How to Learn (and Remember!) Tricky CAT Vocabulary Words

CAT Vocabulary Words
Why does learning CAT vocabulary become an issue for thousands (if not more!) test-takers each year? In the first place, the CAT Verbal section features passages that may, but more likely may not have anything to do with business, maths, or economics—the subjects that most students brush up on before the official exam. But today, we’ll go over how you can finally understand how to learn (and remember!) tricky CAT vocabulary words.


Read, read, read!

Oh, sorry—do I sound like a broken record? That’s because this step is so important to your performance on the CAT! I’ve helped students prep for tests for almost a decade now, and I can tell you from experience: one of the least effective ways to learn new words is to memorize them from a list.

That’s not to say that certain lists can’t be helpful (see “Types of Words” below), but you’re so much more likely to understand a word in context and then remember it. Think of it like meeting new people: would you be more likely to remember someone’s face and name if you saw it on a flashcard, or if you spent time talking to them at an event?

So what should you read? High-quality English language materials. Because American English can differ slightly from the materials you’ll see on the CAT exam, British and Indian materials are best for prep. Think especially of economic-based publications: The Economist, the Financial Times, even newspaper-based content from The Times or The Guardian.

How often should you read? An hour a day is ideal, in addition to any other CAT preparation you’re doing. But even if you don’t have this amount of time, don’t let it stop you! Anything is better than nothing, even if it’s five minutes on the train every morning.

Make Flashcards…But Make Them Special

So clearly, I’m not a huge flashcard proponent when it comes to learning vocabulary for the CAT. But I do love one type of flashcard: contextual flashcards.

What do I mean by this? I mean put the context in which you learned the word on the flashcard and circle the word you’re testing yourself on. Then, put the definition on the back. If you have more examples of that word’s use, either from CAT practice exams or other reading you’ve done, you can include those too (preferably on the back of the card).

You should make these cards as you read. If you don’t have the capacity to (for example, if you are reading on the train), make sure to fold the page down, bookmark it, do whatever you can to make sure you come back to it. This is invaluable stuff!

To continue our earlier metaphor, this is like meeting a person at a party, then having their picture and key words about their conversation written down on a flashcard, with their name on the back. Yes, this metaphor’s getting a little creepy, but just think how much easier it would be to remember them if you did this! (Please don’t do this with actual people.)

Distinguish Between Types of Words…Then Use Them

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I’ve already come up with two separate—and short—word lists for the CAT. What’s that all about?

Well. A lot of test-prep word lists have terms that you will never, ever use on them (“alligator,” anyone?). And if words like “alligator” do come up on the exam, I can pretty much promise you that they a) won’t be vital to answering the questions correctly and/or b) will be easily infer-able from the surrounding text.

What you will need to know for the official exam, however, are words that have to do with the question stems. After all, you won’t be able to ace that test if you don’t understand the questions! Furthermore, many of the terms the test-maker uses in the question stems can be easily confused with other words. That’s why I made you this handy-dandy list of important CAT vocabulary words (for Verbal).

But the importance of vocabulary doesn’t end in the Verbal section. Oh, no. As you move forward on the test, you’ll find that you’ll need to understand a handful of terms specific to business, economics, and maths. That’s why I posted this CAT word list‎, based entirely on previous exams. Will you find other words in CAT Data Interpretation & Logical Reasoning or Quantitative Ability? Sure. Of course. But this is a great basis for preparing yourself to understand the foundations of the questions and kick off your reading, flashcard-making frenzy.


The best way to prepare for the CAT, or indeed any exam, is prolonged practice. After you take practice exams, go back through them after you’ve marked them and pick out any words you didn’t know (whether or not you got the associated questions right). And then…create flashcards. For a lot of students, though, simply the fact of encountering them on the test, and then noting them afterwards, will be enough. Like meeting someone at a party and then seeing them the next day on the subway. Are you going to forget their name anytime soon? No way.

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