When taking the ACT essay section, students have 45 minutes to write a well-reasoned argumentative essay about a given prompt. The new ACT Essay prompts tend to be about “debate” topics — two sides of an issue are presented, with no obviously “right” side. Oftentimes, these subjects carry implications for broader issues such as freedom or morality. Test-takers are expected to convey some stance on the issue and support their argument with relevant facts and analysis.
In addition to some of the more obvious categories, like grammar and structure, students’ essays are also evaluated on their mastery of the English language. One way to demonstrate such mastery is through the correct usage of advanced vocabulary words. Below are 50 above-average vocabulary words sorted by the contexts in which they could most easily be worked into an ACT essay.
Context 1: Factual Support For ACT Essay
These words can easily be used when stating facts and describing examples to support one’s argument. On ACT essays, common examples are trends or patterns of human behavior, current or past events, and large-scale laws or regulations.
- Antecedent – a precursor, or preceding event for something – N
- Bastion – an institution/place/person that strongly maintains particular principles, attitudes, or activities – N
- Bellwether – something that indicates a trend – N
- Burgeon – to begin to grow or increase rapidly – V
- Catalyst – an agent that provokes or triggers change – N
- Defunct – no longer in existence or functioning – Adj.
- Entrenched – characterized by something that is firmly established and difficult to change – Adj.
- Foster – to encourage the development of something – V
- Galvanize – to shock or excite someone into taking action – V
- Impetus – something that makes a process or activity happen or happen faster – N
- Inadvertent – accidental or unintentional – Adj.
- Incessant – never ending; continuing without pause – Adj.
- Inflame – to provoke or intensify strong feelings in someone – V
- Instill – to gradually but firmly establish an idea or attitude into a person’s mind – V
- Lucrative – having a large reward, monetary or otherwise – Adj.
- Myriad – countless or extremely large in number – Adj.
- Precipitate – to cause something to happen suddenly or unexpectedly – V
- Proponent – a person who advocates for something – N
- Resurgence – an increase or revival after a period of limited activity – N
- Revitalize – to give something new life and vitality – V
- Ubiquitous – characterized by being everywhere; widespread – Adj.
- Watershed – an event or period that marks a turning point – N
Context 2: Analysis
These words can often be used when describing common patterns between examples or casting some form of opinion or judgement.
- Anomaly – deviation from the norm – N
- Automaton – a mindless follower; someone who acts in a mechanical fashion – N
- Belie – to fail to give a true impression of something – V
- Cupidity – excessive greed – Adj.
- Debacle – a powerful failure; a fiasco – N
- Demagogue – a political leader or person who looks for support by appealing to prejudices instead of using rational arguments – N
- Deter – to discourage someone from doing something by making them doubt or fear the consequences – V
- Discredit – to harm the reputation or respect for someone – V
- Draconian – characterized by strict laws, rules and punishments – Adj.
- Duplicitous – deliberately deceitful in speech/behavior – Adj.
- Egregious – conspicuously bad; extremely evil; monstrous and outrageous – Adj.
- Exacerbate – to make a situation worse – V
- Ignominious – deserving or causing public disgrace or shame – Adj.
- Insidious – proceeding in a subtle way but with harmful effects – Adj.
- Myopic – short-sighted; not considering the long run – Adj.
- Pernicious – dangerous and harmful – Adj.
- Renegade – a person who betrays an organization, country, or set of principles – N
- Stigmatize – to describe or regard as worthy of disgrace or disapproval – V
- Superfluous – unnecessary – Adj.
- Venal – corrupt; susceptible to bribery – Adj.
- Virulent – extremely severe or harmful in its effects – Adj.
- Zealot – a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals – N
Context 3: Thesis and Argument
These words are appropriate for taking a stance on controversial topics, placing greater weight on one or the other end of the spectrum, usually touching on abstract concepts, and/or related to human nature or societal issues.
- Autonomy – independence or self governance; the right to make decisions for oneself – N
- Conundrum – a difficult problem with no easy solution – N
- Dichotomy – a division or contrast between two things that are presented as opposites or entirely different – N
- Disparity – a great difference between things – N
- Divisive – causing disagreement or hostility between people – Adj.
- Egalitarian – favoring social equality and equal rights – Adj.
Although it’s true that vocabulary is one of the lesser criteria by which students’ ACT essays are graded, the small boost it may give to a student’s score could be the difference between a good score and a great score. For those who are already confident in their ability to create and support a well-reasoned argument but still want to go the extra mile, having a few general-purpose, impressive-sounding vocabulary words up one’s sleeve is a great way to tack on even more points.
To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:
Angela is a student at Cornell College of Engineering. At CollegeVine, she works primarily as ACT Verbal Division Manager. She enjoys teaching a variety of subjects and helping students realize their dreams.
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Getting into an elite college has never been more cutthroat. Last year, Harvard’s admissions rate dipped to a record low, with only 5.3% of applicants getting an acceptance letter. Stanford’s rate was even lower, at 5.05%.
These days, it takes more than impressive grades, a full roster of extracurriculars, and a deep commitment to community service to get into a well-ranked school. Experts say that a stellar essay is the linchpin that will win the admissions department over. But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.
This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants. High school students can pay to access AdmitSee’s repository of successful college essays, while college students who share their materials receive a small payment every time someone accesses their data. “The biggest differentiator for our site is that college students who share their information are compensated for their time,” Stephanie Shyu, cofounder of AdmitSee, tells Fast Company. “This allows them to monetize materials that they have sitting around. They can upload their file and when they check back in a few months later, they might have made several hundred dollars.”
Shyu says that this model has allowed AdmitSee to collect a lot of data very rapidly. The company is only a year old and just landed $1.5 million in seed funding from investors such asFounder.org and The Social + Capital Partnership. But in this short time, AdmitSee has already gathered 15,000 college essays in their system. Many are from people who got into well-ranked colleges, since they targeted these students first. The vast majority of these essays come from current college students who were admitted within the last two or three years.
AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they’ve found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) High-achieving high schoolers frequently apply to both schools—often with the very same essay—but there are stark differences between what their respective admissions departments seem to want.
What Do You Call Your Parents?
The terms “father” and “mother” appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term “mom” and “dad” appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays.
Harvard Likes Downer Essays
AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve” appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.
This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. “Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student’s personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student’s track record of accomplishment,” Shyu says.
With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were “experience,” “society,” “world,” “success,” “opportunity.” At Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”
What the Other Ivies Care About
It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.
Based on the AdmitSee’s data, Dartmouth and Columbia don’t appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student’s life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.
Risk-Taking Pays Off
One general insight is that students who take risks with the content and the structure of their college essays tend to be more successful across the board. One student who was admitted to several top colleges wrote about his father’s addiction to pornography and another wrote about a grandparent who was incarcerated, forcing her mother to get food stamps illegally. Weird formats also tend to do well. One successful student wrote an essay tracking how his credit card was stolen, making each point of the credit card’s journey a separate section on the essay and analyzing what each transaction meant. Another’s essay was a list of her favorite books and focused on where each book was purchased.
“One of the big questions our users have is whether they should take a risk with their essay, writing about something that reveals very intimate details about themselves or that takes an unconventional format,” Shyu says. “What we’re finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student’s résumé . The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics.”
Of course, one caveat here is that taking a risk only makes sense if the essay is well-executed. Shyu says that the content and structure of the story must make a larger point about the applicant, otherwise it does not serve a purpose. And it goes without saying that the essay must be well-written, with careful attention paid to flow and style.
Shyu says that there are two major takeaways that can be taken from the company’s data. The first is that it is very valuable for applicants to tailor their essays for different schools, rather than perfecting one essay and using it to apply to every single school. The second is that these essays can offer insight into the culture of the school. “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu says. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”
A final tip? If you want to go to Harvard and write about your parents, make sure to address them as “mother” and “father.”