How to Improve Your GRE Verbal Score


The two primary measures on the GRE–Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning–are structured quite differently. Therefore, how you prepare for one will not necessarily benefit you when preparing for the other. 

The Quantitative Reasoning section requires test takers to know a little about a lot. The exam will test a wide variety of formulas and concepts ranging from algebra and geometry, to data analysis.

However, you will not need to necessarily be a geometry or algebra master; rather, you will need to have a solid understanding of the basics. Working through hundreds of practice math problems can definitely enable you to improve your Quantitative score. Practice does, after all, make perfect. 

The Verbal Reasoning section can be thought of as the opposite. There is not a big range of “rules” you will be tested on. For example, you will not be tested on subject/verb agreement, how to use a semicolon, and so on.

There are really only three skills you will need to obtain in order to succeed on the Verbal section. However, these three things you must master. Unlike the math measure, working through hundreds of Verbal reasoning practice questions will not necessarily improve your score. It is about quality over quantity.  

In this article, I’ll explain how to improve your GRE verbal score.

How to Improve Your GRE Verbal Quickly

The good news is, because there are only three main competencies needed for the Verbal measure of the GRE, increasing your score can be done faster than if you were trying to increase your math score. In this article we will discuss how to improve your GRE Verbal score by mastering the three essential skills. 

There are three types of questions on the GRE Verbal measure: Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence. Answering each of these questions accurately will require critical reasoning, speed, and knowledge of obscure vocabulary words. These are the three things you will need to improve on if you want to increase your Verbal score. 

What Might Need Improving? Critical Reasoning Skills 

What makes the GRE Verbal portion so challenging is the volume of words that compose it. The sentences that make up the passages, questions, and answer choices are long. Sometimes I read a Reading Comprehension answer choice and think “This in and of itself is a reading passage!” 

Reading Passages 

Having critical reasoning skills means you are able to filter through the excessive verbiage and get to the heart of what a passage or answer choice is actually saying. How you put this into practice when reading a passage versus an answer choice will be different.

ETS does not expect a test taker to read a passage and finish with a deep understanding of every last sentence. However, they do expect you to finish with a solid understanding of the claims and/or arguments that were made by the author.  You don’t want to oversimplify the claims, but you also don’t want to infer information that was not explicitly stated in the passage. 

Similarly, when approaching Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions, you must be able to understand the sentence as a whole. This requires test takers to utilize their critical reasoning skills to break up the sentence in terms of its functions. 

Reading Answer Choices

Unlike reading passages, where you want to simplify the text in order to get the main ideas, you do not want to “sum up” answer choices. As previously mentioned, the answer choices for the reading comprehension questions will be long and wordy. However, an answer choice can be 99% correct and one word is making the answer wrong. Also, often answer choice could be true, but they are not necessarily proven by the passage. 

You must evaluate every last word in every answer choice. The correct answer will be 100% correct and can always be proven by the text. Before you choose an answer, ask yourself if you could defend it in court and what part of the passage could be used as evidence. 

How to Improve 

The best way to improve your reading comprehension skills is to consistently read text that is reflective of what you will see on test day. Much of this will come from your GRE prep books, but I recommend also reading articles from The Economist for 30 minutes a day. It is crucial that you become comfortable with summarizing the claims and arguments made as you read. Do not get hung up on overly detailed sentences. Manhattan Prep tells students to be thinking about how they would text a summary of the passage to a friend. 

Every time you complete a Verbal Reasoning practice section, re-work your missed questions in a journal. This journal will be your “error log.” For every missed question, write out a detailed description of why you missed the question. Furthermore, make sure you mark the part of the text that proves the correct answer.

What sentences ended up being the most important to answering the questions? Odds are many of them were the sentences where the author was presenting their claim. Anytime you see a sentence with a transitional word such as “however,” “but,” or “yet,” you can bet your bottom dollar that sentence is a claim, and a question will accompany it. You will come to notice that within a passage, some sentences are more important than others. The goal is to be able to read the passage and notice these sentences and then summarize these sentences. 

What Might Need Improving? Speed

When I say the phrase “speed reading,” many of you might be envisioning a scenario of someone frantically flipping pages in a novel. In terms of the GRE, “speed reading” means you are able to read quickly through overly detailed information and slow down, while summarizing, for the important information.

In essence, speed reading comes when you are able to understand what you are being presented with and the content’s information, which is likely to have a question attached to it (AKA sentences where you are given the author’s claims and arguments). 

Now this is not to say that how fast you are able to read the words on the computer isn’t important, but reading quickly without understanding what you read will serve you little purpose. If you are a very slow reader, you do run the risk of not finishing the section. If this is the case, you will want to work on being able to get through words on a page faster. 

How to Improve

For those of you are are slow readers, simply reading consistently can help. Also, there are plenty of apps that you can download which are meant to help you increase your reading speed. I always say reading is like running. If you force yourself to run at a speed that feels uncomfortably fast, soon that pace will feel normal. When you read, read at a pace that almost feels too fast. 

As you read, you want to work on summarizing claims and arguments in your own words. Also, break the text up into its functions. Ask yourself what is the sentence doing or providing. Is the sentence introducing the author’s argument, shifting the author’s argument, presenting a counter-argument, giving support to a claim, describing an experiment, or telling you the results of an experiment? If you read in terms of function, you will be able to bypass getting too hung up on the details (speed reading at its finest). 

What Might Need Improving? Vocabulary

I want to make it clear that critical reasoning and speed are more important on the GRE Verbal Reasoning section than an understanding of obscure vocabulary words. Yes, in order to pass a certain percentile threshold you will need to have a wide vocabulary in your repertoire. 

With that said, a common misconception is that a person can lack strong reading skills and still do well by simply memorizing the definitions of vocabulary words. Even for the Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions–where you are tested on knowledge of obscure words the most–critical reading is required. 

If you cannot figure out what the cohesive meaning of the sentence(s) is supposed to be, despite its omitted words, knowing the definitions of all the answer choices will serve you little purpose. Hence, once you have mastered critical reading and speed, then go ahead and focus solely on vocabulary. 

How to Improve 

ETS has never released an official list of vocabulary words they use when writing the GRE. Any “complete GRE vocabulary list” a company tries to sell you is not complete because that doesn’t exist. Many test prep companies sell flashcards composing of 500 words they feel commonly appear on the GRE General Test. Those third party lists can serve a purpose, but I always have my students focus on them later on in their prep. 

First, prepare for the GRE vocabulary by simply trying to expand your own vocabulary. Think of working on this as you simultaneously work on critical reading. Anytime you read an article in The Economist or complete a set of practice GRE Verbal questions, if you happen to come across a word you do not know, mark it. After you finish reading or completing the practice section, go back to the words you marked and put them on note cards. Then, memorize the word actively and not passively. 

How to Memorize Vocabulary Words 

Trying to memorize something verbandum without putting it into practice usually results in forgetting whatever you memorized pretty quickly. Hence, whether you are trying to memorize a word that you looked up the definition for or a word that is on a flashcard you purchased, never settle for memorizing the definition provided to you. 

Force yourself to write out your own definitions, synonyms, example sentences, and some type of association. Furthermore, use the word(s) at least three times within 48 hours via a conversation, text message, or email. This process might seem time consuming, and slightly annoying, but I promise it will be time well spent because, odds are, it will not be a word you forget in a couple days. 

Once you have developed your critical reasoning and speed reading skills, you will have simultaneously built up your vocabulary. At this time, go ahead and purchase a test prep company’s flashcards of commonly used GRE vocabulary words. Here is a list of our favorites.

How to Improve Your GRE Verbal Score: Summary

In summary, accurately answering the three types of questions that appear on the GRE Verbal Reasoning section (Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence) will require critical reasoning, speed reading, and knowledge of vocabulary words. 

In order to improve these skills, you want to focus on reading passages and summarizing the main ideas without oversimplifying them or inferring extra information. When it comes to eliminating answer choices, you want to take the opposite approach and focus on every last word that makes up that answer. The correct answers will always be able to be 100% proven by the text. 

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