How to Improve Your Vocabulary for the SAT and ACT

How to Improve Your Vocabulary for the SAT & ACT

There once was a time when vocabulary knowledge was explicitly tested on standardized tests, so a broad understanding of obscure vocabulary helped students master those questions. Here’s a quick example:

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As you can see, this is essentially a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary question, so knowing the definitions of many different words could be useful in this situation.

Not so much anymore.

Now, when it comes to vocabulary on the ACT and SAT, the name of the game is context. Understanding a word from context is a subtle technique, but the ability to do so reflects the reality of how most vocabulary appears in text and conversations. It’s commonly understood that a strong command of language will always yield the best results for the Reading, Writing & Language/English, and Essay sections of the ACT and SAT. But lately, many students have asked me, “What’s the best approach to improving my vocabulary?”

There’s no easy answer to this question, but let me provide you with some helpful tips to put you on the right path. First and foremost...

Read, read, read

And then read some more. I know you’ve heard this before and while reading every day is much easier said than done, it is one of the best ways to improve your vocabulary. As you read, you will gain exposure to new words, which you should log in a vocabulary journal. You will instinctively understand the meanings of some words from context, but you’ll often need a dictionary to look up definitions. Speaking of dictionaries...

Have a dictionary at your immediate disposal

I know the idea of lugging around a dictionary sounds outdated, but the students who I’ve seen improve the most usually have a dictionary in their backpack. Plus, walking around with a heavy backpack — known as “rucking” in the military (bonus vocab alert!) — gives you get the added benefit of burning extra calories and building your back muscles. 😉 Of course, there tons of dictionaries accessible online, but my main point here is that you must develop the habit of looking up unfamiliar words and logging their definitions.

Understand words in context

Increasing the amount of reading you do will also improve the most important skill you need to solve vocabulary questions on the ACT and SAT: understanding words in context. This ability will prove useful on the reading sections of both tests. The vocabulary words tested on standardized tests are known as “tier-two” words: high-frequency words that often have multiple meanings. Consider the words consistent, emerge, admit, perform, require and maintain; each one can be used in a variety of contexts (I have to admit, I was shocked when I was admitted to all of the colleges I applied to). With these words, it is important to know not only their literal definitions but also their connotations, or secondary meanings. Having a thesaurus handy is key.

On the ACT and SAT, vocabulary-in-context questions will directly test whether you can determine meaning from context, but the passages themselves will indirectly test your ability to do so as well. You will encounter unfamiliar words when reading ACT/SAT passages, most of which won’t be tested. Some students allow these words to trip them up and interfere with their progress, but it’s important to remember that specialized or technical vocabulary will usually be defined within the passage itself. You just need to concern yourself with those “tier-two” words.

So, here are my suggestions:

Find material you WANT to read

Whether you love music, politics, art, cars, fashion, sports, science, or any other topic, there is a ton of material available to read. Ideally, you’ll find college-level books or articles and spend at least thirty minutes reading each day.

Log new words in your vocab journal

As you read, log any new words you encounter (along with their definitions) in your vocabulary journal. As your list grows, divide your vocabulary words into three categories: words you know, words you somewhat know, and words you don’t know. Revisit your list each week, and devote the necessary time to familiarize yourself with the words you don’t know and words you somewhat know. Creating flashcards is always a reliable technique to learning new vocabulary, but mix up your approach! Come up with funny sentences or draw pictures that you can associate with your words. Do whatever it takes to commit the vocabulary to memory. It is an ongoing process, but it will pay off. Once you improve your vocabulary, your reading score will increase, but more importantly, you will have tools that will serve you thoughout high school, college, and beyond.


Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."

Posted on May 8, 2017 and filed under SAT, ACT, Test Prep.