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. 

A summary of my reading method

1) Read the passage slowly until you figure out the point

Usually the point will be stated somewhere close to the end of the introduction or at the beginning of the second paragraph (first body paragraph). Once you figure out the point, focus on the first and last sentence of each body paragraph, then read the conclusion carefully. Underline the last sentence. For short passages (GRE), focus on the first and last sentences of the passage.


2) If something confuses you, skip it and focus on what you do understand

When a lot of people encounter a confusing section of a passage, they stop and read it repeatedly, often without obtaining a clearer understanding and wasting huge amounts of time in the process. You should avoid falling into a this type of rereading loop at all costs. If you don’t understanding something fully the first time you read, force yourself to keep moving and focus on the parts that are clearer. What confuses you might not be important anyway.


3) When you finish the passage, write the tone and the point

Try to limit the point to 4-6 words, symbols, etc. OR, if you see the point directly stated in the passage, underline it and draw a big arrow/star, etc. so you remember to keep referring back to it. For the tone, you can write an adjective (e.g. skeptical) or just positive (+) or negative (-).


4) Circle major transitions and “interesting” punctuation

Transitions such as therefore, however, and for example indicate when authors are drawing conclusions, disputing ideas, and supporting points. “Interesting” punctuation (colons, dashes) often indicates explanations. Strong wording (alwaysnever) is often used when an author wants to emphasize a point. These elements usually signal the presence of the information necessary to answer questions.

Note: If you find it too distracting to pay attention to these things while you are trying to absorb the meaning of a passage, you should look out for them when you go back to passages while answering questions.


5) When you read a question, re-read the appropriate section of the passage, and try to sum up the answer quickly for yourself.

The answers are there to confuse you, not to help you. The more work you do on your own upfront, the less likely you are to get confused.

If you can’t come up with anything in a few seconds, look at the answer choices and cross off everything that absolutely does not make sense. If there is any chance an answer could work, leave it — remember that correct answers will sometimes be phrased in ways you are not expecting. When you get down to two or three answers, go back to the passage and check them out carefully


6) Same idea, different words 

Correct answers rephrase the passage using synonyms; they do not quote the passage verbatim. On the other hand, answers that do restate information from the passage verbatim are usually wrong.


7) Answers are not always located in the lines referenced.

A line reference tells you where a word/phrase/sentence, etc. is located — it does not mean that the answer is located in that place. Always start from the sentence before the one given in the question and read to the sentence after if necessary. The answer to a question about the purpose of a given line (i.e. the point) is just as likely to appear in the sentence before, or at the beginning of a paragraph (topic sentence), as it is to appear in the lines provided in the question.


8) When you eliminate choices, cross out the entire answer

If you just cross off the letter, your eye can still get distracted by the rest of the answer. Don’t let this slow you down. Just a quick line through it. If you’re taking an online test (GRE, GMAT, etc.) and don’t spot the correct answer right away, jot the answers you eliminate down on your scratch paper as you get rid of them.


9) Skip strategically

You should never waste time struggling with a single question that you might not get right when you could be answering multiple other questions easily and quickly. If you insist on answering every question, in order, and not moving on until you’re done, you can lose a lot of points. Most time problems come about because people spend far too much time spent on a few questions, not because they spend a little too much time on every question. If you can identify those few potential “problem” questions and avoid them from the start, you can make the whole test much easier.


10) Be willing to revise your original assumptions

If you understand what a question is saying, go back the passage, formulate your own answer, and nothing seems to work when you look at the answers, that’s a sign you’ve been thinking in the wrong direction. Ask yourself what you’re missing, go back to the passage, and see if you can approach the question from another angle.

The importance of understanding Critical Reading passage structure

Please note: this post was written in regard to the Reading section of the old (pre-2016) SAT. While it is still applicable to some social and natural science passages, which frequently discuss old models or theories vs. new/emerging ones, the overall writing tends to be more straightforward and journalistic than it was on the old test. If you are studying for a graduate exam such as the GRE, the GMAT, or the LSAT, however, the passages on those tests continue to be more more academic in nature.  

While working with Debbie Stier this past weekend, I had something of an epiphany about the Critical Reading section (I think Debbie had a Critical Reading epiphany as well, but I’ll let her discuss that herself!). It is has to with the structure of many passages and the significance of that structure in terms of the SAT’s larger goal.

Let me back up a moment. In all the brouhaha over the “real meaning” of the SAT, it is to forget that it — like the ACT — is essentially a measure of college readiness. Regardless of what the SAT started out as, it is now recognized as a having validity only as a predictor of freshman college grades. And in my experience, a student’s comprehension of the passages on the Critical Reading section is, in general, a remarkably accurate gauge of whether she or he is prepared to handle college-level reading and thinking.

Here’s why: one of the classic structures of SAT passages — and indeed of passages on pretty much all of the graduate exams, including the GRE, the LSAT, and the GMAT — is exactly the same as one of the most common structures of an academic article.

Part I: Introduces the topic, often through an anecdote. Provides general and/or historical overview

Part II: What “they” say

Discusses the standard interpretation, “received wisdom” surrounding that topic

Part III: Problematizes the standard interpretation: raises objections, points out inconsistencies and places where the argument doesn’t hold up

Part IV: What “I” say

Offers own interpretation, either in the form of a more nuanced version of the standard interpretation or, on occasion, the complete opposite of the standard interpretation

Why is it so important to be able to distinguish these parts, to be able to understand what an author offers up as standard interpretation versus what she or he actually thinks?

Well, because that’s exactly what college-level thinking ultimately entails: being able to understand and synthesize other people’s arguments in order to be able to formulate a well-reasoned, well-supported response with precision and nuance. And it is impossible to formulate such a response without truly understand how the existing arguments work and what their implications are.

If you take an economics class and reading an article about the limits of Keynesian theory, for example, you need to be able to distinguish the description of Keynesian theory from the author’s discussion of the standard interpretation of Keynesian theory (what other people think) from the author’s own argument (what I think) in order to even begin to think up a response.

The world of academia essentially consists of an ongoing dialogue between scholars, sometimes separated by hundreds of years — sometimes the result is brilliant and sometimes it’s nothing more than inane and petty squabbles (far more the latter than the former!), but it’s a dialogue nonetheless.

This is not something one is generally made aware of in high school, where the goal is simply to memorize and regurgitate as much information as possible in the shortest period of time, but it is the underlying context for much of what shows up on the SAT. And simply having that knowledge can go a long way toward putting Critical Reading into perspective.