Does Vocabulary Matter? YES!
Vocabulary as such is not tested on most standardized tests. In other words, you won't be expected to answer questions in which you have to define difficult words. However, these don't exclude indirect and hidden vocabulary questions—of which you will probably find plenty.
Reading comprehension passages sometimes include vocabulary-in-context questions. These focus on particular words in the passage and ask you to determine their meaning in the passage. Sometimes the words chosen are obviously "hard" words (like inception, a recent real example). More often they are seemingly "easy" words that are tricky because they have several possible meanings (gasps and engages, for example). In both cases, the broader, more varied, and more accurate your vocabulary knowledge, the better your chances of answering these questions quickly and correctly.
Also, the better your vocabulary knowledge, the easier you'll find it to understand the large amount of reading you must do on most standardized tests. Many tests are built around extensive, often complicated passages you must read and accurately interpret. Even an occasional math item is made a little more complicated by the use of a challenging vocabulary word. Vocabulary knowledge will make a clear and significant difference in your overall performance.
So how do you build your vocabulary? By practicing the following tips.
1. Create Your Own Word List
Get into the habit of reading a little every day with your dictionary nearby. When you encounter a new word in a newspaper, magazine, or book, look it up. Then jot down the new word, its definition, and the sentence in which you encountered it in a notebook set aside for this purpose. Review your vocabulary notebook periodically—say, once a week. Your notebook will reflect the kinds of things you read and the kinds of words you find most difficult. And the fact that you've taken the time and made the effort to write down the words and their meanings will help to fix them in your memory. Chances are good that you'll encounter a few words from your vocabulary notebook on the exam.
2. Study Vocabulary Daily
There are some topics you can easily cram. Vocabulary isn't one of them. Words generally stick in the mind not the first or second time you learn them but the fourth or fifth time. Try to begin your vocabulary study several weeks before the exam. Take 15 or 20 minutes a day to learn new words. Periodically review all the words you've previously studied; quiz yourself, or have a friend quiz you. This simple regimen can enable you to learn several hundred new words before you take your test.
3. Learn a Few Words at a Time
Don't try to gobble dozens of words in one sitting. They're likely to blur into an indistinguishable mass. Instead, pick a reasonable quantity—say, 10 to 15 words—and study them in some depth. Learn the definition of each word and try writing a couple of sentences of your own that include the word.
4. Learn Words in Families
Language is a living thing. Words are used by humans, innately creative beings who constantly twist, reshape, invent, and recombine words. (Think of the jargon of your favorite sport or hobby, or the new language currently blossoming in cyberspace, for some examples.) As a result, most words belong to families, in which related ideas are expressed through related words. This makes it possible to learn several words at once.
For example, the adjective anachronistic means "out of the proper time," as illustrated by the sentence: The reference, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, to "the clock striking twelve" is anachronistic, since there were no striking timepieces in ancient Rome. When you meet this word, you should also get to know its close kinfolk. The noun anachronism means something that is out of its proper time. The clock in Julius Caesar, for example, is an anachronism; in another way, so are the pants worn by modern baseball players, which reflect a style in men's fashions that went out of date generations ago. When you learn the adjective, learn the noun (and/or verb) that goes with it at the same time.
5. Learn Root Words
The two words we just discussed—anachronistic and anachronism—are like brother and sister. Their origins can be traced back to another language: The Greek word chronos = time. Ultimately, this is the root from which the English word anachronistic grew. As you explore vocabulary, you'll find that many words come from roots in Latin and Greek. There are complicated (and interesting) historical reasons for this, but the nub is that, for several centuries, learned people in England and America knew ancient Latin and Greek and deliberately imported words from those languages into English. They rarely imported just one word from a given root. Thus, many word roots can enable you to learn several English words at once. The root for anachronistic tells you that chronos is also the source of the English words chronic, chronicle, chronograph, chronology, and synchronize. All have to do with the concept of time.
Learning the word root chronos can help you in several ways. It will make it easier to learn all the words in the chronos family, as opposed to trying to learn them one at a time. It will help you to remember the meanings of chronos words if they turn up on the exam. And it may even help you to guess the meaning of an entirely new chronos word when you encounter it.
6. Use the Words You Learn
Make a deliberate effort to include the new words you're learning in your daily speech and writing. It will impress people (teachers, bosses, friends, and enemies) and it will help solidify your memory of the words and their meanings. Maybe you've heard this tip about meeting new people: If you use a new acquaintance's name several times, you're likely never to forget it. The same is true with new words: Use them, and you won't lose them.