The GRE has two big monsters that most of us fear when we think about taking the exam: mathematical formulas and obscure vocabulary words. Preparing for the Verbal Reasoning section and all of the potential unknown words can feel daunting.
In this article we will discuss how to study for GRE vocab efficiently. You want to approach your vocab preparation with caution because, if not done properly, you can spend an excessive amount of time and effort without making much headway.
There are two myths I want to shine a light on before I talk to you about how to study for GRE vocab. It is important to demystify the GRE vocabulary words so that we can make sure to study properly.
Knowing thousands of obscure words will not necessarily guarantee ease with the Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions on the GRE. The most important skill for answering these questions correctly will be critical reading.
You must be able to understand the function of a sentence–such as how transitional words or punctuation is effecting the meaning as a whole–before you can choose the right vocabulary word to fill in the blank. The sentences will be long and complex. If you are not at a point where you can understand the sentence enough to write in your own words in the blanks, knowing vocab won’t help you.
ETS has never, and likely will never, release an official list of vocabulary words they use when writing the GRE Verbal measure. Any GRE test prep company trying to sell you an “official vocab list” is lying. Many companies have lists of 500 words that they feel have commonly appeared on the GRE. By no means are these lists worthless, but by no means are they complete.
Let’s consider why the two myths should affect how you study for the GRE Vocab. If you are the type of person who does not enjoy reading, and you have little interest in building your critical reasoning skills, simply memorizing vocabulary words in hopes of walking away with a decent Verbal Reasoning score will not work. First comes initiating your reasoning skills in order to make sense of the sentence, then comes knowing the definitions of the vocabulary word answer choices.
Furthermore, due to the fact there is no official GRE vocab list, all the time you put into studying a word is not automatically going to translate into knowing the words on your exam. You could spend countless hours studying 300 vocabulary words and not see a single one on the test.
For the above reasons, memorizing vocabulary should be of little priority compared to preparing for the other parts of the GRE. It is time spent that may or may not pay off.
This is what I would suggest: as you prepare for the GRE Verbal section, start building your own list of vocabulary words before you purchase a test prep company’s list of “The top 500 vocabulary words on the GRE.”
Anytime you are reading an article, such as in The Economist, or you are going through a GRE test prep book, if you come across an unfamiliar word, put it down on a note card. You want to think of simply expanding your own vocabulary horizons as opposed to memorizing some prewritten list of words. Hence, as you are building your critical reasoning skills, learn the meaning of unfamiliar words you come across. Do not think about studying vocabulary as a separate task outside of critical reading.
Once you are getting the majority of critical reading questions correct in your test prep books and practice GRE exams, go ahead and purchase a company’s list of vocabulary words that commonly appear on the GRE. However, only do this if you have time before your exam. If you have a week before your GRE test date, it probably will not be worth your time versus if you have a month to prepare.
For a list of the best GRE vocab flashcards, click here.
It isn’t hard to identify a word you don’t know in order to create your vocab list, but learning the word at a level that will translate to getting a question on the GRE correct will take some more work. It is very easy to “study vocab” in a passive manner that will not actually allow you to understand the meaning of a word on a deep level. Therefore, googling the definition of a word and then writing that definition on a note card and memorizing it probably won’t do much for you.
Here is what you will want to do:
Once you read the definition of a word, try not to memorize it exactly how it is stated on dictionary.com. Force yourself to write out your own definition. Also, don’t forget to consider parts of speech. Is the word a verb? A noun? Ect.
Think about the word in its big picture meaning. Does it have a positive tone or negative tone? Sometimes, just knowing this on the GRE can be enough to eliminate several answer choices. I always tell my students to think big, then small.
Personally, this is my least favorite way to remember vocabulary words but some people love it. There are quite a bit of English words that are formed by adding prefixes and suffixes to them. The basic word to which the prefix or suffix is added is the “root word.” The idea is that if you remember the meanings of various prefixes, suffixes, and root words, you can use them to figure out complex words on the spot.
For example, the prefix circum means around. If you know this you would have a better chance of figuring out the meaning of circumvent, circumnavigate, or circumscribing. A con to memorizing roots is that many of them have very similar sounds but very different meanings. Also, knowing the prefix, suffix, or root will allow you to have a broad understanding of a word but not the actual definition.
Forcing yourself to think of synonyms for a word, or other words that have the same meaning, is a wonderful way to test your understanding of that word.
Now that you have a clear understanding of the meaning of the word, write out two or three example sentences using the word. Try to be creative with these sentences! ETS is not going to provide short, straightforward sentences on the GRE, so don’t allow yours to be overly simple.
Take the time to really think about how you can get the meaning of a word to stick through some type of association. For example, the word cow means to intimidate in order to get someone to submit to you. Obviously, most of us are going to think of the animal, so my association is considering how large a cow is compared to me. If someone asked me to get the cow to move, its size would leave me intimidated.
In my opinion, the best way to test your understanding of a word is to see how well you can incorporate that word in a sentence on the spot. For every new word you learn, force yourself to use it three times within 48 hours. You can integrate the word into a text message, a conversation with a friend, an email to a coworker, and so on.
In summary, building your critical reading skills is more important than learning vocabulary. Since ETS has never released an official list of words they filter through when writing the GRE, you always run the risk of spending a lot of time memorizing words that you will not see on test day. Furthermore, knowing the definitions of all of the vocabulary words will do very little if you do not understand what the cohesive meaning of the sentence should be.
With that said, if you do decide to memorize vocabulary words, you want to make sure to do so actively and not passively. Force yourself to write out your own definitions, synonyms, example sentences, and associations. Also, go the extra mile to use the word three times within 48 hours via a conversation, email, or text message.