Study Smart for GRE Vocab

Verbal | GRE prep | Reading Comprehension

Diary Writing - CC - Fredrick Rubensson

The Lowdown on Vocabulary

The two most frequent questions students have about the GRE are:

  1. What math do I need to study for Quant?
  2. What vocab do I need to know for Verbal?

Last week we discussed how to begin preparing for GRE Quant. This week we'll discuss how to get off to a good start with vocab.

How is vocab tested on the GRE?

Strong vocabulary is an asset for the Verbal Reasoning and the Analytical Writing sections of the GRE. Strong vocab doesn't just mean "fancy" words; instead, strong vocab means building fluency with words that may be somewhat ordinary but just unfamiliar to you. 

The GRE tests college-level academic English, the kind of language you find in higher level periodicals and journals such as:

An ability to grasp the main ideas, structure, and details from texts like these is essential for success on all of Verbal Reasoning. Your ability to demonstrate a command of this kind of style and language is beneficial to your Analytical Writing essays. 

However, the GRE does go beyond testing your general vocabulary knowledge; on Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence problems, the GRE directly tests your familiarity with and command of difficult vocab words. 

Two Approaches to Vocab Improvement

To succeed on the GRE, you have to study vocab in two formats:

  1. Actively and habitually read material such as the publications cited above.

  2. Study vocabulary lists to identify and learn unfamiliar words. 

At PowerScore, we offer our "Repeat Offenders" vocabulary list.

Whether you're reading a journal or studying a list, you must keep track of the vocabulary you need to learn. There are several different and complementary ways to do this:

  • Use an app on a smartphone like Cram, Quizlet, or AnkiApp.
  • Make 3 x 5 flashcards for yourself.
  • Keep a vocab journal.

 In this post, we'll discuss how to keep a vocab journal.

Knock 'Em Out

The first step for vocab success is to make a single place where you can list and keep track of unfamiliar words you need to learn. I prefer using an old-fashioned spiral notebook. You might prefer something hi-tech. Either way, just pick a place to keep your vocab organized. 

As you read challenging material, jot down the words you don't know. You will likely wish to look them up after you read unless the difficult word prevents you from understanding the main idea.

Similarly, as you review the "Repeat Offenders" vocabulary list note the words you've never seen before or about which you're kinda fuzzy. For instance, you might have seen a word like "capitulate" before, but you might struggle to give its exact definition or to use it in your own sentence. 

To master vocab for the GRE, you must be able to do two things:

  1. Learn the exact dictionary definition of each word.

  2. Make your own sentence in which you use the word in an appropriate context

Example Format for a Vocabulary Journal

In my vocab journal, I use the following format:

  • Heading
  • Definition with part of speech.
  • Secondary definitions.
  • Example in context. I use a search engine to find the word in context, as someone else has used it in a book or article. I then copy the example sentence into my journal.
  • My own sentence. I write a sentence to illustrate the word's meaning and to demonstrate to myself that I have mastered its use.

Here are three example journal entries:


"picaresque" — adj. & noun — 1. Of or pertaining to rogues or adventurers — 2. Characteristic of a genre of Spanish satiric novel dealing with the adventures of a roguish hero

Example in context from the 1890 "Literary World" Volume 42, Page 68:
"The picaresque novel anticipates the realistic novel of modern times. It portrays the life and fortunes of the picaro, the adventurer, who tries all roads to fortune and makes himself at home in any company. Gil Blas and Barry Lindon, not to mention Defoe's less reputable heroes and heroines, both belong to this class."

Example sentence:
"The seedy rogue with a heart of gold, a trope exceedingly common in modern blockbusters, from Han Solo to Iron Man, continues the long history of the picaresque and illustrates the enduring Durkheimian dichotomy of the sacred and the profane."


"logorrhea" — adj. & noun — 1. An excessive and often uncontrollable flow of words — 2. Excessive talkativeness

Example in context from the 1901 "Medical Dial Journal" Volume 3:
"[Logorrhea] is a word-diarrhea with decided constipation of ideas. Logorrhea is not necessarily abnormal since it often appears during medical discussions."

Example sentence:
"Renowned (or perhaps reviled) for his stultifying disquisitions, some students have taken to taping Professor Smith's lectures to use as a logorrheic remedy for insomnia."


"admonition" — noun — Gentle or friendly reproof; counseling against fault or oversight; warning.

Example in context from 1800, "An Admonition Against Profane and Common Swearing" by Edmund Gibson (Bishop of London):
"Neighbour, It is out of a true Respect I have for you, and a hearty Concern for the Good of your Soul, that I put into your Hands this private Admonition against Swearing; since the public Warnings you have heard from the Pulpit do not seem to have had their Effect upon you."

Example sentence:
"Anticipating her students' proclivity to malinger over the upcoming holiday, the history teacher issued an admonition that any student who did not submit a rough draft of his or her term paper the day school resumed would receive an automatic lowered letter grade for the semester."

Start Now to Succeed Later

You might ask, "What are the odds any of my words will turn up on my GRE? What's the point?" You're right! It's quite possible that only a few of the words you learn will show up on your GRE, but here's the bottom line:

Doing a vocabulary journal and engaging actively with your reading will improve your comprehension and ability to engage with GRE questions, whether the vocabulary is familiar or unfamiliar.

The first and best strategy you can use to improve your vocabulary is to read a lot. This is also the one aspect of preparation that takes the most time. Along with becoming well-versed in math fundamentals, building your vocabulary and reading comprehension skills is an excellent way to begin your preparation for the GRE. 

If you have questions about studying vocab or any other aspect of GRE preparation, please join us on our free GRE and Grad School Admissions Forums. Register and ask questions for free to receive prompt expert responses. 

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