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Vocabulary Tips for the ACT and SAT

The ACT and SAT verbal sections demand a solid vocabulary, with the SAT being slightly more severe in this regard. SAT Writing sections include “fill in the blank” vocabulary questions, and the test is more gratuitous in its use of obscure words you probably haven’t seen before. However, both tests stress being able to understand and apply words in context. Here are a couple of tips to help you increase your vocabulary before the test, as well as a couple you can use if you encounter a word during the test that you don’t know.

Before the test:

Start a word journal:

Keep a notebook with you as you read and work on practice tests. Write down and define any word you don’t know the meaning of. Don’t just include dictionary definitions. Write a sample sentence, associate a word you don’t understand with one you do, or break a word down into smaller parts you can recognize (see morphemes below). Make some kind of connection that helps you remember a word’s meaning. Review a few words from your journal every day. Ask someone else to quiz you on them, noting which words you get right and which you get wrong.


The main advantage of flashcards is that you can quiz yourself. Keep your flashcards with you, and pull them out whenever you have a few spare minutes. While writing flashcards can be time-consuming, there are online resources that can make the process much faster and less painful. Quizlet.com lets you create digital flashcards by typing in a word and selecting from a list of definitions. Quizlet also has an app, allowing you take your electronic flashcards wherever you go.

During the test:

Use morphemes:

A morpheme is the smallest grammatical component of a word. The idea here is to break a word down into three parts: prefix, root, and suffix. For example, let’s say you didn’t know the definition of “indisputable.” The root “dispute” indicates disagreement. The prefix “in” means not. Finally, the suffix “able” means capable of. Put the meanings of the individual morphemes back together, and you can see that indisputable is “not capable of being disagreed with.” Not all words will be this straightforward, but you can get surprisingly close to a word’s full meaning if you understand what its separate parts mean.

Look at words in context:

Here is one of the dreaded “sentence completion” questions you will see on the SAT.

Mary was ______ when she learned that her best friend was moving away. No one could do anything to comfort her.

  1. overjoyed
  2. hopeful
  3. inconsolable
  4. indifferent

Since this is Mary’s best friend we are talking about, we can safely assume we are not looking for a happy answer. We can thus eliminate a) and b) right away. This leaves us with c) inconsolable and d) indifferent. The second sentence offers a further clue: Mary can’t be comforted right now. The correct answer should be pretty obvious at this point, but if you’re still not sure you can run a quick morpheme check on c) and d). Indifferent comes out with something along the lines of “not not the same,” but the inconsolable is literally “unable to be comforted.” Mary was unable to be comforted when she learned that her best friend was moving away.