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Best Ways to Study Vocab for ISEE and SSAT

Studious bird learning vocab from a book

Salutations! Are you prepared for your ISEE or SSAT Verbal section? Or are you finding yourself mired in long lists of vocabulary? There has to be a better way, right? Of course! Vocabulary study should never be a mad dash of memorizing your way to the end of a word list. But that’s not to say learning new words on a regular basis isn’t part of the process. Really, when it comes down to mastering vocab for the ISEE and SSAT Verbal sections, you need to have a smart approach, and I’m here to tell you how to get smart about vocab.

What do the Verbal sections of ISEE and SSAT cover?

First, let’s briefly address the format of the ISEE and SSAT Verbal sections. These two tests are largely similar, but the Verbal sections show key differences.


  • Item Type, Number of Items

  • Synonyms, 19

  • Sentence Completion (Single Word Response), 12

  • Sentence Completion (Paired Word Response), 9

  • Total Items for Verbal Section, 40 (5 are unscored)


  • Item Type, Number of Items

  • Synonyms, 30

  • Analogies, 30

  • Total Items for Verbal Section, 60

What is the similarity between SSAT and ISEE?

Notice that in both sections you have to deal with SYNONYM questions. What exactly does that entail? It is rather straightforward. You are provided a word, and you have to choose the answer that has the best synonym. Here is an ISEE example:


  • (A) design

  • (B) trace

  • (C) strap

  • (D) robe

“Vestige” means “a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists.” The correct answer is choice B.

Here is an SSAT example:


  • (A) justification

  • (B) beginning

  • (C) announcement

  • (D) experience

  • (E) conclusion

“Commencement” means “a beginning or start.” The correct answer is choice B.

The only difference between these two questions is that ISEE has four answers and SSAT has five answers. Also, SSAT penalizes for wrong answers (this is true for all SSAT sections).

How do you prepare for the synonym questions on the ISEE and SSAT?

The answer is simple, you learn new vocabulary. Of course, you should learn new vocabulary in a way that gets the words to stick, and you should be learning words that will likely appear on the SSAT and ISEE.

You should look at the practice tests that ISEE and SSAT make available online as a starting point. Some of these resources are free and some cost money. You can get a good idea of the level of vocab tested and you can see what words you actually know. For all the new words or ones that you can’t really define, you should add them to a personal list, one that you will use in your studies. After all, if you can’t define all the words on the SSAT and ISEE pages, what makes you think you should start learning other words?

Now you have an idea of what words to learn, but how do you learn them? You should not commit to learning more than 20 words per week. This is assuming you have a regular school schedule and most likely are not grinding out vocabulary practice every day.

Really, you should commit to learning 1-2 words per day. You should look at the definition(s), see how the words are used in context (by reading examples of texts that use the word), and then you should write the word in a few sentences of your own. Learning a single word could easily take thirty minutes.

So, what is the study plan for learning new vocabulary words?

  • Time: 30 minutes per day

  • Words: 1 or 2

  • Step 1: Define word with dictionary.

  • Step 2: Read word in 2-3 texts.

  • Step 3: Write word in 2-3 of your own sentences.

How exactly do you learn a new vocab word for ISEE and SSAT?

Let’s walk through this process with the word “aplomb.”


  • (A) omen

  • (B) ascent

  • (C) epitome

  • (D) confidence

  • (E) atonement

Step 1: Define the word with a dictionary.

Aplomb is “complete and confident composure or self-assurance” ( I like to use Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary because it gives you all the information needed to learn the word: definition, synonyms, and example context.

Step 2: Read the word in 2-3 texts.

If I want to use more resources than Merriam-Webster’s examples, then I go to Google and type in “aplomb New York Times.” I trust that the New York Times will give me rich sentences that use the word “aplomb.” If New York Times is not your favorite newspaper, or maybe you don’t want to pay for articles, then “aplomb CNN,” for example, should also work.

Here are examples from Merriam-Webster's site:

  • Text 1: In "The Most Famous Man in America," Applegate, a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale, tells this grand story with aplomb, intelligence and a sure feel for historical context.

  • Text 2: Stefan Soltesz conducts the excellent chorus and orchestra with aplomb, and television director Brian Large does his usual exemplary job.

  • Text 3: During a script conference recounted in the New Yorker piece, Ley fielded a variety of questions with striking aplomb that sometimes verged on arrogance.

Step 3: Write the word in 2-3 of your own sentences.

Whenever you write your sentences, do not cut corners. If you write a simple sentence like “The lawyer had aplomb in the courtroom,” then you will not really know what “aplomb” means based on the context--because there isn’t really any. Instead, you need to write a compound, complex, or compound-complex sentence: you need to have enough information in the sentence so someone who doesn’t know the meaning (or pretends not to) can guess the definition pretty well.

  • Sentence #1: I answered all of the students questions with aplomb, so much so that a line of them stood out my office after class, hoping to learn even more.

  • Sentence #2: Many people get nervous diving off the board in public, but Ronald completes his leaps into the pool with aplomb.

  • Sentence #3: Because Sabrina studied all of her notes weeks before the test date, she rolled into the chemistry final with aplomb, inspiring her peers to review earlier for the next test.

And that is all! Hopefully, at this point, you know what the word “aplomb” means. (And that the correct answer to the question above is choice D.) If none of that works, you can come up with nice little rhymes to get yourself to remember. For example, people who have aplomb are da bomb. Get it?

There are other strategies you can use for SSAT and ISEE Verbal, but for now, you should have a solid plan for learning vocabulary and improving your synonym question scores. Good luck with your studies, and enjoy learning new words! They will come in handy when you can’t think of the right meme.

Planning on taking an ISEE or SSAT soon? Attend our 8-day SSAT and ISEE preparation class over winter break! Our class covers all the subjects of ISEE and SSAT. Tutoring is another option if you cannot commit to the class. Let’s get you acing the SSAT and ISEE in no time!

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