31 December 2016

Why a vocab app isn’t enough if you want to ace GRE verbal

A couple of times in the past few months, I’ve had chance conversations with people who were either preparing for the GRE or had recently taken it. 

Inevitably, the subject turned to preparation for the verbal section, and both times, the GRE-taker in question lit up when they mentioned using an app to study vocabulary. As one of them enthused, “it’s like a game! You get to compete against other users and everything.” 

I admit that my familiarity with GRE vocab apps is limited, but when I had the first of these conversations, my immediate inclination was to double-check that the student knew that the GRE had changed a few years back — that the vocabulary section was no longer based on straight-up synonym and antonym questions but was rather focused on testing words in the context of sentences and short passages. 

Remarkably, the student — who struck me as very bright — seemed entirely unaware of that fact. 

I’m not sure just how common that situation is, but I’m writing this post regardless. Based on my experience with the old SAT, I suspect that even if GRE students know that vocabulary is tested in a way that no longer involves just knowing straightforward definitions, they’re not really sure what that means on a practical level, or what they can do to prepare. As a result, they pore over vocabulary lists (or apps), not fully realizing that being prepared for the GRE is more than just a matter of knowing lots of difficult words. 

As a matter of fact, it is possible to know lots of dictionary definitions of words and still find the GRE vocabulary section very challenging.

It is also possible to have difficulty with questions testing relatively straightforward words. ETS excels at writing questions that mess with your mind ever so slightly, questions that make you think: This should be simple — these are easy words. Why can’t I figure out what’s going on here? 

This is what’s going on: when the GRE was overhauled in 2012, one of the main goals was to make the test less about memorization and more about the type of reading that actually gets done in graduate school. The result was a shift in focus from the sort of über-challenging vocabulary that used to feature prominently on the exam to the sort of challenging but not overly esoteric words routinely found in mainstream publications such as The Economist.

Now, here’s the ironic part. When the SAT was overhauled in 2015/2016, it was changed in part because critics argued that the so-called “obscure” vocabulary that exam tested was disconnected from real-life reading. What ETS effectively did, however, was to take the set of words commonly tested on the SAT and move them over to the GRE. So what was once considered “obscure” vocabulary on the SAT magically became “relevant” vocabulary on the GRE. 

That’s another way of saying that the GRE isn’t interested in terribly interested in assessing whether you’ve memorized the dictionary; provided you have a relatively solid vocabulary, you probably don’t need to spend hours and hours studying hundreds of esoteric words. That’s just not what the test is about anymore.

So while some GRE vocabulary questions do require you to know the definitions of relatively sophisticated words, others are almost like miniature logic puzzles. The emphasis is on whether you can figure out what the sentence or passage is actually saying, and what general type of word makes sense in context. Whether the answer would conventionally be considered an “easy” word or a “hard” word is effectively irrelevant.   

To answer these questions, you must be able to infer relationships between sentence and clauses, sometimes with only subtle clues; sift through complex syntax and idiomatic phrasing; work backwards within questions, starting with a more-straightforward second or third blank and then moving back to a less clear first blank; and suppress your initial assumption about the type of word that belongs in a particular blank until you’ve obtained a fuller understanding of what a sentence or passage is saying. 

In addition, Sentence Equivalences present their own particular form of trickery: determining the correct answer is not simply a matter of knowing whether each individual word makes sense in context. Rather, you must be able to determine which pair of words create the same meaning when plugged in — words that may or may not be synonyms. 

Even if you know all of the words perfectly, it’s very easy to get confused and start second-guessing yourself. This can happen just as easily when the words are simple as it can when the words are hard. Actually, I would argue that it’s more likely to happen when the words are simple!

To be fair, if you have a liberal arts degree (or a B.S. from a program with substantial requirements in the social sciences and humanities), and are extremely comfortable navigating complex academic prose, the context-based aspect of GRE vocabulary probably won’t be too much of an impediment to a high verbal score.

But that said, the pitfalls described in the previous paragraphs are very real, and studying vocabulary alone won’t prepare you for them. Furthermore, things that seem a little tricky when you’re sitting at home in your living room can be positively mind-bending when you’re under pressure in an actual testing situation. 

If you don’t have a lot of experience reading academic non-fiction, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, then a vocabulary app — even a really great one —  is unlikely to offer you comprehensive preparation for the GRE. It may be necessary, but it will almost certainly be insufficient. 

So what can you do?

At the very least, you need to get yourself an Official GRE Guide and an Official GRE Verbal Guide. These are the only two books that contain questions written by ETS, and they are therefore indispensable for obtaining an accurate idea of what you’ll encounter on the real exam. Any additional books, mine included, should be used to supplement those guides. 

If you are extremely weak on vocabulary and need to build some fundamentals, I would even go so far as to recommend that you purchase a copy of the old SAT Official Guide and work through the sentence completions there first. Most of the questions are considerably easier than GRE questions (although there is some overlap at the high end), but they are also ETS-produced and draw from a similar pool of words.

And if you have a lot of time to prep for the exam, set aside 15-30 minutes or so a day to read the type of material you’ll find on the GRE. Explore the many links on Arts & Letters Daily or, if you have access to JSTOR, look through the many journal options, start by picking a topic you’re interested in, and find some articles related to it. (Try to pick things written in a relatively straightforward manner, though; GRE writing, while sometimes dense, is not overly laden with academic jargon.) 

As you get more comfortable reading, try to branch out into areas you know less about. If most of your classes have been in the humanities, for example, make sure to read scientific articles and vice-versa. Write down and look up every word, phrase, and idiom whose meaning you’re not 100% certain of. Anything that isn’t exceptionally technical, you’re likely to encounter again. 

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