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How To Study for the GRE Vocab Section in 2021
11 Actionable Tips

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: July 19, 2021

In my professional and academic career, I’ve had to take a number of tests, such as GRE, IELTS, and TOEFL. One section that I always struggled with is the vocab section.

I’ve tried studying endless vocabulary lists, but I would struggle to find the correct answer on test day.

To overcome this, I’ve developed several helpful strategies, such as spaced repetition, common roots, and flash cards. These haven’t only helped me, but millions of other students as well.

Here’re all the study tips you should know to learn GRE vocabulary.

11 Tips For Studying GRE Vocabulary Words

Woman thinking while holding a pen pressed on her head

Here’s exactly what students should do to get the best possible score on the GRE tests verbal section.

1. Know Your Starting Vocabulary

Before you start memorizing GRE vocabulary, you should know your starting point, i.e., how many vocabulary words you know.

I always recommend taking a practice test to get an idea of where you stand with the GRE verbal section.

Keep in mind that many GRE words aren’t used daily, so a test will help you realize your strong points and weaknesses and how many words you should learn.

2. Read

A person reading a book

Probably the most obvious advice, but nonetheless crucial, is — read.

Reading tip #1: Read as much as possible, but don’t read just anything.

Get into the habit of reading news and articles from The Economist, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Arts & Letters Daily.

Why should you read these? Because they’re rich in GRE vocabulary.

Reading tip #2: Don’t skim, but pay close attention to words you don’t know. Train your brain to notice unfamiliar words, and don’t rely on rote memorization, but look up the definitions and write them down.

Reading passages from novels and papers rich in GRE vocab will help you learn words by creating a mental image in your brain. This will also reinforce words you kind of know because you’ll see them used in context.

Reading tip #3: Reading comprehension is important for GRE tests. Read carefully to be able to choose the correct word and avoid traps.

For example, if you answer wrong on practice questions, don’t look up the correct word’s meaning, but check the other answer choices. Try to change the question to make the words fit. This will also help you expand your vocabulary.

3. Repetition

Students come to me complaining that they try to memorize all the words on GRE word lists unsuccessfully.

So, why didn’t the words stick? Because of incorrect or insufficient repetition.

“Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.”

 

- Zig Ziglar, author

One of the best ways to memorize GRE vocabulary is by adding new words to an existing GRE vocab list. If you don’t review but keep piling on new words every day, you’ll find you’ve forgotten the vocab words you learned previously.

Students often complain of repetition taking forever. And they’re right, which is why you have to do it right.

A tip I give my students is to make two piles: “words I know” and “words I don’t know.” Then, if they notice they remember the word easily each time they review it, set it to the “words I know” pile.

There’s no need to review words you know often, but repeat this GRE vocab about once a week or every ten days. If you notice there are words you’re struggling to remember, move them to the “words I don’t know” pile, which you should review more frequently.

4. Test Yourself

Don’t wait for the real GRE test, but test yourself when studying vocabulary at specific intervals, such as once a week.

Testing is an excellent GRE prep, and same as repetition, it’ll help you reinforce the new words you’re trying to memorize.

Use vocabulary flashcards to quiz yourself, and keep a score spreadsheet to track your progress and give you extra motivation.

5. Be Careful With Definitions

A student reading a dictionary

Always look up the word on the GRE vocabulary list, even if you already have the definition written on the flashcard.

A good dictionary will supplement the new word definition you have and give additional examples.

Here’s what I recommended:

  • Miriam Webster — It will give you a list of synonyms, and grouping words with similar meanings is a great studying vocabulary tip. Miriam Webster will also give examples for synonyms, and the word origin, which can remind you of the meaning.
  • Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) — If you’re looking for example sentences, COCA is the best choice. It gives examples from newspapers, movies, and TV shows, so you can see how the word is used and understand the meaning.

GRE prep definition tip: Always check out the secondary definitions and even the third ones. GRE loves using them on text completion and vocab activities. If you see a common word, think about its second, or even third, definition.

Also, when you’re studying for the GRE verbal questions, make sure to write down all the new word definitions, not only the first one.

6. Pay Attention to Words That GRE Tends to Test

While we can’t predict which words GRE will use, GRE does have favorite words.

One of the things you can do in your GRE prep is study the most common GRE words, such as pragmatic, insipid, arduous, and more.

There are numerous websites with high-frequency GRE words you can check out.

Another smart thing to do, is when you encounter new words on a practice test, add them to your list. This vocab has been used before, and chances are it’ll be used again.

7. Use GRE Words in Everyday Communication

A casual talk between mother and daughter

Practice makes perfect, so try using GRE vocabulary in everyday conversations, be it verbal or written.

Saying the word aloud, or writing it down, will help you retain unfamiliar words for longer.

Note: Be careful how and with whom you use GRE vocab. Warn your friends and family. Otherwise, they might think you’re pretentious by dropping fancy words.

Also, be careful of using these words in a professional setting, be it emails or in a meeting.

You risk misusing the word, which will be unprofessional. Or, the other person won’t know the word, and you risk making them feel insecure.

Another test prep tip for learning words is to write stories, journal entries, or come up with rhymes — whichever draws you the most. The more context you have for the word, the higher your chance of remembering it. And, on the plus side, you don’t have to show these to anyone.

8. Learn Word Roots

Word roots are a great starting point when learning GRE vocabulary because you’ll find many words with recognizable word roots.

This is a good way to recognize the meanings of more obscure terms.

For example, root contra means against or the opposite, and it’s used in:

  • Contradiction
  • Contraception
  • Controversy

By knowing the word root, you can guess the meaning of these contra root words even without checking the dictionary, and it’s helpful when you have to narrow down answer choices.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t study individual words. You definitely should. But, learning roots can help you save time and achieve a higher score.

A word of caution: Knowing root meaning can’t be used for all the terms in GRE vocabulary. For example, root set means to sit, but the word sedulous means hard-working because it comes from a different root, although it contains sed.

9. Use Flashcards

Woman holding flashcards

Using flashcards isn’t a revolutionary idea. Students have been using them for ages. That’s because they work.

Flashcards are:

  • Cheap
  • Easy to make
  • Customizable
  • Don’t have distractions, such as if you were to use an app

I recommend making flashcards yourself and not buying them because you’ll have to write down certain words, which is in itself studying.

Here’s how to make a flashcard:

  • Write down the word on one side
  • Write down the definition and example sentence on the other side

You can also add synonyms, antonyms, and even the word root.

To up your GRE verbal score section, you can also write the word pronunciation. This can help you get the correct answer because knowing the pronunciation will make it easier to identify the word.

You can also have separate groups of flashcards, such as words that you know well, words you’re unsure of, and words that are especially tricky. Then, it’s easy knowing how often to go over a certain flashcard pile.

Pro tip: Take the flashcards everywhere. When you’re stuck in traffic or a long line, you can use them to study vocab.

10. Use Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are memory tricks we use that can help us remember vocabulary words.

Our memory works best by linking new information to things we already know. The more links you create, the easier it is to remember new things.

This is how mnemonics can help with those tricky vocab questions.

The best way to use mnemonic devices is to say the word aloud and see what it reminds you of. For example, the word cupidity — meaning being greedy — reminds of Cupid.

You can imagine a greedy Cupid, going round, taking other people’s money.

Alternatively, you can look at the word spelling and see if you can connect it to something. For example, the word contrite — meaning feeling sorry — has tri (try) in it. You can connect this to ‘I’m sorry, next time I’ll try better.’

11. Use Memorization Strategies

A woman struggling to memorize different words
  • Reading and Writing Strategies

You should focus on these strategies in your study plan when studying for the GRE verbal, because writing by hand increases neural activity [1].

A good option is to study word lists and write the vocabulary, definition, synonyms, etc.

Auditory Strategies

If you study best by listening, then to improve your GRE verbal score section, make sure your study plan has some auditory material.

You can listen to podcasts dedicated to GRE prep or check out YouTube videos about how to ace GRE verbal section.

Visual Strategies

People can process visuals 60,000 times faster than text [2].

When going through practice questions, you can draw images related to GRE vocabulary. Yes, it can be time-consuming, but it’s a good mix of written and visual strategies for getting the big picture and remembering other words.

Also, it’ll allow you to switch up between endless flashcards and word lists memorization.

Other visual strategies you can use, which were proven to be beneficial for visual learners, are picture-word pairing and semantic mapping strategies [3].

Kinesthetic Strategies

Kinesthetic learners learn best by using their bodies. You can combine visual and kinesthetic learning by writing out the vocabulary or labeling things around your home that you can relate to GRE vocab.

Another option is to convince your friends or other people studying for GRE to play charades.

How Do You Study GRE Vocab: The Takeaway

I’ve covered numerous ways that can help you study for GRE verbal as well as all of my tips and tricks, such as how to use flash cards and make a sentence with a GRE word every day.

Think about what kind of student you’re — visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. — and which strategies worked best for you before, and use them again.

As long as you use these tips and learning strategies, there’s no reason to fear sentence equivalence and GRE verbal section score.

References:

  1. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19411243.2018.1534634
  2. https://www.google.com/url?q=http://web.archive.org/web/20001102203936
  3. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/232724172.pdf

About the author

William Cohen

William Cohen

William is an electrical engineer whose great passion is helping promising students achieve their goals and dreams. He enjoys sharing his knowledge and expertise with aspiring learners from all over the world.

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