The SSAT: Synonyms

Synonyms appear on all levels of the SSAT. At its most basic level, a synonym is a word that is similar in meaning to another defined word. Fast is a synonym for quick. OK, that makes sense. Unfortunately, if synonyms were that easy on the SSAT, the test wouldn’t tell admissions officers very much.

The Format

The synonyms you’ll see on your actual test will be much more challenging than the example above, but they’ll all follow the same logic. You’ll see a word in capital letters (we call this the stem word), and it will be followed by five other words. One of them will be the synonym of the given word, and the others will not.

(A) genuine
(B) valuable
(C) ancient
(D) damaged
(E) historical
Which of these words means authentic? Maybe you “just knew” that the answer was (A), genuine, and maybe you didn’t. Either way, you need a method that will work for you on both the easy and the hard Synonym questions.

The Kaplan 3-Step Method for Synonyms

Step 1: Define the stem word.
Step 2: Find the answer choice that best fits your definition.
Step 3: If no choice fits, think of other definitions for the stem word and go through the choices again.
Let’s take another look at the previous example, using the 3-Step Method.

Step 1: Define the Stem Word

What does authentic mean? Something authentic is something real, such as an authentic signature, rather than a forgery. Your definition might look like this: Something authentic can be proven to be what it claims to be.

Step 2: Find the Answer Choice that Best Fits Your Definition

Go through the answer choices one by one to see which one fits best. Your options are: genuine, valuable, ancient, damaged, and historical. Something authentic could be worth a lot or not much at all, old or new, in good shape or bad, or even recent or historical. The only word that really means the same thing as authentic is (A), genuine.

Step 3: If No Choice Fits, Think of Other Definitions for the Stem Word and Go Through the Choices Again

In the previous example, one choice fit, but take a look at another one:

(A) regrettable
(B) unpleasant
(C) serious
(D) careful
(E) lengthy
Say you defined grave as a burial location. You looked at the choices and didn’t see any words like tomb or coffin. What to do? Move to step 3 and go back to the stem word, thinking about other definitions. Have you ever heard of a “grave situation”? Grave can also mean serious or solemn, and you can see that (C), serious, now fits the bill perfectly. If none of the answer choices seem to work with your definition, there may be a secondary definition you haven’t yet considered.

Avoiding Pitfalls

OK, so we lied just a little bit. The 3-Step Method should always be the basis for tackling every question, but there are a few other things you need to know to perform your best on Synonyms. Fortunately, there are only two big pitfalls to watch out for.
  • Pitfall 1: Running out of Time

    Pace yourself. You have a limited amount of time, so make sure you use it wisely. Never waste time on a question you don’t know—circle it and come back to it later. Synonyms get harder as they go, so move through the early questions quickly, leaving more time for the tougher ones at the end.

  • Pitfall 2: Choosing Tempting Wrong Answers

    The test makers choose their wrong answer choices very carefully. Sometimes that means throwing in answers that will tempt you but that aren’t right. Be a savvy test taker: Don’t fall for these distracters!
    What kinds of wrong answers are we talking about here? There are two types of wrong answers to watch out for: answers that are almost right and answers that sound like the stem word. Let’s illustrate both types to make it concrete.


(A) Renewal
(B) Renown
(C) Priority
(D) Mutability
(E) Reaction

(A) Award
(B) Recognize
(C) Respect
(D) Improve
(E) Prefer

In the first example, choices (A), (B), and (E) might be tempting, because they all start with the prefix re-, just like the stem word, repute. It’s important that you examine all the answer choices, because otherwise you might choose (A) and never get to the correct answer, (B).
In the second example, you might look at the word favor and think, oh, that’s something positive. It’s something you do for someone else. It sounds a lot like choice (A), award. Maybe you pick (A) and move on. If you do that, you would fall for a trap. The correct answer is (E), prefer, since favor is being used as a verb, and to favor someone or something is to like it better than something else, in other words, to prefer it. As in the first example, if you don’t read through all of the choices, you might be tricked into choosing a wrong answer.
At this point, you have a great set of tools for answering most Synonym questions. You know how to approach them, and you know some traps to avoid. But what happens if you look at the word in capitals and you don’t know what it means? Should you just give up and move on, fill out the rest of your test in crayon, or start waving your arms around saying, “They’re after us!”? Well, probably not.
Now that you’ve learned some strategies for the synonym section of the SSAT, try your hand at some SSAT synonym practice questions!