The two most frequent questions students have about the GRE are: “What math do I need to study,” and “What vocab do I need to know?” If you’re here, you’re likely trying to find answers to the second question. So, how does the GRE test your vocabulary? Let’s talk about it.
Having a 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 vocabulary means building fluency with words that may be somewhat ordinary but just unfamiliar to you. The GRE tests college-level academic English. This is the kind of language you find in higher level periodicals and journals. For some examples, read Atlantic Weekly, Harper’s Magazine, National Geographic, or Wall Street Journal.
An ability to grasp the main ideas, structure, and details from texts like these is essential for success. Your ability to demonstrate a command of this language is also beneficial to your Analytical Writing essays. That being said, the GRE goes beyond testing your general vocab knowledge. On Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence problems, the GRE directly tests your familiarity and command of difficult words.
Two Approaches to Improving Vocabulary
Since the GRE requires you to both know and know how to use difficult vocabulary, here’s how to approach studying.
- Actively and habitually read higher-level publications. Use journals we cite above or similar sources.
- Study vocabulary lists to identify and learn unfamiliar words. Not sure where to find a list? Check out our “Repeat Offenders” list.
Whether you’re reading a journal or studying a list, keep track of the vocabulary you need to learn. There are several different and complementary ways to do this.
- Use an app like Cram, Quizlet, or AnkiApp.
- Make flashcards for yourself.
- Start a vocabulary podcast.
- Keep a vocab journal.
How to Keep Track of Vocab Words
A good first step to learning vocabulary is making a single place track unfamiliar words you need to learn. One way to do that is with a journal! No matter which method you choose, make sure your consistent with where your list goes. As you read challenging material, jot down words you don’t know. If not knowing the word prevents you from understanding the main idea, look it up right away. If not, save it to define later.
Similarly, as you review a vocab list, note the words you haven’t seen/heard before and the ones that you’re fuzzy with. For instance, maybe you encounter “capitulate.” It’s one that you’ve heard before, but coming up with its exact definition is a struggle. Can you confidently use it in a sentence? If not, add it to your journal! On the GRE, you have to be able to recall the exact dictionary definition of each word and be able to make a sentence with it using appropriate context.
If you need an idea of how to structure your journal, here are some guidelines.
- Definition with part of speech.
- Secondary definitions.
- Example in context. Use a search engine to find the word in context and copy the example sentence into your journal.
- Create a sentence. Write a sentence to illustrate the word’s meaning and demonstrate to yourself that you can master its use.
Example Journal Entry: Picaresque
Picaresque — adj. & noun
- 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.”
“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.”
Example Journal Entry: Logorrhea
Logorrhea — adj. & noun
- An excessive and often uncontrollable flow of words.
- 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.”
“Renowned for his stultifying disquisitions, some students have taken to taping Professor Smith’s lectures to use as a logorrheic remedy for insomnia.”
Start Now to Succeed Later
You might ask yourself: “What are the odds any of my words will show up on the GRE?” Therefore, what’s the point? Well, it’s quite possible that only a few of the words you learn will show up on the GRE. But, here’s the bottom line. Utilizing a vocabulary journal and actively engaging when you’re reading improves your comprehension and ability to engage with GRE questions. The first and best strategy you can use to improve your vocabulary is to read a lot. This aspect of preparation takes the most time, but it’s well worth the effort. Building your vocabulary and reading comprehension skills is an excellent way to do well on the GRE.