3 Tricks to Improve Your Vocabulary

Studying for the SAT, ACT, or another test? These tricks can help improve your vocabulary beyond memorization.

Varsity Tutors, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #505

3 tricks to improve your vocabulary

Vexatious. Irksome. Rebarbative.

You may not know all those words, but in a sentence, you get the idea. For instance, “I’m so tired of studying these vexatious lists of test vocabulary,” should hint that the meaning of that first V-word is “troublesome.”

Whether you’re studying for the SAT or ACT, an English test, or any other test where vocabulary is important, there are steps you can take to improve your understanding of unfamiliar words beyond just memorizing long lists. Use these tips to up your vocab game:

1. Read, Read, Read

Are you a voracious reader who plows through a book each week? If so, you probably do pretty well on vocab-based exams. The more you read, the more words you learn through context.

Don’t think you can only build vocabulary skills through reading textbooks or classics, however. Books you read for fun will help, too; so will news articles or magazines, especially on topics that are new to you. Better yet, your e-reader probably lets you click on a word to look it up; try that to boost your vocab. You might also consider trying an app like ProfessorWord—it automatically highlights ACT and SAT words on any webpage, and you can click on the word to see the definition. You can save the words you don’t know to a list for reviewing later.

2. Practice Seeing the Big Picture

When it comes to figuring out words you don’t know, context is key. Remember a few paragraphs ago where you read the word voracious? Maybe you knew that word, maybe you didn’t. Either way, I’ll bet you understood what it meant in that sentence. Why? The rest of the sentence makes clear that a “voracious” reader has a strong appetite for books.

That’s an example of drawing meaning from context, and it’s key to acing tests that draw on your knowledge of advanced vocabulary. Here is an example from the ACT’s sample English questions that shows why context is important. The passage associated with the question below describes the writer’s mother as a marine biologist who runs an unconventional household. It includes this sentence:

Everything was subservient to the disposal of the tides.

The question asks you to select the best alternative to the underlined portion of a sentence. The choices for this sentence are:


B. was defenseless in the face of

C. depended on

D. trusted in


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Varsity Tutors, Writing for Grammar Girl

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