How to Master ISEE Synonym Questions: A 5-Step Guide



The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) tests verbal and quantitative reasoning skills in order to assess a student’s academic potential.

Synonym questions are one method the exam uses to test verbal reasoning abilities. To answer these questions correctly, students must have solid knowledge of grade level appropriate vocabulary.

In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about Synonym questions, plus how to successfully master this question type.

What do Synonym Questions Look Like?

Synonym questions provide students with an abstract, grade level appropriate word that is written in all capital letters. Beneath the word, students are given four answer choices, listed alphabetically.

From the list of four choices, students must select the word that has the same meaning as the provided word, or that is closest in meaning to the word in question.

The words are not used in a sentence, so there is no helpful context. Instead, you must already know the vocabulary being tested or have knowledge of prefixes, roots, and suffixes to help you make an educated guess.

The amount of Synonym questions you will need to answer depends on your grade level. There are three levels of the ISEE:

  • Lower Level: Admission to grades 5 and 6

  • Middle Level: Admission to grades 7 and 8

  • Upper Level: Admission to grades 9-12
  • Upper and Middle Level students are given 20 minutes to answer 40 Verbal Reasoning questions. 17-23 of those questions will be Synonym Questions.

    On the other hand, students taking the Lower Level test answer 34 Verbal Reasoning questions within 20 minutes. 19 Synonym questions are included.

    These numbers mean that, regardless of level, Synonym questions make up about half of your total Verbal Reasoning score.

    34 15 21
    40 17-23 17-23
    40 17-23 17-23

    How Should I Approach Synonym Questions?

    Follow this simple five-step approach to increase your chances of success with Synonym questions.

    Step 1: Mentally come up with a definition or synonym for the provided word.

    Sometimes ISEE answer choices can be tricky, or you may find yourself overwhelmed when presented with several possible answers.

    To avoid these issues, read the provided word and then mentally come up with a definition or synonym. Remember that a synonym is a word that has the same meaning as another word.

    If you don’t recognize the word, try to think of a similar word that may help you guess this word’s definition.

    For example, you may not know the meaning of the word “ocular,” but it looks very similar to the word “binoculars.” You can use this information to make an educated guess that “ocular” has something to do with eyes or sight.

    Or see if you recognize any helpful prefixes, suffixes, or roots. (We’ll talk more about those later.)

    Step 1 is key, because it will be almost impossible to answer the question correctly if you have no idea what the provided word means.

    Step 2: Read through the answer choices, looking for the word that is closest to your answer.

    Once you’ve decided on a definition or synonym for the provided word, read through the answer choices.

    Answer choices are listed in alphabetical order, so you can start by skimming for the word you’ve selected. If the word isn’t there, try to choose the word that is closest to your answer.

    In some cases, you may find yourself unable to find a similar answer choice, or the answer choices may be words that you do not recognize. Continue to the following steps for additional strategies that may help you answer the question.

    Step 3: Use process of elimination to cross out obviously wrong answers.

    You may not know the meaning of all four answer choices, but you can use the words you do know to help you make an educated guess.

    If you see an answer choice that you know does not have the same meaning as the provided word, cross it out. In some cases, answer choices will be complete opposites of the provided word, and these can be easily eliminated.

    Remember that every answer choice you eliminate increases your chances of finding the correct answer by 25%, so do your best to narrow down your choices as much as possible.

    Step 4: Use roots, prefixes, and suffixes to try to make an educated guess.

    You may find yourself stuck on a Synonym question, either because you don’t know the meaning of the provided word or because too many of the answer choices are unfamiliar. In that case, try to find clues to the words’ meanings using roots, prefixes, suffixes, or similar words.

    We discussed how to use similar words in Step 1. If an unfamiliar word resembles a word that you do know, you can make an educated guess about the word’s meaning.

    Roots, prefixes, and suffixes can also be used to make educated guesses. A prefix is added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning, while a suffix is added to the end of a word to impact its meaning. Root words can have prefixes or suffixes added to them.

    Knowing the meaning of common roots, prefixes, and suffixes can help you determine the meaning of words, even those you have never seen before. Below is a list of 5 of the most commonly used terms in each category.


  • Chron=Time. Examples: Chronology, synchronize

  • Cred=To believe. Examples: Credulous, credibility, incredible

  • Ject=Throw. Examples: Eject, reject

  • Mit, mis=Send. Examples: Mission, emit

  • Ped=Foot. Examples: Pedestrian, pedicure, pedometer

  • Un=Not, opposite. Examples: Unlock, unenthusiastic

  • Re=Again; back. Examples: Return, reread

  • Dis=Not, away, apart, negative. Examples: Disagree, distrust

  • Mis=Wrongly. Example: Mistake, misunderstand

  • Inter=Between, among. Example: Interstate, intermission

  • Ist=One who. Examples: Scientist, publicist, biologist

  • Ness=State of being. Examples: Happiness, harshness

  • Acy=State or quality. Examples: Privacy, democracy

  • Ism=Belief, doctrine. Examples: Communism, Catholicism

  • Ly=Describing how something is. Examples: Quickly, easily, happily
  • We recommend finding a list of additional roots, prefixes, and suffixes and creating flashcards to study in the weeks or months leading up to the test. Learning roots, prefixes, and suffixes is easier and more effective than trying to learn massive lists of vocabulary words.

    Step 5: If you find yourself stuck on a Synonym question, skip it and come back later.

    Don’t waste too much valuable time on a single Synonym question that you may not answer correctly. Instead, move on to easier questions and return to it later.

    Mark the question you’re skipping with a circle, star, etc. Also be sure that you’ve skipped over the question on your answer sheet to avoid bubbling your answer to the next question in the wrong spot.

    The ISEE is scored by simply counting up your correct answers, so there is no penalty for incorrect guesses. This means that you should answer every single question on the test. If you skip a question, return to it and make a guess, even a random guess, after answering easier questions.

    Samples with Explanations

    Let’s take a look at how to use the five-step process with some examples. Although these examples are not from an official ISEE test, they were released by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB), who is responsible for designing the ISEE.

    Our first example is a Middle Level question.

    ISEE middle level sample synonym question

    ISEE middle level sample synonym question

    First, come up with your own word or definition for the provided word, unruly. If you already know the word unruly, you know that it means disruptive, rowdy, disobedient, etc.

    If you don’t know the word unruly, you can look for prefixes, roots, suffixes, or similar words. The prefix “un” means not or opposite. “Un” in this case is followed by “ruly,” which may remind you of the word “rules.” You can make an educated guess that unruly has something to do with not following rules.

    Next, find the answer choice that most closely matches your answer to the question.

    Disorderly has a very similar meaning to disruptive, rowdy, and disobedient. Disputed means to argue against something, distasteful means unpleasant, and doubtful means something that is uncertain or questionable.

    At this point, you could choose Answer Choice A if you were familiar with both the provided word and the answer choices.

    If you were not yet able to answer the question, you would then move on to process of elimination.

    Which answer choices are familiar to you? Most people know the word doubtful, which certainly has nothing to do with disobedience or rowdiness. You could eliminate Answer Choice D.

    For answer choices that are not familiar to you, try to make educated guesses using similar words, prefixes, roots, and suffixes.

    Answer Choice A, disorderly, contains the prefix “dis” which means not. You can infer that the word means “not orderly.” This is very similar to “unruly,” which we’ve determined has something to do with not following the rules.

    Answer Choice B also contains the prefix “dis,” but it’s difficult to determine the meaning of the word “disputed” if you don’t know it already. However, at this point you could already make a guess that the correct answer is A.

    Answer Choice C uses “dis,” as well, and you can infer that distasteful means not tasteful, not appetizing, or something along those lines. You can eliminate Choice C because this is not a synonym for not following the rules or being rowdy.

    Ultimately, you would probably be able to eliminate at least two answer choices. You would then make an educated guess by selecting the best remaining answer, which in this case is Choice A, disorderly.

    Now let’s take a look at an Upper Level practice question.

    Upper Level ISEE Sample SYNONYM Question

    Upper Level ISEE Sample SYNONYM Question

    Step One is to mentally come up with a definition or synonym for the word. If you know the word equity, you know that it means fairness.

    Next, look at the answer choices to find the word that most closely matches your answer. In this case, you would immediately see the word fairness among the answer choices, determining that Choice A is the correct answer.

    Of course, it’s possible that you don’t know the meaning of the word “equity.” What words do you know that look similar to equity? Perhaps you know words like “equal” and “equality.” You could guess that equity means something along these lines.

    Are there any answer choices you recognize and can eliminate? You probably know the word fairness. Does that have anything to do with equality and equal? Yes, so keep Answer Choice A in the running.

    Answer Choice B, harshness, is probably familiar as well. Does harshness have a similar meaning to equal and equality? No, this is a more negative word that you can eliminate.

    Answer Choice C, humor, is not a negative word, but it also doesn’t have anything to do with equality. Choice C can be eliminated.

    Choice D, knowledge, also is not related to equal or equality. You can eliminate Choice D.

    At this point, you could make an educated guess that the correct answer is Choice A, fairness.

    What Longer Term Strategies Can Help with These Questions?

    As you can probably see, Synonym questions can be extremely challenging. You do need some knowledge of vocabulary in order to answer many of the questions, and it is certainly possible to get stuck on a question if you don’t know the meaning of the words.

    Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to enhance your vocabulary prior to taking the ISEE. These are long-term strategies that you should begin working on at least a few months before taking the test.

    The most effective way to improve your vocabulary is by reading. Set a weekly goal to read a certain amount of pages or minutes. Read something at or above your grade level that you find interesting or engaging; it doesn’t have to be a textbook or a novel you’re assigned in school.

    The more you read, the more you’ll expand your vocabulary. You’ll also find yourself recognizing words you’ve seen in books or stories, and you can use that context to help you make educated guesses about the meaning of the word or words in question.

    Another long-term strategy, as we’ve discussed previously, is to create flashcards featuring commonly used roots, prefixes, and suffixes. As you can see from our examples, a basic knowledge of roots, prefixes, and suffixes can be tremendously helpful for this question type.

    Although it’s not as effective as the other two strategies we’ve discussed, you can also find vocabulary lists for your grade level, create flashcards, and drill them consistently.

    You never know what words will appear on the ISEE, but you may get lucky and find a provided word or answer choice that you recognize from your flashcards.

    Lastly, you should begin working on practice ISEE Synonym questions using our five-step process. This will help you become familiar with test content and structure, in addition to helping you become comfortable following the five steps.

    Use the five steps and the long-term strategies provided here to become an ISEE Synonym master and increase your chances of success on the test.

    What’s Next?

    Start practicing now by downloading an ISEE sample test. Choose from lower, middle or upper level free official ISEE tests.

    Learn some essential strategies for the ISEE sentence completion section, using passages and questions from official ISEE tests.

    Also, discover how to approach each question type on the ISEE reading comprehension section. Don't forget to leverage our top 8 strategies for mastering the reading comp section on the ISEE.