One of the highest-payoff kinds of questions to learn to nail on the SAT or ACT is what’s called a “Vocab In Context” (or “VIC”) question. This question type shows up relentlessly in the SAT Evidence-Based Reading section, but also rears its head in the ACT Reading Section, and to a certain extent, in the SAT Evidence-Based Writing section as well. (In the SAT’s Writing section, it will appear like a “Word Choice” question type, but this strategy still holds true.) Learning to recognize and answer this type of question will take you far—so let me walk you through it.
Here’s the general structure of a VIC question (as taken from College Board SAT Practice Test #1):
8) As used in line 2, the word “form” most nearly means
The name of this game is simple: pick the word from the answer choice that means the same as the word in the question. However, if you’re like most students before they meet me, you might still get it wrong.
Any idea why?
You see, most students initially treat these types of questions like strict vocabulary flash card quizzes. And they’re not! Make no mistake: the SAT and the ACT will have many answer choices that technically could fit some definition of the word in question in order to trap you.
But notice: I didn’t call these “Vocab” Questions… I called them “Vocab in Context” Questions. And if you follow my method of emphasizing the “in Context” part of the equation, you’ll almost always get the right answer from here on out. Here's how you do it.
The Ivy Lounge Test Prep Method for “Vocab In Context” Questions
Step #1: Locate the vocab word in the line cited, underlining or circling the word.
Step #2: Read the entire sentence that contains the word, but instead of reading the vocab word, substitute the word “blank.”
Step #3: Now reread the part of the sentence containing the vocab word 4 times in succession, each time replacing the vocab word with a different answer choice.
Step #4: Select the answer. Using this method, it will now be super obvious!
Okay, now let’s try it out on our question from SAT Practice Test #1:
Step #1: Go back to line 2 and underline or circle the word “form.” Make it stand out (for the purpose of this example, I'm using color). Here’s what the sentence looks like now:
“Had he followed form—had he asked his mother to speak to his father to approach a go-between—would Chie have been more receptive?”
Step #2: Read the entire sentence, replacing the vocab word with the word “blank.” This is what you’d read to yourself:
“Had he followed blank—had he asked his mother to speak to his father to approach a go-between—would Chie have been more receptive?”
Step #3: Reread the segment or clause of the sentence with the vocab word four times in a row, each time replacing it with an answer choice. Here’s what you’d read to yourself in this scenario:
“Had he followed appearance…” (Answer choice A)
“Had he followed custom…” (Answer choice B)
“Had he followed structure…” (Answer choice C)
“Had he followed nature…” (Answer choice D)
Step #4: Select the correct answer. In this case, following “custom” is the only choice that makes any sense at all, so select answer choice B! Now pat yourself on the back for getting the correct answer in a snap—the Ivy Lounge way!
Now did you notice a couple things?
1) NEVER in this process did I ask myself what the word “form” means.
Because, frankly, what “form” means is irrelevant—I only care what “form” means in that particular sentence! Vocab in context, remember?
2) In step #2, I actually reread the entire sentence but used a placeholder instead of the vocab word.
I did this so I could clear my head of any preconceived meanings and be neutral when I try out the options in the next step. AND…
3) In step #3, I reread the entire segment all four times, each with a different word.
I did NOT read: “Had he followed appearance…custom…structure…nature”
That’s confusing. Your brain needs to hear all four options in context. If I read it like that, I only really understand what the word “appearance” sounds like in context and I’m relying on my memory to make a judgment call about the other three words…which means I end up asking myself over-analytical questions which lead to the wrong answer, like “does ‘structure’ mean ‘form’?”, etc.
And that's the Ivy Lounge way to ace Vocab in Context Questions.
So, my friend, if you can stay disciplined and follow these steps, in order, without skimping or cutting corners, you, too, can nab all these questions! And if you want to share the love with a friend in need, by all means, sharing is caring.