In the Verbal Reasoning section of the ISEE Upper Level, students are required to answer 20 synonym questions in 20 minutes. It’s easy to feel like the synonym questions are “either you know it, or you don’t.” However, even if students aren’t sure of what certain words mean, they can use these tips to choose the best answer.


  • Think of your own definition first. For example, if a word like “delighted” is given, it’s easy to think of similar words like “happy,” “glad” or “cheerful.” Once you think of these words, check to see if they are in any of the answer options provided. Even if they aren’t, thinking of them gives you a better idea of the sort of options you should be looking for. Before guessing, you can also cover up the existing answer options to avoid being distracted by them. If you are given a word like “charge,” which has multiple meanings, briefly jotting down or recalling these meanings can also help you think of appropriate synonyms for each.


  • Think about a context where you might have seen the word used. If a word like “promote” is given, there are some contexts in which you might have come across it, like your parents being “promoted” at work, or the grocery store holding a “promotion” for certain brands of apples. Remembering these contexts can allow you to guess that “promote” means something positive, like rising up the ranks or advertising something so people want to buy it. You can then look for answer options which convey such meanings.


  • Break down the word. This is especially useful for words that have a prefix and/or suffix. For example, even if you don’t know what the word “atypical” means, you might know it consists of two parts: the suffix “a-” and the word “typical,” which means normal. The suffix “a-” is used to indicate the opposite of what comes after it, so atypical could mean abnormal. Knowing that, if the four answer options given are “abnormal”, “ordinary,” “acceptable” or “unexpected,” you could already eliminate “ordinary” or “unexpected,” bringing you down to two viable options. In another example, a word like “subside” could be broken down into “sub” and “side.” “Sub” means below or under something, while “side means” something is not in the centre. You could thus infer that “subside” refers to something becoming less intense or prominent, and look for an answer choice that reflects that meaning.


  • Look at word connotations. Even if you don’t know the precise meaning of the word, you might know whether it means something positive or negative. A word like “horrible” has a negative connotation, so when choosing between options like “hot,” “terrible,” “extreme” or “huge,” you might be able to successfully choose the answer, “terrible,” which likewise has a negative connotation.


Students don’t have to know a word’s exact meaning to choose the right synonym! Using the right strategies, like breaking down the word or thinking of its connotations, it is still very possible to get all the synonym questions right.