Posted by Karen Nichols

Dec 14, 2015 7:16:57 AM

Without question, a strong vocabulary is a great asset. An expansive vocabulary improves reading, speaking, writing, and reasoning skills, and research has linked it to long-term educational and career success. Entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin makes this point in his blog post, "Does Vocabulary Matter?":

The typical native speaker knows 20,000 words, and there's your opportunity:

If you know 40,000 words, if you learn five words a day for a decade, the world changes. Your ability to see, to explain and to influence flies off the charts.

In the short term, a strong vocabulary can also help you do your best on college entrance exams and college application essays. Read on to learn a few tips for growing your vocabulary during your high school years and beyond.

College Entrance Exams and Vocabulary: What You Need to Know

Here is what you need to know about how your vocabulary relates to your performance on the most important exams related to college admissions:

  • PSAT/SAT —The PSAT, also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), and its older sibling, the SAT college entrance exam, are less vocabulary dependent than they once were, but your word power still counts. The new PSAT and SAT formally test vocabulary on the Reading subtest. Multiple-choice questions assess your ability to determine the meanings of words in the context of reading passages.

    A strong vocabulary will also help you to understand the passages on both the Reading subtest and the Writing and Language subtest. It will help you to understand and analyze the text in the optional SAT Essay section, as well, not to mention knock the essay itself out of the ballpark.

  • ACT — This college entrance exam tests your ability to determine the meanings of college-level vocabulary in the context of passages on the English, Reading, and Science subtests. You will also need a commanding vocabulary just to make sense of the passages and questions on these three subtests. Performance on the optional essay portion of the test, required by many colleges, also can be enhanced by your command of a mature vocabulary.

Five Tips for Building a Strong College Vocabulary

The following are some of the most effective (and fun) ways for you to grow your word power.

Vocab Tip #1: Read — a lot.

The best way to expand your vocabulary is to read widely and voraciously. In addition to your assigned reading for school, read for fun. Seek out challenging books, magazines, websites, and other media in your areas of interest, as well as engaging, high-quality fiction. (Obviously, you'll be more motivated to read when you care about what you’re reading.)

When you come across an unfamiliar word, first try to determine its meaning from the context. Then look it up. Discovering new words in meaningful contexts is the fastest and surest way to grow your vocabulary.

Vocab Tip #2: Learn words in meaningful groups.

Rather than learning random words in isolation, group words that are similar in meaning. For example, what do all the following words have in common? (Take a moment to look them up by clicking on each word.)

nascent, burgeoning, fledgling, genesis, embryonic, inception, germinal

Do you see the connection? All of these words have to do with beginnings. By noticing this and studying these words together, the meanings will be more likely to stick in your mind.

Vocab Tip #3: Draw!

Engage the creative, visual part of your brain by sketching an image related to the word or group of words. For example, for the list of vocabulary words in Tip 2, you might draw a simple sketch of a baby bottle or pacifier to representing the idea of beginnings. This technique strengthens the connection between the word and its meaning in your long-term memory.

Vocab Tip #4: Know your word parts.

By taking just a little time to learn common roots, prefixes, and suffixes, you can expand your vocabulary exponentially. These will empower you to figure out the meanings of many unfamiliar words based on their Greek and Latin components.

For example, if you know that the Latin root cred means “believe,” you can have at least a sense of the meanings of words such as credulous, creed, incredulous, credible, and credential, especially if you see them in context.

Pair this strategy with with the grouping strategy in Tip 2 by learning a word part along with several words based on it.

Vocab Tip #5: Choose a “word of the day.” 

Pick a vocabulary “word of the day,” and use the word in conversation as many times as you can that day. Get your friends to join in and make a game of it.,, and many other websites offer a word of the day and its definition(s). You can also sign up to have a daily vocabulary word delivered to your email inbox from

Studying high-utility vocabulary words will boost your performance on college entrance exams and in college itself. For more help with expanding your vocabulary, check out the College Vocabulary Challenge app from Doorway to College Foundation here.

Related posts:
3 Fun and Effective Ways to Improve Your Child's SAT Vocabulary Skills
Top 10 Mistakes Students Make on ACT/SAT Test Day

Image: Shutterstock/Billion Photos

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