Key Steps to Success on GRE Verbal

Verbal | GRE prep


The Big Picture

Untitled.pngIn last week's post, we discussed three key elements of success on GRE Quant. To recap, there are many worthwhile and effective strategies and approaches to Quant problems, but there are principles that underlie a great deal of success on Quant. The principles discussed comprised three different ways to approach Quant problems and the importance of practicing these approaches. You should read that post too! 

This week, we will continue this discussion of core principles of GRE test-taking success with our discussion of an overall framework or approach to GRE Verbal problems. Read below to find out more. 


Four Essential Steps

GRE Verbal consists of three basic question types:

  • Text Completion
  • Sentence Equivalence
  • Reading Comprehension

It is true that each of these problems has important characteristics that require lots of practice and attention to detail. However, you can make great progress though practice and by making some key adjustments to your core Verbal strategy. Four key steps are as follows:

  1. Analyze the stimulus.

  2. Translate the question stem.

  3. Predict a response.

  4. Match the prediction to the answer choices.

If you've been preparing for the GRE (or for many other standardized tests), these steps are likely familiar, if not explicitly, then perhaps as an implicit part of many strategies, but each of these steps warrants attention and discussion so that you can better understand their importance and function in success on the GRE.

1. Analyze the Stimulus.

Each of the three GRE Verbal question types includes a prompt, either in the form of a sentence, short passage, or longer passage. These prompts include all the evidence and information available to use to answer the related questions. One critical test-taking skill you must learn is the necessity of restricting your focus to the information provided in these stimuli. Incorrect answers often take advantage of our proclivity to introduce extraneous assumptions and concerns into our analysis. 

How should you approach stimulus analysis? The core of successful analysis consists of an ability to observe and articulate the meaning of stimuli, in the form of either a main point or central claim, relations and connections between statements, or in some combination of these two elements. 

For instance, on a Text Completion problem, the first step is to assess what the author's intended meaning is in the stimulus in order to comprehend the necessary meanings of the blanks provided.

2. Translate the Question Stem.

Once you've analyzed a stimulus, focus on its task. For Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence problems, the question is provided in the heading of each problem and remains consistent for every question. For instance, the official instructions for Sentence Equivalence problems are as follows:

Select the two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.

For Reading Comprehension problems, the question stem will vary from question to question. 

This "Translate the Question Stem" step involves achieving an understanding of precisely what the task involves. It might seem self-evident that to answer a question correctly you must follow the instructions, but you might be surprised how often people make mistakes simply through misunderstanding what the question asks or using an erroneous approach!

For instance, consider the Sentence Equivalence instructions above. Some students tend to attempt these problems by looking for two synonymous words among the answer choices, regardless of how well these words fit the meaning of the blank in the stimulus. This approach leads frequently to attractive wrong answers, and ETS includes such wrong answers by design to prompt such mistakes.

3. Predict a Response.

If there's one test-taking principle on Verbal that is preeminent, it might be the importance of predicting your own responses to questions before considering the answer choices. 

Essentially, this prediction (at PowerScore we call it a Prephrase) is a crucible, a turning-point moment, whereby you  test your understanding of both the question and the stimulus and forge an idea of what you expect or wish to find in the credited response. 

To formulate an effective Prephrase, you must achieve an independent understanding of the information provided. In other words, you answer the question yourself, if not explicitly then at least in the form of a ballpark idea of what the correct answer might say or do. 

This Prephrase is a powerful tool, enabling you to take ownership of the problem and avoiding many common errors that occur when considering the answer choices.

4. Match the Prediction to the Answer Choices.

Equipped with this Prephrase, you can now confidently attack the answer choices with an eye for eliminating choices that deviate from their analysis and prediction. 

It is important to maintain focus on the work that you have already accomplished and not to become distracted or sidetracked by various possibilities among the answer choices. Sometimes you come into the answers strong, with a good Prephrase, only to lose track of this work among distracting and confusing possibilities in the answers.

This loss of focus is not by accident; on multiple choice questions, the answer choices are designed such that incorrect answers will either be plausible, appealing, or confusing, and the credited response may appear opaque or undesirable.

To succeed, you must work from process of elimination, focusing on "what's wrong" rather than looking for "what's right." When we look for "what's right," there is a common tendency to start to "make a case" for incorrect answers, envisioning ways that wrong answers could conceivably be correct. Don't do this! First, get rid of the "losers;" then consider the "contenders."

Steps 3 and 4 work in tandem. You must make a good Prephrase and maintain focus on this Prephrase as you assess the different answer choices.


The Master Key

If we had to reduce these steps down to one transcendent principle, it would be the importance of doing your own work, relying on your own analysis, and focusing attention on the scope of the material provided for each question. 

As noted, these steps may appear self-evident, but to master these steps and to embrace this philosophy take consistent practice and diagnostic self-assessment. The good news is that with sufficient practice, you will find that you have what it takes to achieve great success on GRE Verbal. 

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