Whether you’re a native English speaker or English is your second (or third, or fourth!) language, you may find the GRE vocabulary problems, Sentence Equivalence (SE) and Text Completion (TC), challenging. But you can still increase your score, and you can do so without studying thousands of vocabulary words. Use these four strategies to improve your weaknesses and play to your strengths.
#1: Study the Quirks of English Idioms
My boss is not only cheap, but positively ________.
The word but is called a Pivot word; it indicates some kind of contrast. In addition, the word positively is placed right before the blank. Positive indicates something good. The two clues together might imply that you need a word like generous or charitable: that is, a word that contrasts with the word cheap and is a positive attribute.
If you’re doubting the logic of that solution, you’re right. The explanation is technically logical, but the English language isn’t. The word in the blank should be something negative, such as stingy. It’s true that the word but denotes a contrast, but the full idiom not only X but also Y is actually used to intensify an idea:
He completed not only both of the Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides, but also the entire GRE 5 lb. Book.
In addition, the word positively isn’t necessarily as positive as it sounds! This word intensifies whatever it’s modifying, similar to highly or absolutely—even when modifying a negative word. For example:
The seats at the theater were positively torturous, with wooden backs that forced us to sit painfully upright.
As you review problems, you’ll learn other quirks of English like these ones. Whenever you run across an expression that seems to mean the opposite of what it says at first glance (or an idiom that can mean different things depending on the words around it), make a flashcard and review it regularly. Your task isn’t to be perfect the first time—it’s to never be fooled the same way twice.
#2: Context Matters
It’s certainly possible to learn tons of GRE vocabulary words by committing their definitions to memory, but the test makers know that’s what everyone’s trying to do. So they write some problems that cannot be solved just by knowing all those definitions verbatim. You also need to master the contexts in which that vocabulary is used.
Here’s a Sentence Equivalence problem (choose two answers) where that comes into play:
The suspect was hoping the expert witness would corroborate his story, but instead she proceeded to _______ his account of what happened.
Before you read the answer choices, you might guess that the blank should mean something like reject. Unfortunately, five out of six answer choices (everything except precipitate) could arguably fit this meaning. To choose the right two answers, you’ll need to know in what context these words are used, not just what they mean.
The word disabuse involves rejection: The person doing the disabusing is rejecting someone else’s belief. But disabuse is used in a really particular way in English: You always disabuse someone of a belief or an idea. You don’t disabuse the belief itself.
I disabused my cousin of the frivolous notion that Santa Claus was real.
The word rebuff also refers to rejection, but this word refers to the rejection of an offer, usually an offer of friendship or romance.
She asked her new coworkers to join her for dinner on Friday, but she was rebuffed.
And the word abjure also describes a sort of rejection, but it’s the rejection of your own previously-held belief. You don’t abjure someone else’s beliefs, and you don’t abjure an account, as in the example problem above.
After the fortune-teller’s predictions of wealth and success proved false, he abjured astrology and became an investment banker.
In the problem above, only two answer choices fit both the needed meaning and the context: contradict and gainsay. Both of these words can refer to rejection; more specifically, they refer to contradicting a statement or a claim. So they are the two correct answers.
The suspect was hoping the expert witness would corroborate his story, but instead she proceeded to [contradict / gainsay] his account of what happened.
To get better at GRE Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence problems, you need to learn the particulars of how words are used, not just how the dictionary defines them. Often, two words with very similar definitions are used in very different contexts. Your goal is to learn new words in context. Whenever you write down a new vocabulary word, also write a sentence or two that shows how to use the word correctly. Then try a Google search to see how real people are using it. If it’s almost always used in a specific situation, jot that down. And if you miss a problem because of a subtle aspect of context, add that to your flashcard about this word.
#3: Study Academic Vocabulary
Thankfully, the GRE doesn’t test the most obscure words. (Some sources claim there are over a million words in the English language. Good luck memorizing them all!) The GRE focuses on the type of vocabulary that’s used in formal or academic English writing—that is, the kind of language you’ll see in grad school.
But they don’t publish a list of words they use or expect you to know, so how do you identify words that fit into this specific category? Without any clear guidelines, you could end up studying dozens or hundreds of words that are unlikely to show up on the test, while missing the types of words that are much more common. When you haven’t been to grad school yet (obviously!), it’s hard to guess that fortuitous is a high-value GRE word, while pelf is much less likely to appear. So you need to get your vocabulary list from someone who’s actually done the research.
To find a reputable source for GRE vocabulary, you’ll need to do a little research yourself. All of the major test prep companies have released vocabulary lists or flashcard decks (here’s our Essential set and our Advanced set!). Talk to friends and read reviews from other test takers to find out what they’ve liked. Examine the products: Do the definitions include context or examples? Do you find their style memorable and easy to learn from?
What’s harder is deciding how long of a vocabulary list you need. That depends on two things: How high of a score do you want and how much time do you have to study? Spend a week studying vocabulary for about 30 minutes a day, and then test yourself. How many new words have you really learned well? Aim to learn that many each week between now and a week or two before test day. (Spend that final week or two reviewing what you’ve already learned.)
#4: Read from the Inside Out
If I were going to write a GRE vocabulary problem, I’d first write a very simple sentence built around a target vocabulary word:
When teachers have to follow a rigid curriculum, they feel undermined.
Next, I’d consider what critical clues I’d need to include in order to make that answer definitively right. How could I make it clear that undermined is the correct answer, not depressed or furious?
When teachers are forced to follow a rigid curriculum designed by people who don’t understand teaching, they feel undermined, since they prefer being creative over following a mandatory set of lessons.
With the additional information, undermined is a logical fit for the sentence. If the curriculum is designed by non-educators and the teachers aren’t allowed to exercise their creativity, it makes sense that they’d feel undermined.
Finally, I’d figure out how to make the sentence harder. I could add in extraneous detail, make the vocabulary more complicated, obscure the clues, or scramble the sentence structure—or maybe all of the above.
Oftentimes, when administrators force teachers to cleave too closely to a federal curriculum, those teachers feel undermined, because the mandatory curriculum curbs their sense of being creative and dynamic educators.
Now, you’ve got a sentence you might see on the real test! (By the way, this problem is from our GRE 5lb. Book.)
When you’re taking the GRE, you’re going to to follow that same logic, but backwards. Don’t approach each sentence word by word, reading from left to right. Instead, start reading sentences “from the inside out.” What does that mean? Unpack the sentence, remove the trivial details, and get yourself down to the core and the clues. Try this one:
Central to the challenger’s platform was the argument that the incumbent had ultimately ______ the agreements he had initially championed during his first stint in office.
To unpack the sentence, figure out the basic “story”—and use as many sentences as you need:
There are two parties in an election: the challenger and the incumbent. The challenger says that the incumbent ______ the things he said he’d do while he was in office.
The structure and logic of the sentence are the same, but the meaning or story is easier to follow. The challenger is going to say something negative about the incumbent, like went back on. And in fact, the correct answers are reneged on and abrogated, which have exactly that meaning.
You Can Conquer Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence!
We’ve discussed four powerful strategies for improving your GRE vocabulary performance:
- Keep a list of words and phrases that fooled you the first time when doing practice problems;
- Always include the context when defining a new vocabulary word;
- Do your research to find a good source of academic vocabulary and don’t try to learn every word in the language;
- Practice deconstructing and simplifying sentences as you read them.
You want to go to grad school, so think of this as an opportunity. Using the ideas in this article as a starting point, identify your own major weaknesses with regard to academic vocabulary and make a plan to improve. By the time school starts, you’ll be more than prepared to handle the academic rigors of your program!
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