As a veteran tutor for test prep in New York, one of the biggest problems students have – whether it’s for PSAT, SAT, or GRE – is in increasing their vocabulary.
When you do it right, this knowledge can help with every single section of the verbal and critical reading components of these tests. But when left to the last minute, students are very quick to realize it’s something you simply can’t cram for. And possibly more than any other requirement of any standardized test out there, learning to do well with vocabulary has the potential to benefit you for the rest of your life – so take it seriously! With this in mind, I try to get all of my students to adopt the following practices into their daily routines to build vocab for test day painlessly.
1) Download the dictionary
If you have an iPhone, Droid, or any other type of smartphone, there are plenty of free dictionary apps available for download. I ask my students in New York to use the Merriam-Webster free app for smartphones, but they all work toward the same goal: making it no trouble at all to figure out an unfamiliar word’s exact definition and to learn how to adopt it into your own everyday speech. Download it, and you’ll use the dictionary every single day – I still do!
2) Read High-Quality Articles
I always tell students to pick at least one quality article per week – on anything they want – from a reputable, high-level publication to read and to mine for good vocabulary words. Try looking through The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, the list goes on. Pick an article that will be interesting to you, and circle every single word that you could not give a perfect, dictionary-level definition for. Look them up as you go, write them down, and start trying to figure out ways to incorporate them into your own speech and writing.
3) Keep Lists
Once you start tuning your ears for words you’re not perfectly familiar with, you’ll find yourself reaching for that dictionary more times every day than you could have expected. And when you find a word you particularly like, whether it’s because of how it sounds, how it looks, because it sounds especially funny or especially powerful – write it down! Write it in a list in a notebook or planner your carry around, or type it into a note on your phone. Either way, you’ll realize it’s much harder to forget these words you’ve worked so hard for once you set them down in type and start carrying them around with you.