Test Prep

Dealing With and Defeating Synonym Questions on the SAT and ACT


The SAT Writing & Language and the ACT English sections test vocabulary in almost exactly the same way: With questions that ask you to choose a word or phrase that best replaces an underlined portion of a sentence. Often, your possible answers include synonyms.

Take authorize, approve, release and allow, for example. Look up any one of those in a thesaurus and you'll see the other words listed as synonyms. However, the word synonym is itself a bit of a misnomer (an incorrect name), particularly on a standardized test. In fact, the SAT and ACT will often specifically choose words that seem interchangeable based on meaning alone. To correctly solve these, you'll have to pay attention to the context and usage to find the one the best fits.

Review the Context

These types of questions will be formatted slightly differently depending on whether you're taking the SAT or ACT, but they'll always involve a portion of text in a sentence being underlined, with the corresponding question asking you how to replace that text. ("No change" is often a valid answer.) Here's an example:

Taking a practice test approves you to get acquainted with the test and determine your starting score.


B. authorizes

C. releases

D. allows

Notice these are forms of the synonyms we discussed above! Approves, which is currently in the sentence and is listed as (A), NO CHANGE; and then (B), authorizes; (C), releases; and (D), allows. While the dictionary agrees that these have similar meanings, only one works in this context, and that's (D), which indicates that the second part of the sentence is a benefit of taking a practice test. Try plugging in the other choices to see why they don't work. Approves can mean something like allows, but it also includes the idea of saying yes to something, and that meaning isn't supported by the sentence. Similarly, authorizes implies giving permission. Allow can mean giving permission, but that's not how it's used in this sentence. Finally, while allow could mean "let go," as releases does, that's not what's happening in this context.

A variation on this type of vocabulary question is one that actually asks a question. Take a look at this example:

Researchers stated that they had faced some difficulties in accurately compiling the study's results.

The writer wants to convey that the scientists were responding to public criticism of their research. Which choice best accomplishes this goal?


B. announced

C. admitted

D. stated

Here, you have to carefully consider what the question is asking. You're looking for something that would indicate they were responding to public criticism. Choices (A), (B), and (D) are neutral, just indicating that the scientists were saying something. The word admits, however, suggests confessing to something or giving in to something under pressure. This would make sense as a response to public criticism, so the correct answer is (C).

As you can see, the most important strategy for this question variation is to carefully consider subtle differences among your answer choices and find the one with the most precise meaning in the given sentence.

"I Don't Know the Words!": How to Handle Gaps in Your Vocabulary

Choosing the word of best fit might seem easy when you know the definition of all the answers listed, but what if you aren't able to identify the differences among these words? In these cases, we suggest giving it your best guess. Similar to another tricky topic, idioms, you may have more trouble answering vocabulary questions if you're not a native speaker, or if you're a native speaker who is not familiar with the words.

Use Your Powers of Prediction

On the bright side, guessing doesn't mean that you have to blindly pick an answer. Instead, try to predict the word before looking at the answer choices. Let's try it with the following example:

The organization has tried to disenchant the false rumor that its director left under bad terms.


B. debunk

C. rectify

D. resolve

Begin by ignoring the word that's currently underlined; treat it like a blank. Now try to fill in a word of your choice that you feel would best complete the sentence. This should help you to determine, in your own words, that you're looking for a word that means "disprove" or "get rid of." Now run through the choices to see if any of them could match the meaning you came up with. Disenchant means "get rid of an enchantment or illusion." That isn't quite the same as "disprove," so eliminate (A). Debunk means "show to be false," which lines up with "disprove" so keep (B). Rectify means "make right," which doesn't fit "disprove," so eliminate (C). Resolve means "come to a decision," which doesn't match with "disprove," so eliminate (D). The correct answer is (B), debunk.

Ultimately, to do well with vocabulary questions, you have to be very familiar with most of the words tested. When it comes to ordinary words, the best way to ensure you're able to recognize those differences is to read more. Since these questions can also test you on more challenging vocabulary words, it's also a good idea to study vocabulary for the SAT or ACT.

Our books Reading and Writing Workout for the SAT and English & Reading Workout for the ACT offer both vocabulary exercises and practice questions. Additionally, check out our YouTube channel for more tips on mastering the SAT and ACT.