Update to this post: I’ve now put a few sample exercises that approach GRE vocab prep from the ETS-based perspective outlined in this post. You can find them on the Quizzes page. More to come soon.

I’ve spent some time recently investigating the world of GRE® prep, and I’ve learned a few things that really surprised me. When I started reworking my old SAT® vocab material for prospective graduate students, I more or less assumed that the GRE prep world was similar to the SAT world: that is, there was a relatively cohesive network of independent tutors who shared tips, strategies, materials, etc., as well as established, well-trafficked online forums à la College Confidential where students applying to Masters and Ph.D. programs regularly congregated.

In poking around the web and talking to current/former GRE takers, however, I’ve gotten the impression that prep for this exam is a different story entirely. College seniors or recent graduates often take the exam before they know for sure whether they want to apply to grad school and, as a result, tend to have much less specific score goals. They know they should prep, and so they dutifully sign up for a class with one of the big companies but don’t end up learning much.

Even if they want a private tutor, they’re not entirely sure where or how to find a good one. There aren’t many smaller companies or private tutors that really specialize in the GRE — why would there be, when the undergraduate market is so much larger and more lucrative? — so mostly they just forget about it and just hope for the best.

Then there are test-takers who have been out of school for years and are only returning after a long hiatus. They don’t really have the time or the desire to seriously prep — they might get a book, but for the most part, the test is just a seemingly meaningless hoop to jump through.

And of course there (usually) aren’t parents in the background, passing around tutor names or recommending prep books out to their friends. The network just isn’t there.

In short, it’s a more diverse, less focused group, with a much broader set of goals.

I realize that this is a rather long preamble to this post, but I’m going somewhere, so please bear with me for a moment. Because the GRE-prep process tends to be approached more casually than the SAT-prep process (or even the GMAT-prep process), there are fewer resources devoted to helping students understand the GRE as a test. More specifically, as an ETS test.

This is not a minor point. I’ve been checking out vocabulary resources, for example, and although there are some great, very cleverly designed ones for learning vocabulary, they overwhelmingly focus on helping students memorize definitions. In some instances, they might include synonyms, but that isn’t their main focus. On the surface, there would seem to be nothing wrong with that. After all, you can’t answer vocabulary questions without knowing vocabulary! And there are plenty of high-quality lists, with words culled directly from exams.

All that is true, but there are some significant shortcomings to that approach. One is obviously that words are tested in the context of sentences and short passages, and thus draw on a whole host of reading comprehension skills, but since I’ve discussed that in the past (see preceding link), I actually want to address two other issues here.

Let me start with the following observation:

Succeeding on GRE vocabulary is not just about knowing the definitions of GRE words — rather, it is about knowing GRE words in relation to other GRE words.

This is best illustrated with an example.  Say you’re working through a confusing sentence equivalence and encounter the following set of answer choices:


[A] effusive
[B] platitudinous
[C] impetuous
[D] banal
[E] abstruse
[F] exiguous


You knock out a few answers and are left with platitudinous, banal, and exiguous, whose meaning you’re not sure of. You’ve studied all other the words, though, carefully memorizing their definitions. You’ve learned that platitudinous means “a cliché statement expressed as if it were new” and that banal means “overly familiar.”

You sit and think: those are kind of the same thing, but you’re not totally sure, and exiguous sort of sounds like it could be right too.

You stare at the question, turning the options over in your mind. Eventually you decide that since [B] and [D] seem pretty close, you don’t want to take the risk, and so you go ahead and pick [F].

As it turns out, you’re right, but you’ve just expended a lot of time and mental energy on a question that you could have answered in about two seconds had you known that platitudinous and banal belong to ETS’s roster of about 10 synonyms for “unoriginal” that get mixed and matched from test to test (and that, incidentally, could easily apply to ETS’s process of test-creation as well).

If you know this, there is no need to worry about connotations or dictionary definitions or anything else. And if you spot any two of those synonyms on a sentence equivalence, you know that there’s a really, really good chance that they’re correct – even if you don’t understand what the sentence is saying. This is why it’s so important to understand the test as a creation specific to ETS — which is precisely what most GRE vocabulary prep omits.

Yes, of course, any prep book worth its weight will emphasize that correct answers to sentence equivalences do not need to be exact synonyms, and that these questions may also include incorrect pairs of synonyms/similar words to trick test-takers. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I mean is that ETS has a proclivity (aka a penchant, aka a predilection) for sentences that describe prose as “spare,” or that the opposite of cosmopolitan is most likely going to be either parochial or provincial or insular, or that the three close synonyms of maudlin are mawkish and treacly and cloying.

Which leads me to my next point: “top word” lists. To be clear, there is no fixed number of words that a given student needs to memorize. It really depends on pre-existing vocabulary knowledge. But even in the best word lists, the ones compiled directly from tests, there is a notable lack of distinction between high-frequency hard words and the outlier hard words that appear only occasionally. For example, there’s nothing to tell someone using the Magoosh app (sorry Magoosh!) that quisling probably stands a much lower chance of showing up on any given exam than does, say, bucolic or obdurate. (To be fair, it is possible that there is a list that makes this distinction; I just personally haven’t come across it.) And a lot of ETS greatest hits don’t show up until the very top level of “hard” words (kind of a shocker), which means that a lot of people using the app might not even get to them.

The bottom line is the because of the way most vocabulary prep is structured, most people end up studying the material on the test but not really studying the test itself. It’s a subtle but exceedingly important distinction, and I think it has an outsize importance for adult test-takers. Many people applying to graduate school have jobs and family responsibilities and bills to pay and, as a result, limited amounts of time to study for standardized tests. It is hugely in their interest to be able to prep as efficiently as possible.

I’ve really just started thinking about these things in the last few days, but it’s prompted me to want to write some additional (free) exercises that bring GRE-vocab study into alignment with the specific ways in which top words are actually tested on the exam, as well as the specific comprehension skills that are targeted. I’ll try to put some up this week; if anyone has requests for things they’d like to see, feel free to drop me a line.