Improve your SSAT and ISSE verbal section with vocabulary


  • Students can greatly improve their verbal section score by learning high frequency vocabulary
  • Reading books and using flash cards is the best way to learn vocabulary 
  • Spaced repetition software is the best way to learn high frequency words
  • Anki is the most popular spaced repetition software, but space or are easier to use 
  • Students should study for 20-30 minutes a day, adding 5 new words to their deck and reviewing the words due that day
  • A good starting list of high frequency vocab words can be found here

How to Improve Your Score

Improving your SSAT or ISEE verbal score is no easy feat, but one of the best ways to improve your score is to learn as many words as possible. This is because is the main concept tested on the verbal section is vocabulary. Vocabulary is tested directly in the form of synonym questions as well as indirectly in the form of sentence completions (ISEE) and analogies (SSAT). Either way, knowing more words will mean you can answer more questions correctly.

The vocabulary tested on a given exam is hard to predict, it can be almost anything. For instance, the SSAT manual states: “The reading passages on the SSAT contain a wide range of vocabulary: high-frequency, low-frequency, technical, general academic, and so on.” Despite this variability, I’ve found that there are certain high frequency words which often give students trouble. You can find a link to those words here.

Although the best way to learn new vocabulary is to read lots of books, reading books is not an efficient strategy to learn all the high frequency vocabulary words in a short amount of time. The best way to do that is to use flashcards. I generally recommend that my students either make physical flashcards or use spaced repetition software. One advantage of physical flashcards is that the act of writing physical flashcards forces students to pay attention to the words they are learning. The disadvantage is that it is a lot of work to write flashcards for every word you are trying to learn. This is why I generally recommend spaced repetition software.

Spaced Repetition Software

Spaced repetition software works by recognizing which words you have correctly memorized, and which words you have not. You will be shown a flashcard of a word that you don’t know, and then the program will show you the same card again at some random point in the future, depending on how well you remember it. The hypothesis behind this technique is that if you are reminded of a word before you forget it, you will remember it much better than if you are only shown the card once. This site provides more info on spaced repetition software.

In my experience, I’ve found that the best way for students to study using spaced repetition software is to set aside 20 to 30 minutes each day to practice. Each day they should add a few (~5) new cards to their deck, and then study their currently “due” cards. The number of cards due each day will depend on how well they are learning as well as the total number of cards added. If students find that they have too many cards due each day to work through, then they should stop adding cards for a little while. Some students find that they prefer to do their studying in small chunks rather than all at once. For those students, I recommend that they download and use the mobile version of the software so they can study on the go. Ultimately, the only important thing is that students add new cards and study through their currently due cards each day.

Although the most well known spaced repetition software is Anki, I’ve found that students and parents often find it a little difficult to use. Instead, I generally recommend using space or, which are a little more accessible to most parents. All three pieces of software are available for free and are usable on multiple devices and platforms. To use the software effectively, students should follow the instructions above and make sure to keep practicing each day until they have no more cards due. If the student misses some cards, they will probably need to review them again on the same day.

One final note: I’ve often found that students benefit from writing their own sentence using the word on the back of a card in addition to the definition, so be sure to try that out as well.

Ethan Jones

Ethan Jones is a Ph.D candidate in Systems Biology at Harvard University and an elite private tutor. Ethan has helped countless students prepare for and improve on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, SSAT and ISEE. Click here for details or contact him at 215-694-0605 or