New: GRE Word of the Day email program

New: GRE Word of the Day email program

If you’re studying for the GRE® and want to learn some words for which ETS has, shall we say, traditionally shown a strong predilection (i.e., proclivity, penchant, propensity, bent), the Critical Reader is now offering a Word of the Day email program.

One email with a top word, a GRE-level example sentence, and a list of must-know synonyms/antonyms, every day, direct to your inbox, plus periodic quizzes, every day for 100 days.

Click here to sign up.


GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies

GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies


One of the things that often gets overlooked in discussions about standardized testing is that scoring well is often a matter of having strategies, plural, rather than a single strategy.

Different items may call for different approaches, even when they are the same type of question, and nowhere is this fact illustrated more clearly than on GRE sentence equivalences.

In some cases, you may be able to identify the answer almost instantaneously using a “shortcut” approach, whereas in other cases you may need to work through the sentence very carefully, circling key words, playing positive/negative, and dodging trick answers left and right.

The key is to know which strategy to use when. (more…)

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. 

The war on language

I’ve been following Diane Ravitch’s blog for a while now. I think she does a truly invaluable job of bringing to light the machinations of the privatization/charter movement and the assault on public education. (I confess that I’m also in awe of the sheer amount of blogging she does — somehow she manages to get up at least three or four posts a day, whereas I count myself lucky if I can get up that every couple of weeks.)

I don’t agree with her about everything, but I was very much struck by this post, entitled “The Reformers’ War on Language and Democracy.”

Diane writes:

Maybe it is just me, but I find myself outraged by the “reformers'” incessant manipulation of language.

“Reform” seldom refers to reform.

“Reform” means privatization.

“Reform” means assaults on the teaching profession.

“Reform” means eliminating teachers’ unions, which fight for better salaries and working conditions.

“Reform” means boasting about test scores by schools that have carefully excluded the students who might get low scores.

“Reform” means using test scores to evaluate teachers even though this practice has negative effects on teacher morale and fails to identify better or worse teachers.

“Reform” means stripping teachers of due process rights or any other job security.

“Reform” means that schools should operate for-profit and that private corporations should be encouraged to profit from school spending.

“Reform” means acceptance of privately managed schools that operate without accountability or transparency.

“Reform” means the incremental destruction of public education.

Reading Ravitch’s post, I couldn’t help but think about the linguistic games that the College Board is playing — the College Board under David Coleman having become a central player in the “reform” movement.

As Ravitch points out, however, the word “reform” has become a euphemism for a whole host of destructive practices.

The point of a euphemism is to make an unpleasant or potentially offensive reality more palatable by presenting it in neutral or even positive terms. “Reform” is, of course, a nice, neutral/positive word, which is why it makes such an effective euphemism, and thus why it was seized up on in the first place.

Now, “euphemism” is a word that is tested on the current SAT. It falls into the categories of both “hard” vocabulary and content knowledge: it’s a pretty sophisticated word, but it’s also the sort of specific rhetorical device that students are presumably (or at least should be) learning in English class.

Presumably, it’s also the sort of word that is now considered “irrelevant.” And that got me once again thinking about just what the College Board means by “relevant.”

When I considered  the words held up as examples — analyzesynthesize, hypothesis — it occurred to me that  relevant also means something like “neutral.” No one would argue that these words aren’t important in school, but they are also exceedingly inoffensive, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

In contrast, when I look back through recent SATs, I’m struck by the number of “loaded” words that appear on the exam — words like partisanobsequiouspolemicpunditjargonconvoluteddeference, transparencyobfuscation.

These are incredibly negative words, not to mention incredibly political ones. While these are certainly not the kinds of words most high school juniors encounter on a daily basis, in the classroom or out, they are most certainly “relevant.” They are words that educated people use to critique politicians and corruption and so-called reform movements. People — teenagers — do not “naturally” or spontaneously acquire the vocabulary to understand and follow these types of adult phenomena. Gaining access to these words means gaining access to these concepts. How could someone make sense out of Rush Limbaugh without the word pundit?

The conflation of “relevant” with “neutral,” I think, reflects a world view that conflates neutral language, or neutral tone, with objective reality — that there is only one answer, that what is simply is, and any possibility of criticism is therefore precluded. Moreover, any person who does attempt to criticize them can be dismissed as fringe, unstable, “irrelevant,” etc., etc. and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. 

Interestingly, by asking students to identify the author’s attitude in very neutral-sounding passages, the current SAT makes the point that sounding neutral is not the same as being neutral. That’s a subtle but exceedingly important idea: in reality, people can use extremely neutral language to propose all sorts of crazy things. The fact that their tone is reasonable does not mean that their ideas are reasonable (ahem, Ben Carson). Learning to think critically involves acquiring the tools to distinguish between those two things, and to spot inconsistencies. 

The new SAT, in contrast, barely deals with tone and attitude, never mind the distinction between them. (Because, of course, appearance is the same as reality, and things should be taken at face value, right?) 

Furthermore, the exclusive focus on second meanings is now beginning to strike me as suspect as well. Obviously, yes, a number of very common words in English have multiple meanings, and understanding when words are used in non-literal ways is an important component of comprehension. (I once had a student completely misinterpret a section of a passage because he thought execute mean “get rid of” rather than “carry out.”) 

Most “hard” words have one very specific meaning that is used to add a very specific connotation; learning how to use these words appropriately means gaining the ability to write in a more nuanced and sophisticated way. In contrast, the point of focusing on second meanings is essentially that words can be used to mean whatever an author wants them to mean. 

By that logic: 

“Black” can mean “white,”

“Reform” can mean “privatize,”

“Honor” can mean “destroy.”  

Just what makes vocabulary “arcane?”

Here’s one to add to the “critical thinking” lack-of-definition phenomenon.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’ve been following the news of the SAT overhaul pretty closely; suffice it to say that I’ve read quite a few articles about it lately. In doing so, however, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: virtually every article I’ve encountered has included the line that the new SAT will eliminate “arcane” words. The authors of these articles almost invariably use the word “arcane.” I’ve seen one or two authors put it in quotes, implying an ironic or skeptical understanding of the term, but the use it with the literary equivalent of a straight face.

The SAT, of course, is distinctly partial to the word arcane, along with synonyms abstruse, archaic, esoteric and recondite. (Admittedly, recondite is a tad, uh, recondite, but I’d say the other two are pretty common.)

So the logical question: is the word “arcane” arcane?

The fact that journalists have no problem using the word arcane in mainstream publications would seem to imply that it is not actually arcane.

It is of course, hard to talk about a concept without referring to it directly, but think of it this way:

If you look at, say, The New York Times, you do not see sentences like this: Beginning in 2016, the SAT will no longer test really big and weird words that normal people don’t use.

Journalists do not write like that because that is not how educated adults write, and it is not what educated adults expect to read in publications intended for them. Educated adults expect to see words like arcane — common words that indicate a reasonable level of verbal acuity and sophistication.

An interesting question, though, is whether journalists have bothered to investigate which words are commonly tested on the SAT.That, however, would require them to have an interest in facts, and when it comes to discussions of the SAT in the mainstream media, facts are for all intents and purposes irrelevant. (If anyone bothered to look at a recent SAT, they would undoubtedly notice that passages are already drawn from history and the sciences. Or perhaps they’d just ignore that fact and focus on the sole fiction passage.)

Presumably, the journalists do not actually know that the word arcane is tested on the SAT, and that people consider it, well, arcane. If asked whether sixteen year-olds should know it, they would almost certainly answer in the affirmative.

The alternative would require quite a feat of doublethink — arguing that a word is irrelevant by using the word itself, apparently without noticing (or remarking on) the irony.

I recently reread 1984 for a book club I occasionally attend, and it’s hard not to see echoes of Newspeak in the idea that students’ vocabularies should be reduced to a narrow set of STEM career-friendly words. (Note: evidence presented in an “empirical” manner isn’t necessarily reliable; data can be distorted in all sorts of ways.) I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theory mentality, but it’s hard to not to see a parallel here. The fewer words you know, the smaller the number of texts you can access, and the smaller the range of ideas you can be exposed to in a meaningful way. (Studies have shown that readers must know at least 90% of the words in a text in order to understand it; anything less, and they can’t accurately infer the meanings of unfamiliar words or phrases).

Words are not merely collections of letters — they stand for concepts, some of which are quite challenging. My students already have a staggeringly difficult time with words like nuance — they are so accustomed to having things in presented in black-and-white terms that the very concept of discussing gray areas is foreign to them. Studying the kind of vocabulary tested on the SAT is not just about learning big words; it’s about gaining exposure to new ideas.

But back to the question at hand: what, exactly, makes a word arcane?

The fact that an average sixteen year-old does not use it on a daily basis?

The fact that a low-level STEM career isn’t likely to require it?

The fact that it includes more than three syllables?

Would anyone care to offer a suggestion?

Sentence completions out, founding documents in

From Federalist Paper I (chosen at random)

To the People of the State of New York:

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

What was that about eliminating “arcane” vocabulary from the SAT again?

And let’s not even get started on the syntax.