Beware of free practice tests offered by test-prep companies

Beware of free practice tests offered by test-prep companies

Note: I originally posted this article last summer at a colleague’s request, but I’m re-posting it again now as students and families start to look at summer test-prep options.

If you’re just beginning test-prep this summer and looking into take a class or working with a tutor affiliated with a company, please tread carefully when dealing with the free practice tests offered by these organizations.

Many of these companies do not use official material produced by either the College Board or the ACT, but rather rely on tests written in-house and used only by the company. This is always the case for national chains such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, and is common practice among other companies as well. (more…)

Previews of my updated SAT books are now available

Previews of my updated SAT books are now available

For those of you who would like an advance look at the forthcoming editions of my SAT grammar and reading books, I’m making made previews available on the relevant pages.

Click here for The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar.

And click here for The Critical Reader.

Release dates are still TBD, but will most likely be mid-late July.

Book updates, study guides & announcements

Book updates, study guides & announcements

So after about two consecutive months of non-stop book updates, I’m finally getting to do some serious work on my long-awaited, much-needed new website. (Thank you, Chuck Moran at Bald Guy Studio, for doing such a fantastic job, and for taking the time to understand what this site was really all about.)

I’m hoping to return to posting on at least a semi-regular basis — assuming that I don’t get completely swallowed up by my books again — but before I start ranting and raving about the College Board’s antics again, I have a few organizational things to cover. (more…)

“Because” vs. “due to” and the GMAT

“Because” vs. “due to” and the GMAT

When it comes to GMAT grammar, it can be helpful to distinguish between those idioms whose use is tested (that is, ones that may be presented in either correct or incorrect form) and idioms whose misuse is tested (that is, ones that are almost always used incorrectly when they appear). Due to offers an excellent case in point. (more…)

The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

When transition questions are discussed in regard to SAT Writing/ACT English, they tend to be covered in two main forms. 

The first way involves a transition placed after a comma in the middle of a sentence. 

Version #1: The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant vanilla flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but growers were unable to collect its glorious seeds.   (more…)

“SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach” is now available on Amazon!

“SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach” is now available on Amazon!

I’m happy to announce that SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach, my joint SAT vocabulary project with Larry Krieger, is now up and available on Amazon.

Based on a thorough analysis of released redesigned SATs, the book is concise but comprehensive guide to key vocabulary for both the Writing and Language test and the Reading test. We’ve also included a bonus chapter covering the Essay. 

To be clear: this book is almost certainly not what most people think of when they hear the term “SAT vocabulary book” — that is, long lists of words and definitions. All of the vocabulary on the new SAT is tested in context, and some of it is tested in very indirect ways. As a result, we’ve included numerous exercises focused on applying vocabulary in rSAT-style contexts.

We’ve also gone out of our way to include a chapter on transitional words and phrases — not exactly standard fodder for most vocabulary lists. Although teachers (and parents, and sometimes tutors) tend to take for granted that high school students know how to use these words, in our experience plenty of students aren’t quite sure just what words like subsequently and nevertheless actually mean. 

Larry and I will of course be updating the book as more exams become available, but the College Board has released sufficient material at this point that we’re confident it accurately reflects the content of the new exam.

Click here for a preview. 

 

Everything you need to know to ace the APUSH essays

Larry Krieger has set up an APUSH Crash Course page on Facebook, and it’s a really impressive (not to mention free) resource. 

In addition to posting full-length sample essays with paragraph-by-paragraph explanations of how to present key points, he’s made a number of videos walking students through the test as a whole, the long essay, and of course everyone’s favorite: the DBQ.

He even explains what you need to include to obtain specific scores. 

Larry is truly the APUSH guru. He knows the test inside and out, and I strongly suggest that anyone taking the exam check out the page. Even if you’re already in good shape, you’ll probably pick up a few tips.

The AP English Comp terms you do and don’t need to know, condensed

The AP English Comp terms you do and don’t need to know, condensed

I realized after posting yesterday that I had buried the most practical information in the middle of what became a much longer-than-intended meditation/diatribe, so I’m re-posting the key information here in condensed form.

To sum up: since 2014, the AP English Language and Composition exam has not included questions directly testing knowledge of rhetorical figures. So you know those questions that ask you to identify whether a particular set of lines includes a metaphor, an oxymoron, antithesis, etc.? They’re gone. (more…)

AP English Composition: a rhetoric class without rhetoric

AP English Composition: a rhetoric class without rhetoric

When it first crossed my mind that I might be able to rework the original version of The Critical Reader into a prep book for the AP English Language and Composition exam, one of the initial things I did was head over to the College Board’s website and read the AP Comp course description.

I’d done some tutoring for the exam a few years back, but it wasn’t a test I’d been constantly immersed in, as was the case for the old SAT. I also knew that in addition to changing the SAT, the College Board had planned overhauls for a number of AP exams. Interestingly, the AP English Comp test was not officially listed among them; however, as I read the description for 2014 and beyond, it became clear that the test had recently undergone some important changes. (more…)

New AP English Composition and Language book

Since the SAT changed last year, I’ve been trying to find ways to keep my old SAT materials relevant, and I’m happy to announce that the original version of The Critical Reader may yet live on.

After doing some research, I’ve discovered that the multiple-choice reading portion of the AP English Language and Composition exam is almost identical to Critical Reading on the old SAT. It actually tests fewer concepts, but the concepts it does test are approached in virtually identical ways. 

Although the AP test does include some passages that are more challenging than those on the old SAT, the overall level and content (minus the hard science passages) are essentially the same.

Given that the test are so similar, the amount of work on my end is a good deal more limited than it would be otherwise. I think it’ll probably be too much to incorporate the essays for this year’s test on May 11th (although if anyone is willing to offer samples up, I’m more than happy to consider them); however, I am planning to make a draft version covering the reading section available sometime in the next few weeks so that people can have a good month to use it before the test. It will probably be in the range of 200 pages and should be quite comprehensive. 

If you’d be interested, please email thecriticalreader1@gmail.com, and we’ll let you know details when they become available. 

In the meantime, if you’re studying for AP Comp and looking around for good practice passages, I would actually recommend using the old (2009) version of the SAT Official Guide. I think it’s probably the closest you’ll get to the real test. 

And if you do happen to have the original version of The Critical Reader lying around and want to use it for AP Comp, you should focus on the following chapters: Literal Comprehension, Tone and Attitude, Function, Rhetorical Strategy, and Inferences. 

Also, FYI, the “opinion” essay is basically the same as the old SAT essay. If you want to go beyond what’s covered in most AP Comp books, I’d suggesting checking out Tom Clements’s How to Write a Killer SAT Essay (it looks like it’s basically free on Kindle), Laura Wilson’s Write the SAT Essay Right, or the PWN the SAT Essay Guide

Dangling modifiers, the GMAT, and the dangers of over-complication

In an attempt to better understand the grammatical issues that students studying for the GMAT typically find most challenging, I’ve started — belatedly, I admit — dipping a toe into the Sentence Correction forums on beatthegmat and gmatclub

The experience is something I can only describe as a flashback to the days when I used to read students’ obsessive parsing of SAT grammar questions on College Confidential. I don’t dispute that there’s a lot of helpful information, and some really outstanding analysis, but a lot of what I read also makes me want to bury my head in my hands and groan. 

To be fair, many of the students posting are not native English speakers, or come from countries where the English spoken is sufficiently different from standard American English that what’s on the GMAT might as well be a foreign language. That’s a huge challenge, and I’m not denying that.

But at the same time, it is very, very difficult for me to watch people twist themselves into knots trying to find alternate, sometimes borderline nonsensical, interpretations for relatively straightforward statements, and to fixate on aspects of grammar that aren’t actually germane to the issue(s) at hand.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Consider the following question:

One of the twenty-two official languages of India, many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras.

(A) many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras
(B) many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals would make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras
(C) playing a role in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals is the use of Sanskrit, having the form of hymns and mantras
(D) Sanskrit is used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras
(E) Sanskrit being used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras

From what I gather, when a lot of studiers look at this type of question, their analysis goes something like this:

The beginning of the sentence consists of an appositive, which is a phrase that differs from a clause in that an appositive does not contain a verb. Furthermore, it is correct to use a comma to separate this phrase from the following clause because “many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras” is an independent clause, and appositives should be separated from main clauses by commas. (A) and (B) both contain full sentences, but I think that (B) is incorrect because the sentence is not discussing a hypothetical situation, and so there is no reason to use the conditional “would.” However, I am confused by the use of the gerund “playing” at the beginning of (C), and I believe that there is a subject-verb disagreement in this answer. In (D) and (E), I find the prepositional phrase “in the form of hymns and mantras” ambiguous because I don’t think these answers are making it clear if these things are used in the ceremonies and rituals or in Sanskrit. I also think that it is possible that hymns and mantras could be interpreted as types of languages, so wouldn’t it be correct to place “hymns and mantras” after the comma? 

Does that make your head spin too? 

As someone who has effectively made a career out of teaching people to separate relevant from irrelevant information and to work through dense pieces of text more efficiently, I find this type of over-complication unspeakably frustrating.

In fact, I sometimes wish I could just crash through the computer, grab people by the shoulders, and tell them that there’s an easier way to do things. 

Unfortunately, even I can’t violate the laws of physics. I do, however, have this blog, which allows me to unapologetically simplify things as follows: 

Logically, what is one of twenty-two official languages of India? Sanskrit. 

So Sanskrit, the subject, must be placed immediately after the comma. 

That eliminates everything except (D) and (E).

(E) is a fragment because it substitutes the gerund being for a conjugated verb, eliminating that option. Besides, the presence of the word being almost always signals a wrong answer.

So (D) is the answer. Done. 

For the record, the rule is that modifiers must be placed as close as possible to the nouns or phrases they modify.

When a sentence opens with an introductory phrase that describes but does not name the subject, the subject must be placed immediately afterward. If the subject is not placed immediately afterward, a dangling modifier is created. 

The original version of the sentence above contains a dangling modifier because many Hindu ceremonies is clearly not one of the twenty-two official languages of India.

If you want to get more technical, an introductory phrase can take the form of a participial phrase, with either a present or a past participle: 

Present: Tracing its linguistic ancestry back to Proto-Indo-European, Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages for which substantial written documentation exists, 

Past: Counted among the twenty-two official languages of India, Sanskrit is used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras

Or it can take the form of an appositive — that is, it may begin with a noun phrase. 

Appositive: An ancient language that plays a significant role in classical Indian culture, Sanskrit is used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras.

Now, these grammatical rules may be helpful for understanding some common “templates” for sentence construction, but they are also not terribly relevant to your ability to identify dangling modifiers.

When it comes to that error, only thing that counts is your ability to recognize whether the description at the beginning of a sentence is followed by the noun it most logically describes. (Not a noun it maybe sort of might be able to describe if you understand the sentence in a very particular way.) 

This is an infinitely simpler approach, and it is also one that is far more in line with what the test is actually trying to accomplish

In fact, I strongly encourage anyone studying for the GMAT to read this announcement from the GMAC. The essential point is that as the pool of test-takers has grown more international, the GMAC has deliberately shifted the focus of the test from idiomatic usage to more logic-based constructions. Obviously, yes, you do need a certain level of grammatical knowledge to be successful on the GMAT, but sometimes you also just need to know what makes the most sense. 

If you come from an educational system that stresses theoretical knowledge, as well as the constant demonstration of that theoretical knowledge, then approaching Sentence Corrections with the goal of simplifying things to this extent might be a bit of paradigm shift. But do keep this in mind: pretty much every Sentence Correction you ever look at will test multiple errors simultaneously. There’s a good reason for that, one that goes beyond the strictly grammatical: among the things that the GMAT tests is the ability to distinguish between information that is actually relevant to the task at hand and information that is merely present. Note the parallel with Critical Reasoning here.

By treating all present information as relevant and allowing (even encouraging) yourself to get sidetracked by it, you are actually reinforcing the exact opposite of the mentality you need to be successful — professionally as well as on the GMAT. And if you spend your time analyzing every bit of every practice question, you’re unlikely to suddenly be able to zero in on the key factors when you take the test for real. 

And for some interesting musings on the issues surrounding dangling modification (as well as some entertaining examples of improper modification), see this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed

SAT Essay tip: find alternatives to the word “say”

If you look at the SAT Essay scoring rubric, you’ll find in order to earn a top score of 4 in “Writing,” an essay must demonstrate “a highly effective use and command of language,” and “a consistent use of precise word choice.”

Those are lovely-sounding directives, but they’re also extremely vague. It’s hard to dispute that these are characteristics of good analytical writing, but what do they actually mean, and how can you put them into practice?It’s easy enough to memorize grammatical rules, but style is something that can’t be taught…right? 

I think that very often, skill in writing is conceived of in very black-and-white terms: it’s either something people are born with a knack for, or it’s something that can’t be learned. Obviously, yes, writing comes more easily to some people than to others, but to assume that effective analytical writing — which almost no one is naturally good at — is something that just magically happens, is to overlook the fact that like any other complex activity, it is made up of specific, concrete skills that can be practiced individually. 

In terms of the SAT Essay, I’d like to look at one simple, specific way to make your writing more varied and thus more likely to obtain a high score.

Because the Essay assignment requires that you spend a fair amount of time describing an author’s argument, and that you quote repeatedly from the passage provided, it is very easy to fall into the trap of introducing each reference to the passage the same way: namely, by using the verb say

Don’t get me wrong — say is a great all-purpose word, but if you write something like, “In the introduction, the author says xyz….” and then two sentences later, “The author also says xyz…” and then a couple of sentences after that, “In addition, the author says…” Well, that’s going to get old pretty darn fast. And in an assignment that’s less-than-thrilling by nature, you don’t want to bore your reader any more than necessary. 

One way to liven things up a bit is therefore to use a variety of different verbs to introduce what the author, well, says. To be clear, these do not need to be “fancy” words; they just need to present an idea or quote smoothly, and in a way that doesn’t involve repeating the same thing over and over again. 

For example: 

-The author states…
-The author indicates…
-The author asserts… 
-The author recounts…
-The author explains…
-The author reveals…
-The author implies…
-The author suggests…

You get the picture.

Each time you cite from the passage or summarize a portion of it, pick a different option to introduce the quote or summary. If you can use 5-7 alternatives over the course of your essay, you will leave an overall impression of greater variety and sophistication than would otherwise be the case. And because your reader will spend no more than a couple of minutes scoring your essay, that sort of general impression can count for quite a lot. 

 

Read a preview of “SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach”

Read a preview of “SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach”

At the request of several readers, Larry Krieger and I have put together a short preview of our forthcoming book, SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach. It includes the table of contents as well as sample pages from chapters on Reading, Writing, and the Essay. 

You can click here to view.

Official publication date is TBD (it’ll depend partly on feedback from beta-testers and partly on logistics like cover design), but we’re aiming to have the final version out before the May SAT. 

If you’re interested in purchasing a beta copy ($15) in the meantime, you can email thecriticalreader1@gmail.com with your shipping details, and we’ll send you an invoice. 

GMAT idioms that aren’t

When it comes to the GMAT, idiom questions seem to cause a disproportionate amount of anxiety.

To some extent, this is understandable. English is filled with idioms: fixed phrases that, by definition, are what they are for no other reason than that the language evolved a particular way. There is no logical reason that insist on is correct while insist at is not. And for ESL students, the sheer number of these phrases can seem overwhelming. 

The reality, however, is that “pure” idioms are simply not that much of a focus on the GMAT. There are, of course, certain idioms that you absolutely need to know; however, the fact that two answers might contain the phrase research on while three others contain research into does not necessarily mean the only way to answer the question is to know which preposition the GMAT considers correct.

In fact, this type of pattern of alternating prepositions is sometimes nothing more than a distraction. In some cases, it may be possible to answer “idiom” questions without even addressing the idiom at all.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the following question. (It’s directly based on #789 on p. 707 in the 2017 Official GMAT Guide – please note that I can’t reprint the official version here for copyright reasons.)

While many of the neanderthal fossils discovered recently in southwest France appear to offer evidence of a connection between neanderthals and modern humans, the number of ambiguous fossils appear more likely at this point that they will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans rather than resolve them.

(A) appear more likely at this point that they will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans rather than
(B) appear more likely that it will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans at this point than
(C) appears more likely to aggravate debates on the origin of modern humans at this point rather than
(D) appears more likely at this point to aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans than to
(E) appears more likely that it will aggravate debates on the origin of modern humans at this point than to

When you look at this set of answer choices, it might seem logical to conclude that the question is testing debates on vs. debates over. If you’re not sure which version is correct, you might start to panic a little — but that would be a shame since you can answer the question without addressing the idiom at all.

The first things to notice is that (A) and (B) begin with appear (plural) whereas (C)-(E) begin with appears (singular). That split indicates that the question is testing subject-verb agreement.

What is the subject of that verb? That is, what seems more likely to inflame debates? The number of ambiguous fossils. Careful here: the true subject is the number (singular). The plural noun fossils is just part of the prepositional phrase of ambiguous fossils.

So the subject is singular and requires a singular verb (appears), eliminating both (A) and (B).

Now, look at (C), (D), and (E). Literally, just look at them. (D) is the shortest of the three, a clear sign that you should pay special attention to it. 

Now, think in terms of parallel structure: more likely to aggravate…than to resolve.

(E) does not keep the verbs parallel at all (that it will aggravate vs. to resolve), so it can be eliminated. 

Now you’re down to (C) and (D). If you know your word pairs and can recognize that more must be paired with than, not rather than, you can eliminate (C) on that basis.

Otherwise, if you find yourself absolutely stuck between two very similar answers without any way to decide between them, you’ll usually be better off opting for the shorter one. In this case, that rule of thumb will get you to (D), the correct answer.

So there you have it: an “idiom” question that really isn’t.  

And for an overview of all the rules tested on GMAT Sentence Corrections, click here.

Coming Attractions

I realize that my 2017 blogging record hasn’t exactly been stellar so far, but I’ve been hard at work on a number of projects. 

First, I’m excited to announce that I am collaborating with Larry Krieger (of the original Direct Hits and APUSH Crash Course fame) on a vocabulary book for the new SAT.

But, you say, didn’t the College Board get rid of all those (not really) obscure words? Isn’t vocabulary kind of…passé? As it turns out, vocabulary is still quite relevant. Both the Reading and Writing sections still include plenty of words that are unfamiliar to many students, and we’ve found an approach that efficiently targets only the material most relevant to the new exam. Stay tuned for more details. 

Second, the Critical Reader website will be getting a makeover. I’m still in the process of determining just how the site will be reorganized, but hopefully the new site will be live in the next couple of months. 

In addition, I will soon be releasing an updated version of my Complete GMAT Sentence Correction guide, which integrates more material from both the 2017 Official GMAT Guide and Official GMAT Verbal Guide. Every chapter will now be accompanied by a list of relevant questions in both of these books, along with the specific sub-topics they test, and discussions of specific Official Guide questions will be woven into chapters as well. A new chapter is also devoted to strategies for working through questions, providing a bridge from exercises dealing with individual concepts to dealing with test-style questions testing multiple concepts simultaneously. 

Also within the next couple of months, look for my GRE Vocabulary Workbook. Although the book does include some high-frequency word lists, it is not a vocabulary book in the traditional sense. (A bunch of those already exist, and I so no reason to add to the pile.) Rather, it’s designed to give prospective GRE-takers the chance to practice applying all the vocabulary they’ve studied. In addition to detailed strategies for working through both Text Completions and Sentence Equivalences, the book includes nearly 350 GRE-style practice questions targeting ETS’s favorite words. 

 

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.