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Students who don’t spend time prepping for the vocab section are often hit with a harsh reality on test day: the ACT vocabulary section isn’t as straight-forward as he or she thought. To dispel any pre-test anxiety and ensure you’re fully prepared, let’s review top tips to keep in mind while prepping for ACT vocabulary.

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. The sort of word you’d only get by creating and flipping through copious amounts of flashcards. The ACT, on the other hand, tests vocabulary that isn’t too difficult. Rather, the ACT tests words you would see in real life, and ones you’ll come across in your college reading.

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. Follow an ACT study guide during your prep to better understand what will be tested. 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!

Top Tip #2: The ACT loves secondary definitions.

Imagine 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.

Also 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). Instead of making a mental note to remind yourself to do this, practice in context ahead of time with an ACT Practice Test.

Top Tip #3: The ACT also loves idioms.

An idiom is a common phrase that makes no sense when heard out of context, but that native speakers learn the definitions of through repeated exposure. If English is your second language, you’ll definitely want to review these. 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

What this means for you: 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.