Test Prep

The Best Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary for the ACT and SAT

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Vocabulary isn't explicitly tested on the SAT or ACT these days, but if you don't know the meanings of a wide variety of words, you may struggle to get through the passages that are tested. Or to put it another way, while assimilating vocabulary may seem frivolous, you might be consternated to learn how expedient such an avocation is.


Now, whether you're an apathetic dilettante or an assiduous savant, you won't see sentences as complicated as this one (or the previous one). But knowing even one of these words can help you to figure out, from context, what's going on in the rest of the sentence and, from there, the passage. In short, a broader vocabulary is an easy way to bump up your scores on these sections. Here are some of the best ways to become an even stronger wordsmith.

Keep Reading!

The best way to improve your vocabulary and become a better reader is the simplest: read more. You've heard the saying "practice makes perfect," and that's certainly true here. Best of all, reading for pleasure doesn't feel like studying or prep work!

Choose a book that's interesting for you. Some people love fiction because it allows them to imagine other worlds and lives, while others prefer nonfiction because it provides them with information on real-life people and topics. Even within those two categories, there is a huge variety in genres you might prefer, whether you like to read romance, science fiction, biographies or philosophy. There's value in all of them!

One recommendation: Since you're reading for vocabulary, try to choose books that will expose you to new words. Don't just read young adult fiction or mass-market thrillers. This doesn't mean you have to read a "classic" like Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice (though it's great if you want to!). But if the reading level of your current novel isn't pushing you, it may be time to find material that does. Incidentally, librarians and English teachers can help recommend these books to you! Don't just say that you don't like to read; look for the genre that suits you and your needs. After that, you can use "best of" lists online, or visit community sites like Goodreads, to make sure your chosen book will challenge you.

Stay Consistent!

You'll often hear people say, "I'd love to read more, but I can't find the time!" What you'll find, however, is if you choose a book you're interested in and that is at an appropriate reading level for you (not too hard), you won't find it difficult to make time. Consider how easily people find time for TV shows they love; books are no different. In fact, when you're reading an interesting book, you might instead find yourself staying up too late or ignoring other obligations because you want to keep reading!

The trick is to schedule reading like you would any other activity. Don't feel as if you have to finish the whole thing — or even a whole chapter — in one sitting, but do commit to reading for at least a fifteen minute session, so you get into the flow of the text. Set aside a time that works for you — maybe before bed or when you get home after school. Remember, books now come in several formats, from print to audio and eBook, so don't be afraid to try out something new and see if it clicks for you.

If you get into the habit of reading a little every day, you'll not only see improvement in all of your classes, but on the SAT or ACT as well.

Confirm the Context!

As you read, you'll come across words you won't know. (That's part of the goal, remember?) These words are opportunities to practice your reading skills and build your vocabulary.

First, use the context to get a sense of what the word likely means. But after you've made your best guess — and this is where things differ from what you'll be doing on the SAT and ACT — look up the word! (If you're on an e-reader, it probably has a dictionary built right in.) Remember, you don't just want to find new words — you want to learn them. Add new words to your flashcards for the ACT or SAT, or any other methods you're using to study vocabulary. You will likely find it helpful to note where you originally found that word — the more connections that that help you remember the word, the better!

Becoming an avid reader allows you to not only improve your vocabulary, but also to practice your comprehension and analytic skills. Incorporating reading into your other ACT and SAT study methods will help you reach those top scores on the college admissions exams. For more ways to prepare for these exams, check out our books ACT Prep and SAT Prep. Also, see our YouTube channel for additional content about the college testing and admissions process.