Have you ever noticed that some things stick in your memory forever, while others vanish faster than they arrived? It all comes down to association. Our brains love connecting concepts to our experiences, feelings, and senses. The stronger the connection, the easier we recall information. 

Some of my favorite study strategies for students preparing for the ISEE and SSAT use association for effective recall. It makes the process more enjoyable so students can study without it feeling like a burden. By mixing it up and leveraging the most enjoyable vocab activities, we can pursue vocabulary study in a “little and often” way and make it more exciting.

Of course, a common myth about the ISEE and SSAT verbal reasoning section is that it’s simply a vocabulary test. While building vocabulary is certainly helpful, a strong score hinges on both vocabulary and verbal reasoning skills. This part of the test will assess how well students can figure out unfamiliar words using existing knowledge. Students with a strong vocabulary can solve more problems without relying solely on reasoning, but the key is for both of these skills to work together.

Alright, let’s make studying fun!

Clever Conversations

Choose five “Words of the Day” from your ISEE/SSAT prep materials. Throughout the day, everyone in the family has to use the words in conversation as much as possible! Working them in naturally is a fun challenge, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly these vocab words become familiar.

I’ve had some hysterical conversations with my students doing this. After all, how many times can you say “detrimental” in one day?

Using the whole family in these challenges taps into a crucial need for adolescents: social connection. Studying vocabulary alone can feel lonely and boring. However, turning vocabulary study into a game with family members will keep students engaged far more than solitary sessions in their rooms.

Switching Scenery

Flashcards are a tactical and often necessary break from screens, but who says the only way to use them is sitting at a desk? By studying in different environments, students will create sensory associations that build their retention of vocabulary words.

Try this: pick 10 words with a negative association like “hinder,” “dilapidated,” “sullen,” and “dismal.” Then, find a weird and slightly uncomfortable spot to study them. Imagine sitting on a cold, concrete floor while working through these words. The student will associate the physical discomfort with negative connotations.  Who wouldn’t feel a bit “sullen” perched on a hard floor?

Heading to the beach? No need for pen and paper. Write your ISEE or SSAT vocab words in the sand. The act of writing and the visual association with the beach will create a unique memory tied to each vocabulary word. 

Feeling restless? Grab a stack of flashcards and stand on a fluffy rug, sit on a bouncy ball, or hold a textured pillow. Engaging different senses while practicing vocabulary will create strong associations.

Creative Connection

Put vocabulary (and creativity) to the test using art and music.


Take flashcards to the next level with a little artistic flair. Students can sketch an image that represents each word’s meaning. This is fun and powerful, creating a visual trigger to help students easily recall vocabulary words.

For artistically inclined students, encourage them to use their creative gifts to fortify their vocabulary understanding. Have them create a scene and embed vocabulary words that fit the theme. For example, a drawing of ballet slippers labeled ‘lithe’ or pool floats marked with words like ‘placid’ and ‘buoyant’. 


In this challenge, students try to rewrite the lyrics to their favorite songs using a few of their vocabulary words. You might be surprised at how well some words fit, and you’ll definitely have a catchy tune stuck in your head afterward!

Studying the ISEE and SSAT vocabulary should be an engaging adventure, not a chore. By using these challenges to create associations, students will master the vocab words faster and have fun doing it.

If your child will be taking the ISEE or SSAT for admission to competitive independent schools, it would be my honor to be their guide on that journey. 


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