Vocabulary Study Guide for the HESI Exam

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In healthcare, effective communication is more than just a courtesy—it’s often a matter of life and death. As such, having a comprehensive vocabulary plays a critical role in a nurse’s daily operations. Nurses with an expansive vocabulary can articulate nuanced instructions, describe patient conditions with greater specificity, and foster a more empathetic rapport with patients. In the dynamic, fast-paced environments like operating rooms or patient wards, this ability to communicate efficiently and effectively is especially crucial.

On the HESI exam, test-takers are assessed not only on their grasp of medical terminology but also on their understanding and usage of general vocabulary. This evaluation aims to ensure that future nurses can navigate both the technical and interpersonal aspects of their roles successfully.

It’s important to remember that the Vocabulary section of the HESI exam isn’t about memorizing the dictionary. Instead, it focuses on key concepts and terminologies that are essential in a healthcare setting. For medical vocabulary, expect to be tested on common prefixes, roots, and suffixes that form the backbone of medical terminology. Understanding these can enable you to decipher unfamiliar words and communicate effectively within the medical field.

The general vocabulary section, on the other hand, tests your ability to understand and use common words and phrases in everyday language. These might include words often used in written materials, such as patient information leaflets, or verbal communication with patients and other healthcare professionals.

In preparing for the HESI exam, remember that your goal isn’t to learn every word that exists, but rather to develop a strong working vocabulary that will support you in your nursing career. This involves continuous learning—reading widely, practicing usage, and making a conscious effort to incorporate new words into your everyday language. With diligent preparation and the right resources, you can build a strong foundation for the Vocabulary section of the HESI exam and beyond.

Medical Terminology

Unlike many other jobs, a medical position requires a working knowledge of a litany of concepts and terms that are largely foreign to the populace at large. To brush up on this aspect of the medical field, read as much and as frequently as possible. Read textbooks, medical journals, reports, and articles related to the medical field. This will allow you to catch a glimpse not only of terminology but of usage as well.

Study terms and their usage. While vocabulary is essential to communicating and understanding others in the medical field, you must not only be able to identify the meanings of words but also be able to put those words into action and place them properly in sentences. Be sure to also study context and placement.

Common Medical Prefixes and Their Meanings

Medical prefixes function the same way that standard prefixes do; they are placed at the beginning of a word to alter the meaning of a root word. In the medical field, prefixes are usually used to describe the state of a patient, or a procedure. Here is a list of the most common medical prefixes and their meanings:

Prefix Meaning
a/ah without
arteri artery
arthro bone joint
bi twice/double
carcin cancer
chol bile
cis on the same side of
crani head/skull
cyt cell
derm skin
ect outer/outside
ferri iron
gyn woman
hema blood
hist tissue
hyster uterus
kerat cornea
kinesi movement
lacto milk
leuko white
mast breast
melan black
necro death
onco tumor
osseo bone
pan all/entire

Common Medical Suffixes and Their Meanings

Like traditional suffixes, medical suffixes are used to bring further clarity to a root word and are attached to the end of a root word. These words are frequently applied to words to denote an operation or procedure. The most common medical suffixes are identified as follows:

Suffix Meaning
ac/acal of/pertaining to
aemia blood condition
algia pain
centesis surgical puncture
crine to secrete
cyte cell
dynia pain
ectasis expansion/dilation
ectomy surgical procedure/removal
genic formative
gnosis knowledge
graph record/picture
iasis condition
iatry field of medicine
icle small
ismus spasm/contraction
itis inflammation
lysis destruction/separation
oma mass/collection
penia deficiency
pepsia digestion/digestive tract
plasty repair/reconstruction
plexy stroke/seizure
rrhagia rapid flow of blood
scopy viewing
tensive pressure

General Vocabulary Concepts

Vocabulary is a word used to describe one’s verbal arsenal. Your vocabulary reflects significantly upon your breadth of knowledge, as it reveals how much exposure you have had to advanced concepts―not merely in the medical field, but in all academia, and even in day-to-day life. Someone with a well-rounded vocabulary is capable of retaining language needed to function on a coherent level with other adults and of engaging in more “high-level” discussions, such as one about current events or academic concepts.

The greatest asset in developing a solid vocabulary is the ability to read thoroughly and efficiently. While some amount of your vocabulary can be developed through speaking and practice, reading exposes you to words you might not encounter any other way, and it reveals methods of speaking you might not have considered outside of your social circle. To develop a well-rounded vocabulary, place your primary focus on reading items of all natures, ranging from magazine articles to academic journals, to novels. Exposure is key to nurturing an expansive vocabulary.

To assist in your development, three basic vocabulary concepts are identified: prefixes, suffixes, and root words.

Prefixes in General Use

A prefix is an add-on placed ahead of a word to change or enhance its meaning. “Pre” is an example of a prefix used to denote “before.” “Post” is another prefix used to denote “after.” The following is a list of the most common prefixes and their meanings.

Prefix Meaning
anti against
co with/alongside
dis not
ex out of/former
il/im not/without
inter between
non without
omni all/every
post after
pre before
sub under/below
trans across
un not

Suffixes in General Use

Suffixes are the opposite of prefixes; they come after a word, though they are still used to change or further explain a root word. Suffixes can be more difficult to identify than prefixes, but as you read, you will find that you are familiar with most of the common suffixes used in the English language today. The most frequently used suffixes denote the passage of time.

Here is a list of the most common suffixes:

Suffix Meaning
able capable/capable of being
ate become
dom place/state of being
er more than/one who
esque like/reminiscent of
ful notable for
ish having the quality of
ist one who
ment condition of
ness state of being
ship position held
y characterized by


Roots (or “base words”) are words that contain the idea or thought being prevailed upon by prefixes and suffixes. In the word “beautiful,” for instance, the root of the word is “beauty,” while the suffix is “ful.”

Roots can be difficult to identify because they may require alteration to function with a prefix or suffix, as in the case of “beautiful.” For this reason, it is pivotal to familiarize yourself with common prefixes and suffixes; once you are familiar with the most common ones, you can more readily discover the root of words bearing additions. A few examples are given here:

Word Prefix Root Suffix
preview pre view -
interchangeable inter change able
fanciful - fancy ful
disagreeable dis agree able
misunderstanding mis understand ing
unchangeable un change able
reposition re position -
unthinkable un think able
prehistoric pre historic -
insurmountable in surmount able

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