Essay Vocab List


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 Yang

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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Extensive reading is the best way to develop your command of tough vocabulary. But cramming Shakespeare and Milton before the test is not very practical. So, we’ve done a little investigating and have compiled the top 100 vocabulary words of all time.

Use this list to strengthen your vocabulary and prepare for the test day challenge.

  1. abbreviate: (v) to shorten, abridge
  2. abstinence: (n) the act of refraining from pleasurable activity, e.g., eating or drinking
  3. adulation: (n) high praise
  4. adversity: (n) misfortune, an unfavorable turn of events
  5. aesthetic: (adj) pertaining to beauty or the arts
  6. amicable: (adj) friendly, agreeable
  7. anachronistic: (adj) out-of-date, not attributed to the correct historical period
  8. anecdote: (n) short, usually funny account of an event
  9. anonymous: (adj) nameless, without a disclosed identity
  10. antagonist: (n) foe, opponent, adversary
  11. arid: (adj) extremely dry or deathly boring
  12. assiduous: (adj) persistent, hard-working
  13. asylum: (n) sanctuary, shelter, place of refuge
  14. benevolent: (adj) friendly and helpful
  15. camaraderie: (n) trust, sociability amongst friends
  16. censure: (v) to criticize harshly
  17. circuitous: (adj) indirect, taking the longest route
  18. clairvoyant: (adj) exceptionally insightful, able to foresee the future
  19. collaborate: (v) to cooperate, work together
  20. compassion: (n) sympathy, helpfulness or mercy
  21. compromise: (v) to settle a dispute by terms agreeable to both sides
  22. condescending: (adj) possessing an attitude of superiority, patronizing
  23. conditional: (adj) depending on a condition, e.g., in a contract
  24. conformist: (n) person who complies with accepted rules and customs
  25. congregation: (n) a crowd of people, an assembly
  26. convergence: (n) the state of separate elements joining or coming together
  27. deleterious: (adj) harmful, destructive, detrimental
  28. demagogue: (n) leader, rabble-rouser, usually appealing to emotion or prejudice
  29. digression: (n) the act of turning aside, straying from the main point, esp. in a speech or argument
  30. diligent: (adj) careful and hard-working
  31. discredit: (v) to harm the reputation of, dishonor or disgrace
  32. disdain: (v) to regard with scorn or contempt
  33. divergent: (adj) separating, moving in different directions from a particular point
  34. empathy: (n) identification with the feelings of others
  35. emulate: (v) to imitate, follow an example
  36. enervating: (adj) weakening, tiring
  37. enhance: (v) to improve, bring to a greater level of intensity
  38. ephemeral: (adj) momentary, transient, fleeting
  39. evanescent: (adj) quickly fading, short-lived, esp. an image
  40. exasperation: (n) irritation, frustration
  41. exemplary: (adj) outstanding, an example to others
  42. extenuating: (adj) excusing, lessening the seriousness of guilt or crime, e.g., of mitigating factors
  43. florid: (adj) red-colored, flushed; gaudy, ornate
  44. fortuitous: (adj) happening by luck, fortunate
  45. frugal: (adj) thrifty, cheap
  46. hackneyed: (adj) cliched, worn out by overuse
  47. haughty: (adj) arrogant and condescending
  48. hedonist: (n) person who pursues pleasure as a goal
  49. hypothesis: (n) assumption, theory requiring proof
  50. impetuous: (adj) rash, impulsive, acting without thinking
  51. impute: (v) to attribute an action to particular person or group
  52. incompatible: (adj) opposed in nature, not able to live or work together
  53. inconsequential: (adj) unimportant, trivial
  54. inevitable: (adj) certain, unavoidable
  55. integrity: (n) decency, honesty, wholeness
  56. intrepid: (adj) fearless, adventurous
  57. intuitive: (adj) instinctive, untaught
  58. jubilation: (n) joy, celebration, exultation
  59. lobbyist: (n) person who seeks to influence political events
  60. longevity: (n) long life
  61. mundane: (adj) ordinary, commonplace
  62. nonchalant: (adj) calm, casual, seeming unexcited
  63. novice: (n) apprentice, beginner
  64. opulent: (adj) wealthy
  65. orator: (n) lecturer, speaker
  66. ostentatious: (adj) showy, displaying wealth
  67. parched: (adj) dried up, shriveled
  68. perfidious: (adj) faithless, disloyal, untrustworthy
  69. precocious: (adj) unusually advanced or talented at an early age
  70. pretentious: (adj) pretending to be important, intelligent or cultured
  71. procrastinate: (v) to unnecessarily delay, postpone, put off
  72. prosaic: (adj) relating to prose; dull, commonplace
  73. prosperity: (n) wealth or success
  74. provocative: (adj) tending to provoke a response, e.g., anger or disagreement
  75. prudent: (adj) careful, cautious
  76. querulous: (adj) complaining, irritable
  77. rancorous: (adj) bitter, hateful
  78. reclusive: (adj) preferring to live in isolation
  79. reconciliation: (n) the act of agreement after a quarrel, the resolution of a dispute
  80. renovation: (n) repair, making something new again
  81. resilient: (adj) quick to recover, bounce back
  82. restrained: (adj) controlled, repressed, restricted
  83. reverence: (n) worship, profound respect
  84. sagacity: (n) wisdom
  85. scrutinize: (v) to observe carefully
  86. spontaneity: (n) impulsive action, unplanned events
  87. spurious: (adj) lacking authenticity, false
  88. submissive: (adj) tending to meekness, to submit to the will of others
  89. substantiate: (v) to verify, confirm, provide supporting evidence
  90. subtle: (adj) hard to detect or describe; perceptive
  91. superficial: (adj) shallow, lacking in depth
  92. superfluous: (adj) extra, more than enough, redundant
  93. suppress: (v) to end an activity, e.g., to prevent the dissemination of information
  94. surreptitious: (adj) secret, stealthy
  95. tactful: (adj) considerate, skillful in acting to avoid offense to others
  96. tenacious: (adj) determined, keeping a firm grip on
  97. transient: (adj) temporary, short-lived, fleeting
  98. venerable: (adj) respected because of age
  99. vindicate: (v) to clear from blame or suspicion
  100. wary: (adj) careful, cautious
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