How to Do Well on the GRE Vocabulary Test

Exam: GRE Test - Graduate Record Examination Test: Verbal, Quantitative, Analytical Writing

Vocabulary is something that frightens many people, even when those people are hopeful graduate students.  Those approaching the GRE vocabulary questions might be a tough nervous because they still have traumatic memories of the SAT vocabulary sections and they were hoping to never take such a test again.  They may also be chemistry or math or geology or anthropology majors who know words like amphiprotic, brachistochrone, felsic, and hermeneutics, but have no idea what abstemious means (moderate in eating or drinking).

So how can you do well on the vocabulary section of the GRE?

Subscribe to a Word of the Day email list. If you’re feeling particularly daring, subscribe to two or three.  The purpose of those emails is to build people’s vocabulary, so they’re bound to help you on the GRE.  Popular lists are the ones from, Mirriam-Webster, and

Find GRE Test Prep books and learn their vocabulary lists. Test prep books are there to prepare you for the test.  What could possibly be a better resource for GRE vocabulary than the books designed specifically to provide you with that vocabulary?  Find the lists in each book you can get your hands on and study them.  Even if those specific words don’t appear on vocabulary sections, they might on reading comprehension or other areas and they might also help you figure out unfamiliar words.

Make flashcards.  There are different ways to structure flashcards depending on how you prefer to learn.  You can either put one word on each card with the answer on the back, or you can put a list of words with a list of definitions on the back.  Your flashcards can be enormous or they can be tiny.  You might color-code them depending on things like difficulty or etymology.  There are even digital flashcard programs you can use to test your knowledge.

Study your flashcards!  So often, people make flashcards and then never look at them again.  Don’t be one of those people! However you structure your flash cards, there are several techniques you can study them.  For example, if you get a card right, place it at the back of the deck.  If you get a card wrong, place it two cards back.  If you get it right the second time, place it ten cards back, then treat it like a normal card.  This helps you review the cards you have trouble on more often, which will make you learn them faster.  You should also keep a stack of about twenty to thirty flashcards on you at all times so that you can run through them while waiting for the bus, walking to the store, or making dinner.

Study Latin?This is a technique used by large numbers of high school students in preparation for the SAT, and it should work the same for the GRE.  Latin is important in English, because so many of our words come from Latin roots.  If you have a general understanding of what those roots are, then you can make a reasonable guess on words you don’t know and have a better chance of guessing correctly.  On the other hand, many students have found that knowledge of any Romance language (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, or Portuguese) helps about as much as knowledge of Latin, since those languages have an even heavier influence from the language.

Take a GRE Prep course.  GRE Test Prep courses are designed to help you succeed on the GRE.  They won’t just help you create strategies and work on your study skills, they will provide you with the materials you need to succeed on the test.  That includes vocabulary lists.  These won’t be the actual list of vocabulary on the GRE that you will take, because no one can give you that before the test, but they will be lists of words that could appear on the GRE.  Take the lists, study them, make flashcards, and you will be in a much better position to tackle the vocabulary section.  A quick Google search will find most of the major companies, like Kaplan and Princeton Review.

Find a tutor. If a course isn’t exactly your thing or you want more one-on-one time or you need a bit more help, you might consider finding a tutor.  Tutors are also skilled at helping you prep for the GRE, and that includes vocabulary.  They might run flashcards with you, give you vocabulary lists, or just quiz you on the fly to see if you know your stuff and help you study.  You can usually find tutors online, including at major companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review.

Take practice GRE tests.  Practice tests will give you an idea of the types of vocabulary related questions you will encounter, and they will also give you a good place to start when creating your study lists.  It’s not always a question like “What does antithetical mean?”, and you should prepare as best you can for whatever question the test will throw at you. Write down every word you don’t know in the practice test and add them to your study regime.  Chances are, if it’s appeared on one GRE, it might appear on another.

Use your brain. If there’s a word you don’t know, but it looks or sounds a lot like a word or words you do know, try to figure out what they have in common to find the meaning of the word.  For example, you may not know what antithetical means.  But it sounds close to antithesis, so it’s probably the adjective of that.  You know anti means against or opposed to, and thesis means idea or argument, so antithetical probably means something that is opposed to a previous statement or proposition (which it does).  Trust yourself, trust your brain, and you’ll be fine.

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