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Tips for Studying GRE Vocab (that won't make you want to give up before you start!)

Joa Ahern-Seronde
Joa Ahern-Seronde
January 22, 2021
GRE vocabulary: it's no one's favorite, but you don't have to torture yourself to prepare well. Here are some strategies for making the most of your preparation time.
Est. Reading Time: 7 minutes
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Vocabulary is arguably one of the most daunting parts of GRE preparation. Time and time again, students tell me this is their Achilles heel of test prep. The big secret is: it’s not as bad as you fear! Story time… long before I developed my career in test preparation and admissions consulting, I too was just a student thinking about graduate school. My roommates were also going through the application process, and their GRE prep included torturing themselves with enormous stacks of vocabulary flashcards and earnest commitments to study for HOURS every day for weeks. My first thought at the time was: “I’ll just apply to graduate programs that don’t require the GRE.” My second thought: “There must be a better way!”

While choosing a graduate program based on its application requirements (or lack thereof) is one approach, it can significantly reduce the number of programs on your list, and you don’t need to hold yourself back before you even get going! There’s no reason for you to be intimidated by a standardized test. In my career, I’ve helped hundreds of students successfully take the GRE, and I can tell you there is in fact a better way. With some planning and a strategy in mind, you can make use of a few key tools and resources, and you too can conquer the GRE.

Set Realistic Goals

Before you lock yourself in your room with an unabridged dictionary, you should first know where you’re starting from. The best way to assess your baseline knowledge is to take a practice test. If you want your test prep to be successful, you need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are before you start hitting the books. Once you have a good idea of your baseline, you can set realistic goals and create an effective study strategy around those goals.

Even if you think you have a good idea of how strong your vocabulary is, having benchmarks will put things in perspective. The GRE includes words that aren’t commonly used in everyday activities, and one of the best ways to learn how much you need to study is to take a practice exam.

Give Yourself Time

Do yourself a huge favor and do NOT cram. You retain information better - and for longer - when you spread your studying out over time. Instead of merely memorizing vocabulary words, your goal should be to encode the knowledge and enhance your ability to remember words over the long-term.

I recommend preparing a schedule and realistic timeframe based on the goals you’ve set for yourself. Maybe you’re an avid reader and want to spend a couple of hours a week studying. Or maybe you require more help, and you need to dedicate an hour every day to vocabulary-building. Creating a schedule with dedicated time for reviewing and drilling vocabulary will improve your time-management and help you avoid panic-induced cramming.

Use a High-Quality Vocab List

It’s not a good idea to study the dictionary at random. With literally thousands of words in the English language (and a much smaller number that you actually need to master), you want to work off a high-quality vocab list from a trusted source that focuses on the most commonly used or often confused words. (Note: The makers of the GRE don’t release a full vocabulary list, so any list you find will likely have been compiled by people hired by test prep companies to take the test and then write down as much as they can remember afterwards. Companies also review previous tests that have been released as practice tests and compile the most commonly tested words.)

I strongly recommend spending time learning word roots (you can search online for lists that people have compiled) and secondary definitions as the GRE is known for using the second or third meanings of words. You can find useful apps like this GRE Daily Vocabulary app from The Economist, which provides commonly used GRE vocab words. And if you want to look at purchasing a guide for vocab lists, Barron’s has a good one for GRE Vocabulary.

Increase Your Daily Reading

Frequent. Consistent. High-Level. That should be your mantra for building your vocabulary through reading. 

If you don’t already, you should be reading on a daily basis. Even if you read frequently, you should try to increase your consistency so that you have a daily plan for reading books, newspapers, magazines, academic articles etc. Methodical, deliberate reading will help you increase your vocabulary and learn how words are used in context.

Also important is the quality of your reading material. Reading high-quality books and articles can help you just as much as rote memorization. The Economist, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker are great additions to your daily reading. Make it part of your daily habit to read - not just skim! - these periodicals.

Remember - It's More Than Just Words

The makers of the GRE seem to revel in trying to trip up test-takers with complex sentences, tricky words, and confusing syntax. It’s important to know the proper definitions of words - and even secondary and tertiary meanings - but it’s equally important to understand how words are used in context.

Use test prep strategies to help you navigate the Verbal Section minefield: context clues can make a big difference in correct answer frequency. Knowing sentence structure will help you parse multi-claused passages, and understanding the difference between positive, negative, and neutral word charge can improve your comprehension when you’ve forgotten a definition. It also sometimes helps when you know the “wrong” answer to help you with the process of elimination.

Additional Study Tips

A good vocab strategy should include the right study tools. 

Tried and true, traditional flashcards are the most basic and effective tool for rote vocab memorization. They’re easy to make, and the tedium of writing out words and definitions is a form of studying with the bonus of muscle memory!

If you’re more of an aural learner, you can try listening to high-quality podcasts. There are even GRE vocabulary-specific podcasts that review several vocab words per an episode and provide contextual information for each word. If you want a longer-style podcast, VictorPrep has 15 minutes episodes, and if you want a shorter-style podcast, GRE Vocab has 3-5 minute episodes.

You can combine flashcard and aural learning with an accountable study partner. Studying vocabulary is more fun and effective when you’re doing it with a friend. Take turns quizzing each other or turn it into a game.

For the solo GRE test-taker, apps such as Quizlet and Merriam-Webster’s How Strong is Your Vocabulary are great tools for spicing up your study sessions. You can create your own vocabulary flashcards with Quizlet, which tracks your progress and rotates out correctly identified words so you can focus on more difficult words. There are even games which are shockingly addictive so you can have fun and learn words at the same time! How Strong is Your Vocabulary provides vocabulary quizzes with increasing difficulty levels and tracks your score. Both apps are available for your phone.

Finally, I find it always helps to practice vocabulary in real-world applications. You can add vocabulary words to your social media posts, personal blog, in your writing for work, or even take them out for a spin during dinner conversations; anywhere you use words you can use GRE vocabulary. Good luck with your preparation!

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