previous steps but still find yourself wavering about an answer choice, double-check your selection by plugging it in. When you do so, once again make sure to read the sentence in its entirety, assuming it is not too long. This way, you will gain the most accurate sense of whether the word or phrase works in that context.

Be aware that this third step can and should be omitted if you are running out of time or feel extremely confident about an answer choice.

The key to success on ACT and SAT vocabulary questions is using the right techniques. To achieve the highest possible score on these question types, consider context, create predictions and double-check through substitution.

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How to Tackle SAT, ACT Vocabulary Questions originally appeared on

Update 04/04/22: This article has been updated with new information.

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