How to Study for GRE Verbal

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Sometimes the difficulty of the GRE Verbal section can take test takers by surprise. Most people taking the GRE are doing so because they are seeking acceptance into a graduate or MBA program. They have already obtained a certain level of education and therefore have developed the ability to read a text and walk away with some understanding of it. Hence, people tend to have a greater amount of confidence in answering critical reading questions than geometry questions. 

You might be thinking, “It’s just reading–how hard can it be?” I am here to tell you it’s hard. 

In this article we will briefly discuss the grading and overall structure of the GRE Verbal measure, followed by an in-depth discussion of how to study for the GRE Verbal Reasoning section in a manner that will optimize your score. 

GRE Verbal Reasoning Overview

You will have two Verbal Reasoning sections on the GRE. It is possible your exam might contain three Verbal sections, but one of them will be the Experimental section and will not be graded. The Experimental section is used by ETS in order to test the difficulty level of future test questions. You will not know which of the three Verbal sections is Experimental, so you must treat each one as if it will be graded. 

Each Verbal Reasoning section will give you thirty minutes to answer twenty questions. Your performance on your first Verbal Reasoning section will determine how challenging your second Verbal section is. The two sections will be combined to create a Verbal score ranging from 130-170. 

GRE Verbal Reasoning Question Types

There are three types of questions that will appear on the GRE Verbal Reasoning section that will test you on two primary skills: critical reading and knowledge of vocabulary words. 

1. Reading Comprehension

The GRE will present you with reading passages that can vary from one to several paragraphs in length. These are multiple choice questions that can require one or more correct answers (the question will make this explicit). Furthermore, some questions might require you to select a sentence in the passage that meets a certain description. 

The questions that follow will test you on your understanding of individual sentences and/or words, how a particular paragraph functions within the broader scope of the text, your comprehension of the author’s perspective and assumptions, your ability to identify strengths and weaknesses within the passage, your consideration of alternative explanations to a claim made, and your ability to summarize the passage as a whole. 

2. Text Completion

Text completion questions will present you with one to three sentences that will have one to three omitted words from them. You must select the appropriate word(s) from the answer choices that give the sentence a cohesive meaning. If the question requires you to fill in more than one blank, you will need to fill all of them in correctly in order to receive any points. 

3. Sentence Equivalence

Sentence equivalence questions will have a single omitted word from a sentence and you will be asked to select two answer choices that can fill in the blank and provide the sentence with equivalent meanings. Similar to Text Completion questions, there is no partial credit for choosing one correct word. You must correctly select both answers if you are to be awarded credit for the question. 

How to Study for GRE Verbal

Now that you know a little bit more about what to expect on the GRE Verbal Reasoning measure, let’s discuss how to prepare for it. As I mentioned earlier, this section might seem easy to manage due to the fact that it’s just reading, but ETS has created a measure that will require far more than the ability to read. 

There are a certain amount of refined skills you will need if you want to do well on the Verbal sections. As you prepare for this portion of the exam, you want to focus on building these skills. At the heart of every GRE Verbal question is ETS seeing if you are able to filter through an excessive amount of verbiage and get to the true meaning of a text. They want to know if you can even do this when crucial words are taken away. 

Let’s talk about the steps you can take to develop these skills. Steps 1-3 are more for preparing for the GRE in general, so I won’t focus too much on them. 

Step 1: Take a Practice GRE 

It is always a good idea to take a practice GRE, or diagnostic test, in order to get a baseline for where you are at with your score. You might find you are close to your Verbal target score and therefore can focus on other parts of the GRE such as the Math measure. On the flip side, you might find you have quite a bit of work to do. 

There are plenty of free GRE practice exams out there, so here is a list of our top picks.

Step 2: Enroll in a GRE Prep Course

The GRE is an exam that will require strategic thinking along with knowledge of vocabulary words and mathematical formulas that you might not have seen in a while. Tackling all of this on your own can definitely be done, but might be harder than if you were to learn from an expert. 

If you are interested in enrolling in a GRE prep course–whether it be online, in person, or self paced–I recommend reading this article on the best GRE prep courses.

Step 3: Purchase the Best GRE Prep Books

As your prepare for the GRE General Test, it is crucial you study from well-written GRE prep books. There are two characteristics that make a GRE prep book worth purchasing–the text provides you with test-taking strategy and the questions mimic the ones written by ETS. 

No matter what, you should work through the ETS Official GRE Guides. These are the only prep books that have questions written by ETS (the same people who write the GRE). No other test prep books will be able to truly introduce you to the types of intricate questions you will see on test day. That is not to say there aren’t any other good books out there. Here is a list of the best GRE prep books on the market.

Step 4: Read and Summarize Complex Text

A person’s ability to critically read is not necessarily something they were born with. It is a skill that requires practice. Hence, I am going to ask you to start reading and summarizing what you read. I suggest you spend thirty minutes a day, five days a week reading and summarizing.  Keep your summary explicit to the scope of the text (do not infer information that is not there). 

As you start to build your reading comprehension skills, whether it be through practice GRE passages in your test prep books or articles from The Economist (I think it goes without saying that you don’t want to “practice” reading with a Marie Claire magazine), focus on simplifying the main ideas of the text. Manhattan Prep tells students to think, “How would I text a summary of this text to my friend?” as they read. 

In my opinion, what makes the GRE Verbal section so challenging is the sheer amount of words in the section. Sometimes I look at the answer choices and think, “These in themselves are other passages!” Because the answer choices are so wordy, you have to be able to get through the text quickly and this is done by condensing it. As you first begin practicing, this might require you to read more slowly. 

Step 5: Read Faster

For almost all test takers, time is of the essence. You must attack the section with speed and precision. Every two to three days, force yourself to read faster. Keep in mind you will likely be taking the GRE on the computer, so do not use a pencil/pen to read faster. Reading is just like running, the more you do it, the faster you will be able to force yourself to do it. 

Read at a pace that is almost uncomfortably fast. Maintain focus by staying active with the text and keep track of how the main idea might be evolving as you read. Once you finish reading, ask yourself where the important claims and shifts were made. Were there transitional words attached to these sentences? At what parts of the passage were these sentences presented to you? 

Step 6: Dissect Answer Choices 

The longer and more complex a text is, the simpler you want to make it. Often, our instinct is to focus on all the details, but this is the exact opposite strategy when it comes to eliminating and picking the correct answer. Do not, under any circumstances, read an answer choice without dissecting every last word in that answer choice. This is how ETS gets students to miss questions. 

Common ETS Verbal Reasoning Traps

  1. An answer choice can be 99.9% correct, but there can be one word, or a small phrase, that will make the answer choice incorrect. If you are not playing devil’s advocate with every answer choice presented to you, it will be hard to find what is making an answer choice wrong.
  2. Similarly, you will come across answer choices that could be true, but are not necessarily proven by the text.You must be able to prove an answer choice to be 100% correct based off the passage. Pretend you have to defend your answer in a courtroom. What sentence/paragraph proves your answer is the correct one? 
  3. Another common trick ETS uses is what we call “copy and paste.” Sometimes you might find an answer choice using an obscure word or phrase that you remember was in the passage. This will not automatically make that answer correct and can be a tacktick ETS uses to get you to pick a particular answer. Once again, make sure you can prove the entire answer to be right before choosing it. 

Step 7: Keep Track of Your Mistakes

There are plenty of other reasons why students choose the wrong answer than the three reasons listed above. Hence, everytime you complete GRE Verbal questions, spend three or more minutes reflecting on each missed question. You need to be able to eventually have a running list of how ETS gets you to miss Verbal questions. 

Perhaps you will notice that you are not taking the time to prove your answer to be right, you are spending too long reading the text and running out of time answering questions, you are getting lost in the details of the passage and need to simplify it even more, etc. 

I highly advise having a dedicated journal that will be your error log. For every missed question, write as much as you can about why you missed the question and what you need to do to get similar questions correct in the future. Improving your Verbal score is about quality not quantity. What I mean by this is answering thousands of Verbal questions will not necessarily help you as much as answering fewer questions and reflecting on them. 

Step 8: Improve Your Vocabulary 

Knowledge of advanced vocabulary words will only go so far in increasing your GRE score if you do not have strong reading comprehension skills. Success with Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion questions will require the ability to understand the function of a text just as much as Reading Comprehension questions. 

Therefore, it is important to focus on developing your critical reading abilities before you take the time to sit and study vocabulary words. With that said, anytime you are practicing for the GRE–whether by reading an article or working in a prep book–if you do not know the meaning of a word, look up the definition and put it on a note card.

For example, many of the obscure words you would find in The Economist will be the same as those used by ETS. ETS has not released an official list of GRE vocabulary words. Therefore, think of preparing for the vocabulary as a journey to broaden your own vocab horizons. For a more in-depth discussion on how to do that, check out this article. 

How to Study for GRE Verbal: Summary

Studying for the GRE in general can feel like an overwhelming task. Taking practice exams, enrolling in a good prep course, and working through the best GRE books can go a long way in helping you succeed. 

Tackling the Verbal measure will require critical reasoning skills above all else. You will need to be able to read a text quickly and summarize the claims and main ideas, then dedicate the majority of your time to dissecting answer choices. 

The best way to prepare for this is to keep an error log where you reflect on every GRE Verbal question you missed when practicing. Write out as much as you can about what caused you to miss the question–odds are ETS set a trap that you fell into. Once you are able to identify their common tricks, you will be able to navigate your way to the correct answer with greater accuracy.