Top Tips for ACT Vocab

Hidey-ho, Magooshers! Today I’m going to give you my top three tips for vocabulary success on the ACT, and what they mean for you in preparing for test day.

Top Tip #1: The ACT and SAT test vocabulary in different ways.

Traditionally, an “SAT word” has been a vocabulary word that is both uncommon and difficult. You know, the sort of word you’d only get by drilling vocabulary into your head until your brain bleeds.

(Author’s Note: please don’t try that at home.)

The ACT, on the other hand, tests vocabulary that isn’t too terribly difficult. They’re words you would probably see in real life, and you’ll probably come across them in some of your reading in college — which you will have, regardless of your major. Sorry.

What this means for you: You’re unlikely to be asked about weird, difficult vocabulary words, but you’ll be expected to know very detailed definitions of more common words. You also won’t be asked any straight-up vocabulary questions, but you will be expected to use words appropriately in the context given to you. So if you’re taking both tests, or if your school or teachers are offering ways to help you prepare for the SAT, not everything applies from the SAT to the ACT — though knowing more words can’t hurt!

Liam got a 35 on the ACT. Get a higher ACT score with Magoosh.

Top Tip #2: The ACT loves secondary definitions, like whoa.

Imagine with me for a moment. You’re in the middle of your ACT Reading test, and you come across the word “suffer” in one of the passages. If you’re anything like me, when you read the word just now, you probably thought that someone was in pain or going through trauma of some kind.

But what if the sentence was something like, “She suffers from a tendency to exaggerate.” Here, the woman in question isn’t in pain. I used a secondary definition of “suffer,” which here means “She is given to exaggeration” or, in more intelligible English, “She exaggerates a lot.”

Or what if the sentence is something like the famous Bible quote, “Suffer the little children to come unto me”? Don’t worry, no one is hurting kids. “Suffer” is being used in yet another way: as a synonym for “allow” or “permit.” In this context, “suffer” means “Allow the little children to come to me.”

What this means for you: If you think you know what a word means in an ACT question, you probably need to double-check the context. Even if you don’t think you need to, do it anyway.

Another thing you should double-check: parts of speech. If you’re dealing with the word “determined,” for example, you should be totally clear on whether the word is being used as an adjective (Alyson was a determined young lady) or as the past tense of the word determine (Galileo determined that the Earth orbits the sun).

Top Tip #3: The ACT also loves idioms.

Idioms are one of those lovely things about English that make the people learning it as a second language want to hit native speakers with the nearest lexicon until internal consistency is achieved. An idiom is a common phrase that makes no sense when you think about it, but we all know what it means in context. Some familiar examples of idioms include:

    narrow down — to reduce the number of choices or possibilities
    cut corners — to do something poorly, often to save money
    up in the air — to have undefined plans
    up in arms — to become angry about something
    hush-hush — secret or hidden
    stumble upon — to discover accidentally
    came about — happened

(If you’re looking for more practice with idioms for the ACT English Test, we have a whole post on them HERE.)

What this means for you: Now, the ACT won’t ask you to complete the sentence with the appropriate word — but idioms do appear fairly frequently in the Reading Test passages, so you should be prepared. If you come across an idiom and you’re not sure what it means, ignore it. If there’s a question based on that part of the passage, go back and give it a second look. Try to predict what the author meant in that situation. Chances are good that you’ll be able to get a general sense of the meaning, even if you’re not completely sure what all the words mean.


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  • Catrina Coffey

    Catrina graduated from Rider University with a B.A. in English. She’s been helping students prepare for standardized tests since 2011. In her spare time, you can find her reading anything within arms’ reach, playing video games, correcting grammar, or studying word derivations. (Did you know that procrastinate comes from the Latin word cras, which means “tomorrow”?)

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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