Tactics for Answering Vocabulary Questions on the PSAT/NMSQT

All the vocabulary questions on the PSAT/NMSQT are “in context”: that is, you have to find a definition that fits the way the word is used in the sentence. The test-makers often camouflage the answer by surrounding it with other meanings of the word. No worries! A simple method leads you to the right response:

  • Reread the sentences surrounding the word they’re asking about. Sometimes, you can get away with one sentence, but if you have time, a sentence before and after may provide a clue.

  • Restate the sentence, inserting your own word(s). Don’t worry about the answer choices at this point. Just find a word or a phrase that makes sense.

  • Locate an answer choice that fits your definition. Suppose you came up with decorate for this step. In the five answer choices, you see beautify, which matches your definition well enough.

  • Insert your answer choice into the sentence. If it fits, you’re done. If not, try another word.

Vocabulary-in-context questions are among the easiest on the PSAT/NMSQT. Try to answer all of them, unless you’re really stuck. In that case, skip the question. Most of the time, you can eliminate some wrong answers and take a guess.

Try your hand at Questions 1 and 2, based on an excerpt from Residential Design for Aging in Place, by Drue Lawlor and Michael A. Thomas (Wiley).

At its completion in the early 1950s, Levittown included 17,400 homes. The new development
was now a major suburban community that included 82,000 husbands and wives and their
children. In a second wave of development and construction in 1951, the Levitt family created
an additional Levittown community of 17,000 homes in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, near
Philadelphia.
The suburban sprawl had begun. Families would fill them quickly. The growing popularity
and availability of automobiles also encouraged the flight to get out of big cities. The
National Highway Program of 1956 built highways and interstate roads connecting
rural areas to metropolitan areas, contributing to a flurry of even more suburban development.
  1. What is the meaning of “development” in the context of Line 1?

        (A)    change
        (B)    gradual process
        (C)    housing
        (D)    fund raising
        (E)    improvement
  2. In the context of Line 9, which of the following is the best definition of “flurry”?

        (A)    snowstorm
        (B)    sudden burst of activity
        (C)    gust of wind
        (D)    shower
        (E)    trend

Now check your answers:

  1. C. housing

    The “new development” is “a major suburban community” (Lines 1 and 2), so your own definition may be “town” or “new homes.” When you check the answer choices (all of which are definitions of “development”), only Choice (C) works. There’s your answer!

    By the way, Choice (A) is a runner-up because “change” fits the sentence in some ways. But so does “housing,” which is a more specific — and therefore better — answer.

  2. B. sudden burst of activity

    The passage refers to “a flurry” of suburban development, right after discussing the connection of rural areas to metropolitan areas — prime territory for suburbs. The passage also mentions that families would move into suburbs “quickly” (Line 6). Therefore, your own definition might be something like “quick increase” or “spike in.” Choice (B) matches those definitions and works nicely when inserted into the sentence.

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