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Last Updated On: July 1st, 2024

While vocabulary is a key component of most high school admissions exams (such as the ISEE, SSAT, and HSPT), for a variety of reasons vocabulary is even more crucial on the HSPT exam. Some of you are no doubt aware that the HSPT has five sections:

  1. Verbal Skills
  2. Quantitative Skills
  3. Reading Comprehension
  4. Mathematics
  5. Language

What you might not realize is that, in different ways, three of these sections (60% of the test!) draw heavily on vocabulary skills in their questions. Doing well on the two math sections (Quantitative Skills and Mathematics) requires some math-specific vocabulary knowledge, but, realistically, preparing for those sections will involve more time solving math problems than memorizing vocabulary.

Prepping for the other three sections, however, will require learning new vocabulary and familiarizing yourself with the different ways in which vocabulary is tested on the exam. Let’s take a look at those three sections and how they test vocabulary knowledge in more detail:

The Verbal Skills Section:

The verbal skills section involves the most straightforward evaluations of vocabulary knowledge, with a number of questions involving identifying a synonym or antonym. Getting these questions right is really just a matter of learning the missing vocabulary, unfortunately often through rote memorization. The verbal skills section also includes analogies and logic questions, which often require a combination of vocabulary and logic. Students will need to practice these types of questions in order to familiarize themselves with the format and types of deductions needed to answer these questions correctly. They will also need to augment their vocabulary in order to answer analogy questions; it is not really possible to correctly identify an analogy between two words if both words are new to you.

The Reading Comprehension Section:

The reading comprehension section requires vocabulary knowledge in order to understand the words featured within the reading passages, but it also features 22 questions in a vocabulary subsection that just involve identifying definitions. Preparing for these questions will involve studying and learning new words, possibly in conjunction or as part of the same study sheet or flashcards as you use for the verbal skills section. Within the reading section there are also some “vocabulary-in-context” questions that require you to identify the meaning of a word as used in the passage. It is important to recognize that these questions are not the same as the regular vocabulary questions and must be approached differently. For these questions, the test will frequently involve words that have more than one meaning. There will be trap answers that present a meaning of the word, but not the one that is being used within the passage. In order to avoid those traps, you need to go back to the passage, identify how the word is being used in the relevant sentence, and then go back to the answer choices to find the definition that works.

The Language Section:

The language section largely features questions involving grammar, usage, and spelling. At first glance, these sections might not seem as though they involve vocabulary, but, in addition to mastering grammar and usage rules, vocabulary is crucial in this section as well. Many of the usage questions involve distinguishing between homonyms or other commonly confused words (such as affect/effect or complimentary/complementary). If you aren’t familiar with the words being compared, or are shaky on their definitions, you won’t be able to correctly answer the questions. Similarly, in the spelling section students will need to review some common English spelling guidelines, but if they are unfamiliar with the words they are seeing, their chances of identifying spelling errors are low. Students should focus on building a vocabulary list out of some of the commonly confused or misspelled words to review.

Your specific study plan for the vocabulary on the HSPT will depend on your specific strengths and weaknesses, but, unless you are getting perfect scores on the vocabulary questions on all three of these sections out the gate, will certainly need to involve building a vocabulary list to study in the way that works best for you, such as flashcards or a quizlet, and reviewing the specific types of vocabulary questions enumerated above through targeted review, either on your own or with a tutor, and taking timed practice test sections. Additionally, students should be aware that all of these sections involve tight timing, with students often having to answer 3-4 questions per minute in some sections. This means that the level of knowledge and comfort for each question needs to be high to enable students to power through each section in the allocated time. There realistically won’t be time to puzzle through questions or spend time breaking down prefixes and suffixes to recover definitions.

All of this may seem daunting, but don’t despair. Over the years we have helped countless students improve their HSPT scores dramatically. The keys we’ve found are:

  1. Starting preparations early
  2. Giving appropriate focus and attention to the vocabulary
  3. Getting help from a tutor or HSPT class as needed
  4. Taking multiple timed practice tests before your official test.

With these tips and some hard work, significant improvement on every section of the HSPT is possible.

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