SSAT Verbal Strategies From the Experts

The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) tests reading, writing, quantitative, and verbal skills.

One of the most challenging sections for SSAT test-takers is the Verbal section, and for good reason! With 30 Synonym and 30 Analogy questions, the Verbal section requires a strong vocabulary and solid reasoning skills.

It also rewards the efficient test-taker. The SSAT Verbal section gives students only 30 minutes to answer all 60 questions.

However, like all standardized tests, the SSAT can (and should) be approached strategically. In this post, we discuss the SSAT verbal strategies you need to succeed on this section.

Here’s what we cover:

Note: for the purposes of this post, we will be referring to the Upper-Level SSAT Verbal section.

The SSAT Verbal Section in a Nutshell

On the Upper-Level SSAT, the Verbal section is the 4th section of the test. Here’s a quick visual of the entire SSAT format:

SSAT Test Format
Source: SSAT.org

Remember that the SSAT is a virtual marathon of a test. Students are likely to be fairly fatigued by the time they get to the Verbal section! That’s why it’s doubly important to have some solid strategies in place before getting there.

The SSAT Verbal Section

  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Format: 60 multiple choice questions, divided into Synonyms and Analogies sections of 30 questions each

Synonyms

Students will encounter Synonyms questions first on the SSAT Verbal section. In general, these questions will be arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

What does this mean? The first 10 questions will be generally easier than questions 11-20. Questions 21-30 will likely be the most difficult of the entire set.

For each question, students must choose the answer that has the closest meaning to the word provided. Here is an example SSAT Synonyms question:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms
Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

Analogies 

The 30 Analogy questions will come after the 30 Synonym questions on the SSAT Verbal section. Just like the Synonym questions, Analogy questions are generally arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

An analogy is a comparison of two things.

On an SSAT Analogy question, these two things will have a very specific relationship. Students must determine what this relationship is and select the answer choice that most closely features that same relationship.

Vocabulary is still essential for Analogy questions: students will not necessarily know all of the words in the analogy described and/or the answer choices, especially on higher-difficulty questions.

Here is a sample SSAT Analogy question:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies
Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

General SSAT Verbal Strategies

Before we dive into specific tips for Synonym and Analogy questions, we’ll cover some general SSAT Verbal strategies that apply to the section as a whole.

1. Prioritize low-difficulty questions first.

This may sound obvious, but it’s a great strategy to use on SSAT Verbal because of the way the section is structured.

Remember that those 30 Synonym questions and 30 Analogy questions are arranged generally in order of increasing difficulty. What’s more, students do not get more points for correct high-difficulty questions. Every SSAT Verbal question is essentially worth the same number of points.

What does this mean? SSAT students should spend more time on those easier questions to ensure they are getting those easy points before they navigate harder ones. This can also give them a chance to get their vocabulary brains warmed up for those medium- and high-difficulty questions.

This can be especially important for higher-achieving students who might be more prone to moving too quickly on those initial, easy questions and making careless errors.

We understand that “easy” is a relative term, so be sure to cater to your own personal order of difficulty, tackling those questions that are easiest for you first.

2. Know your guessing strategy.

On the SSAT, students lose 1/4 point for every question they answer incorrectly. They do not lose points for leaving questions blank. That’s why we don’t necessarily encourage all SSAT test-takers to answer every question on the test, as doing so could hurt rather than help their score!

Because of this, we encourage students to have a solid guessing strategy in place for each SSAT section. You can read more about guessing on the SSAT in our guide to SSAT scores.

When would you want to guess on an SSAT Verbal question? It depends. If you’re able to eliminate at least 2 answer choices on an SSAT Verbal question, generally this is a good time to guess. If you can’t eliminate any answer, it’s safer to leave that question blank.

3. Use context and connotation.

If you don’t know a word in an answer choice or question, use context (where you may have heard the word before) or connotation (a word’s positive or negative charge).

If you see the word jubilation, for example, you might remember that you have seen it in the context of the name of a celebratory Fortnite dance. You may also reason that it has something to do with feeling happy and triumphant, a positive connotation.

Or if you see the word miserly, it might remind you of something miserable, leading you to pick an answer choice with a negative connotation or charge (miserly means a person who is ungenerous with his/her money).

4. Watch out for homonyms.

Homonyms are words with the same spelling but different meanings. If you see foil in an SSAT Verbal question, for example, it could mean a “thin sheet of metal” or “to prevent.” Be on the lookout for homonyms in both questions and answer choices.

If you do identify a homonym situation, ask yourself which meaning makes the most sense based on the answer choices. You can and should use SSAT Verbal answer choices to your advantage, which we discuss at greater length in the next 2 sections of this post.

5. Sometimes, you have to pick the best of the “bad” options. 

The correct answer choice might not reflect the direct way you would define the word, which can confuse some students. In these situations, imagine your task is to pick the best of the “bad” options.

Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

THWART
A) approve
B) facilitate
C) confuse
D) conceal
E) forgive

Correct Answer: C

You may feel pretty confident that “thwart” means preventing something from happening, but that choice doesn’t seem to be listed here.

However, if you go with the word that most closely expresses this idea – “confuse” – you would choose the correct answer.

6. Think like the test-maker, not a test-taker.

This is a tenet we encourage all of our standardized test-takers to embrace. Test-makers write standardized tests with predictable test-makers in mind. In other words, each question will contain traps designed to trick the average test-taker.

Once you can start learning about these specific traps and tricks, you’ll start to think like the test-makers themselves. Doing so gives you the upper hand (and often a lot of points!). We’ll be discussing ways to think like the SSAT test-makers in the next 2 sections as we cover strategies for Synonym and Analogy questions.


Approaching SSAT Synonym Questions

Synonym questions appear first on SSAT Verbal (questions 1-30). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Analogies are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 31 (the first of the Analogy questions set) and completing the Synonyms set second. Remember: play to your strengths on SSAT Verbal, and prioritize the questions that are easiest for you first.

The key to approaching SSAT Synonym questions successfully lies in remembering that they are just that: Synonym questions.

What do we mean by this?

With Synonym questions, your task is to find the answer choice that is most similar in meaning to the question word.

It’s important to remind yourself of this simple fact on each question, as the test-makers love trapping students with answer choices that may be associated with the question word but, in fact, do not share a similar meaning. What’s more, a “synonym” is not the same as a straight-up “definition” of a word!

We’ll apply these thoughts to the sample Synonym question we mentioned above:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms

With this question, students must choose the answer that is most similar in meaning to the word “incognito.” This doesn’t mean that we’re looking for the definition of “incognito,” merely a term that most closely matches that definition.

The word “incognito” might suggest someone going undercover, like a ninja in a crowd. Be careful, though: answer choice (D) at first glance looks a lot like “undercover,” when, in fact, it means the opposite (uncovered). But the idea of being undercover has a connotation of being hidden from sight, which leads us to answer (C): concealed.

Be careful with answer choice (A), which might be tempting for some students. “Lost” is a good example of an answer that is an association but not necessarily a synonym of a question word. Something that is incognito may not be very visible, but this doesn’t mean it is lost.

Here are some other tips for approaching SSAT Synonym questions.

1. Put the question word into a sentence of your own.

This is an excellent, tried-and-true way to situate a question word in its context, especially if you don’t know the full meaning of a term. Put that word into a sentence, even if it’s the most basic sentence you’ve ever written.

Using the sample question above, that sentence might look like this:

The ninja chose to go incognito, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

In this sentence, we can gather that “incognito” is a behavior or attitude of some kind that the ninja adopts in this crowd. Would it make sense for someone to choose to be “lost”? No! “Lost” is not a behavior or attitude, and the same goes for “replaced” or “distinguished.”

Context tells us that the ninja is choosing to be somewhat invisible, so (C) is the best answer yet again.

2. Apply your knowledge of word parts.

Remember all those word parts and roots your teacher taught last year? Those will definitely prove valuable on SSAT Verbal, particularly with those Synonym questions.

Identifying word parts in answer choices and question words can be vital. It can be a straight-up life-saver on those questions full of vocabulary students may not know.

Be on the hunt for specific prefixes, roots, and suffixes that can give at least partial meaning for a term.

For example, if you see the word “benevolent” in a Synonyms question, you might recognize the prefix ben / bene, which means well or good. This has a positive connotation or charge, which can be useful for elimination purposes.

3. “Plug in” your final choice.

Much like plugging the answer to a math question into the original problem to check your work, “plug in” your final choice on a Synonyms question to the sentence you’ve created.

This serves as a double-check mechanism and a means of catching careless errors. Using the example sentence and question above, this would look like the following:

The ninja chose to go concealed, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

Yes, “chose to go concealed” sounds a bit awkward, but it still fits in meaning and context.

4. On higher-difficulty questions, the weirder the better.

Remember: the SSAT test-makers will create specific traps on each Verbal question designed to trick the predictable test-taker.

What are predictable test-takers likely to do on harder Synonym questions? They are probably not likely to choose an answer they don’t know. They will likely avoid those really weird, foreign-looking terms. However, on really tough Synonym questions, these answers can be correct.

Here’s an example of this in action, modeled after a sample SSAT.org practice question:

ZEALOUS
A) heartfelt
B) fervent
C) irritating
D) praiseworthy
E) interested

The “weirdest” answer choice here, the one many students are not likely to know, is fervent. This happens to be the correct answer choice.

We do want to offer this tip with a caveat, however: students should still adhere to their established guessing strategy, regardless of the difficulty level of the question. It may still be worth your while to leave a question blank if you generally have no clue about the question word and the answer choices.


Approaching SSAT Analogy Questions

Analogy questions appear second on SSAT Verbal (questions 31-60). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Synonyms are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 1 (the first of the Synonym questions set) and completing the Analogy set second.

The key to succeeding on Analogy questions lies in your capacity to identify specific relationships. Each question will provide students with two words that demonstrate a certain relationship. Students must then select the choice that best reflects that relationship, thus completing the meaning of the sentence.

Here’s our strategy for approaching an Analogy question on SSAT Verbal:

  1. Identify the specific relationship between the two question words
  2. Search for the answer that shows the same relationship
  3. Eliminate accordingly

Sounds easy, right? Well, not necessarily. It can be really tough to identify a specific relationship, particularly between words you don’t know (or only have partial meanings for). Those answer choices will also be chock-full of associative words, terms or pairs that might have a similar connotation but not necessarily similar relationship.

That’s where the following tips come into play.

1. Start noticing Analogy categories.

Every SSAT Analogy question presents a specific relationship between the two ideas presented. As you continue to work with these questions, start noticing the various “categories” of these relationships, such as size (one word is smaller than another), time (one thing happens before another), or cause and effect (one thing causes another).

Take a look at this sample Analogy question and see if you can identify the “category” of the relationship presented:

Gargantuan is to big as:
A) hot is to steamy
B) thirsty is to dry
C) pleasant is to melody
D) clumsy is to coordinated
E) ecstatic is to happy

If you guessed a relationship of degree or size, you’re correct! Gargantuan is a larger or more extreme version of big. Their relationship is one of degree, making the correct answer (ecstatic is a more extreme version of happy).

“Degree” is an example of just one “category” of relationships you will start to see in the Analogy section. Just as there isn’t a finite list of words on the Synonyms section, there is no complete list of categories for the Analogy section. However, the list below gives some common relationship categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Size
  • Material
  • Part and Whole
  • Example and General Category
  • Cause and Effect
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Degrees
  • Actor and Action
  • Product and Producer
  • Tool and User
  • Tool and Use

This can be essential as an elimination strategy, too. Once you’ve identified the category of the relationship, you can eliminate any answer choices that fit other relationship categories.

2. Create a specific relationship sentence for the question words.

Much as we encourage students to put Synonym words into their own sentences, we also recommend crafting a “relationship sentence” for SSAT Analogy question words. You can then eliminate answer choices that don’t “fit” the sentence.

When creating this sentence, try to be as specific as possible.

Using the above sample question, for example, a relationship sentence like “If you’re gargantuan, you’re big” is too broad – if you plug in the answer choices, they might all sound right! “Gargantuan is a stronger version of big” is more specific and will lead you to the correct answer.

3. Eliminate answer choices that have no relationship or are “conditional.”

The right answer to an Analogy question will demonstrate the specific relationship of the question words. If you can’t establish a relationship between two words, that answer choice is automatically wrong! The same goes for any answer choices that may show a conditional relationship, one that is only true some of the time.

Here’s a sample question that proves this point:

Insult is to offense as:
A) laugh is to joy
B) fabricate is to falsehood
C) injure is to prepare
D) innocent is to child
E) forge is to creation

In choice C, “injure” and “prepare” have no relationship, so you can eliminate C immediately. Similarly, a “child” may be “innocent,” but not necessarily 100% of the time (it depends on the child, the definition of innocent, etc.). You can eliminate D as well.

4. Focus on relationships, not synonyms.

It can be really easy, especially if you tackle SSAT Synonym questions first, to start identifying synonyms for the Analogy words rather than relationships. As best you can, remind yourself that your task on this set is to classify the relationship between the words presented and select an answer choice that reflects a similar relationship.

On the plus side, those answer choices that contain synonyms to words in the question are most likely incorrect. So if you do spot some synonyms in the answers, be very skeptical.

5. Think of all possible relationships.

You may find that some questions have multiple reasonable answers. If this is the case, try to think of additional possible relationships between the question words. Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

Carousel is to horse as:
A) hospital is to waiting room
B) anthology is to story
C) sun is to planet
D) bike is to wheel
E) fleet is to ship

Correct Answer: C

At first glance, you might feel stuck with this question. A “horse” is a “part” of a “carousel.” With this relationship in mind, don’t multiple answer choices here fit the “whole and part” category?

However, if you think of additional ways to specify the relationship, you could reach the correct answer by reasoning that the horses revolve around a carousel just as a planet orbits the sun.

With these tips in mind, let’s work through the sample Analogy question mentioned in the first section of this post:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies

It will be easiest to craft a relationship sentence with these words. We might say that “an epidemic is the spread of disease.” Plugging in the answer choices, we can see that only (A) fits this sentence: “a famine is the spread of hunger.” Our answer is (A).


SSAT Verbal Strategies: Study Tips

Now that you have some great SSAT Verbal strategies in place, it’s time to talk study tips. What’s the best way to prepare for success on the SSAT Verbal section? Here are our top recommendations.

1. Prioritize learning word roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

We’ve already highlighted the value of applying your knowledge of word roots, prefixes, and suffixes to words you don’t know on Synonym and Analogy questions.

Knowing word parts can also make your SSAT study plan so much more efficient and robust: in many cases, learning just one word part can help you identify 10+ new vocabulary terms!

You can find many lists (some SSAT-focused) of these word roots, prefixes, and suffixes online or in books that focus on vocabulary building. Searching Quizlet for online SSAT vocabulary lists or investing in a Merriam-Webster Vocabulary Builder book are good places to start.

2. Make flashcards.

Flashcards can be an excellent tool for solidifying new vocabulary and word parts. Quizlet is a favorite online flashcard site for many students. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned notecards.

Review these flashcards regularly. If you are a visual learner, try integrating colors or images into your flashcards for improved memorization. For an extra challenge, come up with a unique sentence for every word you review or identify synonyms (using other vocabulary terms!) for the word in question.

3. Don’t try and memorize 500 words at once

You won’t remember them! It is better to focus on 5-10 words at a time (ideally, per week), and keep coming back to vocab sets for review.

More importantly, be sure you are also using those words that you’re learning. Integrate new words into school assignments and personal practice to make them a concrete part of your vocabulary. (Hint: you can also use these words when practicing your SSAT Writing Sample response.)

4. Read widely

Reading can introduce you to a wide variety of new words to supplement your vocabulary building. Aim to digest advanced reading materials, such as higher-level nonfiction texts, editorials and articles, and journal pieces.

More than any other section, the SSAT Verbal section depends on you slowly but surely improving your vocabulary in a consistent fashion.

In this way, studying for the SSAT Verbal section is like putting money in a piggy bank: it might feel like you’re getting nowhere with the little contributions you make each day, but as long as you keep putting in time, you’ll see a big reward in your score going up after a few months.


SSAT Verbal Strategies: Next Steps

There you have it — the SSAT Verbal strategies designed to give you the greatest success on this challenging section. However, the power of these strategies lies in practice, so be sure to apply them regularly to practice SSAT content.

We also encourage students in need of extra support to consider working with one of our SSAT Test Prep Experts. Book your free SSAT prep consultation today!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.