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Tips to Improving Your GRE Verbal Score

gre verbal scoreLet's look at some tips that can help to improve your GRE Verbal score. The GRE's Verbal section includes three main question types: text completion, sentence equivalence, and reading comprehension. Following is a brief explanation of each of the 3 question formats, along with tips for improving your score on each question type. At the end, you'll find a sample GRE Verbal problem, with explanation.

Overview of the Three GRE Verbal Question Types:

Text Completion. Text completion questions present a short passage with up to three words replaced by blanks. Words to fill the blanks must be chosen from one or more lists of multiple choice answers. Text completion questions with 3 blanks can be answered in 27 different ways; however, only one of those 27 ways is the right one. With odds like that, random guessing definitely is not an option! Context is key in choosing the right word to fill in each blank. The correct set of words must agree together within the context of the text passage to create the most logical, lucid meaning possible using the available answer choices.

Quick Tip for Text Completion Success: Usually, it will be easier/easiest to decide on one of the blanks than it is on the other/s. Make the easy decision first; then it will be much more manageable to consider the possible shades of meaning for the remaining one or two words and find which fits best within the text. Once you think you've got the right choices, read the text through with the words in place to make sure everything really makes sense.

Sentence Equivalence. Sentence Equivalence questions present a question that has a word replaced with a blank, and a set of multiple choice answers. Your job is to choose TWO of the answer choices to fill in the blank. The two answer choices must function interchangeably, so that either one will cause the sentence to have a meaning equivalent to the meaning produced when the other answer is inserted in the blank. As with text completion questions, a wide knowledge of vocabulary is very important, and an ability to rapidly consider alternate shades of meanings of words within the context of the sentence is key.

Quick Tips for Success on Sentence Equivalence Questions: Be tentative. If you think you've eliminated an answer choice, always be willing to reconsider if you realize later that the word has an alternate meaning that would make sense in the sentence and give the same meaning as another word choice. Make it a habit to examine the set of answer choices for any pairs of synonyms that you recognize; however, keep in mind that alternate meanings of a word may let it function as a synonym for more than one of the other choices. For any words that seem unfamiliar at first glance, use word roots to get an idea of the probable meaning. Don't forget that the GRE allows you to move on and come back to a question-- it's a good idea to record your process of elimination and any guesses at word meanings on your scratch paper so that you save time when you come back for a second attempt.

Vocabulary:  before moving on to Reading Comprehension, here's another tip for success that applies to all three types of GRE Verbal questions: focus on expanding your vocabulary. Spend time studying lists of words that have been commonly identified on the GRE or other standardized tests. Reinforce your vocabulary knowledge by reading a wide variety of material that challenges you to use words in different ways than you're accustomed. As we've already seen, Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions both test your knowledge of how the meaning of words is affected by context, so the more you can build your vocabulary and your knowledge of root words, synonyms, and antonyms, the better prepared you'll be.

Reading comprehension. Reading comprehension questions include a reading passage accompanied by a set of questions. Often the passage is fairly short--in fact, just one paragraph-- and you may expect to spend more time reading the questions than the passage itself. Only a couple of the Reading Comprehension passages will have multiple paragraphs. There may be up to half a dozen questions that accompany a passage, or only one or two. Interestingly, some reading comprehension questions may test your vocabulary knowledge by asking you to choose the meaning or definition closest to a word used in the passage.

Quick Tips for Success on GRE Reading Comprehension questions: In general, come prepared to use your skills in observation and critical reasoning. Critical reasoning often depends on identifying the assumptions, premises, and conclusion of an argument. To help engage your critical reasoning skills, when you read the passage pretend that you're preparing to debate the author. Standard things to notice while reading include the main idea, tone, and purpose of the passage. Critical reasoning will also help you to determine:

  • if an answer choice is fully supported by the passage. Some answer choices sound very reasonable, but go beyond what the passage actually states or directly implies. Beware of making brilliant deductions.
  • the strengths and/or weaknesses of an argument presented in the passage.
  • alternatives to explanations presented in the passage.
  • the interaction between the various portions of the passage and the role played by each in conveying the passage's meaning
  • inferences and conclusions that would be supported by the passage

Now for some practice. Try the following sample GRE Text Completion question:

Instructions:  Fill each blank in the following text with an answer from the correspondingly numbered row of answer choices, so that the word choices you select for all three blanks function together to give the most clear, logical meaning to the text.

"Happy to slip beyond the control of the ________________ (i) banks, the Danube here wanders about at will among the intricate network of channels intersecting the islands everywhere with broad avenues down which the waters pour with a shouting sound; making whirlpools, eddies, and foaming rapids; tearing at the sandy banks; carrying away masses of shore and willow-clumps; and forming new islands __________________(ii) which shift daily in size and shape and possess at best an ___________________ (iii) life, since the flood-time obliterates their very existence."

--Text adapted from the story "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood

Answer choices:

Blank (i): stern, ineluctable, indulgent

Blank (ii): disingenuously, innumerably, irascibly

Blank (iii): intransient, impermanent, impudent    

Solution: stern, innumerably, impermanent

Explanation: It usually helps to scan the answer choices for the words you're familiar with versus the ones you're not so sure about. Even if the answer to each blank is not immediately obvious, some of the choices may seem like fairly obvious candidates for elimination. Because the first sentence seems to associate "control" with "banks", it doesn't make much sense to fill in blank (i) with "indulgent." Interestingly, "stern" could function as an antonym of "indulgent," so that probably makes the most sense in blank (i). For blank (ii), "irascibly" doesn't seem to fit, since there's no indication in the text why the river would be short-tempered or irritated in the way it forms islands. "Disingenously" might mean "insincerely," which doesn't seem a good match either.  On the other hand, "innumerably" might work, since the sentence is talking about the ongoing process of forming new islands. For blank (iii), "impudent" can probably be kicked out, since the text doesn't seem to be describing the islands as "disrespectful." "Intransient" and "impermanent" are actually another set of antonyms; "impermanent" sounds like the best fit in blank (iii) because the text tells us that the islands are obliterated when flood-time comes.

Bill K. is one of MyGuru’s most experienced GRE tutors in Chicago.  He scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and the GMAT, and has been providing ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT tutoring for over five years.  He holds a B.A. in Mathematics.


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