College Advice Blog

Mar 13, 2012

SAT and GRE Vocabulary: How to Study Words Effectively

If you're trying to improve your SAT or GRE vocabulary, you're probably using flashcards. While some studying is better than no studying at all, most traditional forms of vocab word review, especially flashcards, are incredibly ineffective.  If you want to improve your test prep vocabulary as quickly as possible, you need to engage as many parts of your brain as possible.

When you study a traditional vocabulary flashcard, you engage almost none of your brain.  The classic "word on the front, definition on the back" setup of flashcards only engages the "text comprehension" part of your brain, which is notoriously feeble.  In fact, a recent study showed that your brain remembers only 11% of what it sees in text form.  If you're spending 30 minutes a day on flashcards, that means that you're only getting 3 minutes worth of memorization out of it!

But there's a better way.  To really engage your memory systems, you need to use your brain's tendency to remember stories and images.  When you hear things in story format, or when you see them illustrated visually, you remember them.  If you want to permanently memorize something, you need to surround it with images and stories to create as many associations in your brain as possible.

Anthony-James Green, creator of Vivid Vocab, has devised a new system to help people permanently memorize the 500 most common SAT and GRE Vocabulary Words.  Here's a basic idea of how it works:

1. Take any word you need to memorize and boil it down to its most basic definition.
2. Create a mnemonic device around that word that rhymes with or sounds like the word, or has to do with its definition.
3. Draw a picture to illustrate that device.
4. Recite the device to yourself as if it's a story.

Here's an example of how this works:

Imagine you need to memorize the word "Cantankerous," which means "quarrelsome and prone to start fights."  Instead of just writing that word on a flashcard, imagine this instead:

A man is driving a tank around, yelling at the top of his lungs, and driving overs cans, crushing these cans with his tank as loudly as he possibly can.  He's doing this in front of an insomniac ward at 2am, and screaming at the top of his lungs, "How do you like that, jerks!?"  This cantankerous man is driving over and busting cans with his tank in order to start a fight with the insomniacs. 

Try drawing this image, telling the story to yourself, reciting it out loud, and then writing the definition and the word again.

When you do this, you're using almost every part of your brain associated with memory.  You'll find this word and its definition stuck in your head, and you won't be able to dislodge it no matter what you do.

If you'd like the work done for you, check out, where you'll find fully illustrated examples of the 500 most common SAT and GRE vocabulary words in an interactive flipbook, along with audio, word associations, and much more!

Remember: flashcards are dead!  If you really want to memorize anything, use as many parts of your brain as possible.  You'll be blown away with the results!

About The Author

Anthony-James Green is the president of Test Prep Authority, a resource center for free SAT and ACT prep resources, advice, practice problems, and more, and has recently launched Vivid Vocab at the request of TPA's users!

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