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How to Study GRE Vocabulary - 9 Helpful Tips

If you’re studying for the GRE, then you’re probably already aware that vocabulary is a big component of the test. The GRE—or Graduate Record Examination—contains many questions that test your knowledge of academic English. Unfortunately, there’s no way to gain a comprehensive knowledge of every possible word you might encounter on test day. The English language is simply too vast. Even studying official past tests will only help you insofar as it teaches you the kind of words you’re likely to encounter on the test. The actual vocab words you’ll encounter on test day are unlikely to include many repeats from past tests.

But all that doesn’t mean there’s no way to prep for the vocabulary on the GRE. It just means you’re going to have to more strategic in the ways you study. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of helpful study tips, so you can make the most of your GRE prep.

Study Over a Longer Period of Time

There’s no way to cram for the GRE vocab. The “list” of words you might encounter (and we put list in quotation marks because there is no official list) is too long, and cramming isn’t an effective strategy for absorbing so much material.

Instead, you’ll want to study GRE vocabulary consistently over time. This means devoting regular time, ideally over several months leading up to your exam. Luckily, studying vocabulary is the kind of thing you can do in short bursts, for example, when you’re waiting in line somewhere, or as a daily ritual alongside your morning coffee. You should still schedule dedicated time for your GRE vocab prep, but it’s good to know you can still find ways to be productive around the margins as you go about the rest of your life.

Use GRE Vocab Flashcards

Flashcards are an ideal study mechanism for something like GRE vocabulary. If you want, you can buy boxes of GRE vocab flashcards, but there are also many free GRE flashcard apps available for iOS and Android. Just search for “GRE vocabulary” in the app store and you’ll find several options. Having these apps on your phone will give you the ability to make progress in your GRE prep wherever you go.

Test Yourself

One interesting phenomenon about the way our minds work is that we’re all subject to the “testing effect.” This refers to the ways our brains embed information more deeply when we’re actually tested regularly on it. There’s almost nothing more powerful in our education than making mistakes—mistakes send a signal to the mind that it needs to store forgotten information more securely, since otherwise we’ll be subject to the consequences of forgetting.

Try to set up a regular ritual of testing yourself on random words you’ve previously studied. The test doesn’t have to be extensive—a self-administered quiz of just five to ten words, conducted multiple days per week, serves as a powerful learning routine.

Keep a List of Challenging Words

Some words challenge us more than others. It might be because the word is so unfamiliar—or it might be because our brain naturally wants to associate the word with an incorrect definition. It can be easy to “learn” the correct definition of a challenging when we’ve just finished running through a set of flashcards two or three times. But if we set that word aside, we’re likely to forget what we’ve learned.

This is why it’s useful to keep a separate list of words you’ve struggled with. You should revisit this list regularly even as you continue learning new words.

Revisit Old Words

Learning doesn’t just happen once and then remain in place forever. Our brains forget information over time. Therefore, even if you’ve successfully learned a set of GRE vocab words without much difficulty, you should also be deliberate about occasionally returning to old vocab lists to refresh your memory. Every time you do this, you’re doing what’s called “spaced repetition.” Spaced repetition is one of the most powerful learning strategies for securely storing information.

Learn How the GRE Vocab Words Are Actually Used

Memorizing the definitions of your GRE vocabulary words is great, but it only takes you so far. In order to get the most from your GRE vocab study and maximize your performance, you’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the ways GRE vocab words are actually used in context.

One powerful tool for doing this is learning to use COCA, or the Corpus of Contemporary American English. COCA contains over a billion examples taken from published media that demonstrate how words are used in context. Registration is free, and allows you to search for unfamiliar words to see how they’re actually used in real-world writing examples.

Use the Words Yourself

Being deliberate about putting the GRE vocabulary words you’re learning into use is one of the best ways to master them before test day. One helpful thing to do would be to pick five challenging words per day and use them in a written sentence. Another thing you can do is pick a set of words each day and try to use each one in a sentence in conversation with other people.

Learn Stems

One of the most powerful things you can do to supercharge your GRE vocabulary learning is to deeply familiarize yourself with common word roots. Many English words contain roots derived from Greek and Latin. Memorizing the meaning of these roots can help you make sense of unfamiliar words you encounter on the GRE. For instance, the roots “intra-,” “intro-,” and “inter-” all have different meanings (“within,” “into,” and “between,” respectively). Knowing the difference between these can help you choose between the right and the wrong answer on a GRE question, even if you’re unfamiliar with the larger word they’re a part of.

Work with a GRE Vocab Tutor

A skilled GRE tutor can do a lot more for your GRE vocab prep than just quiz you on vocabulary words. An expert tutor can help you refine your study habits, and then can help you learn better strategies for applying your knowledge on the actual exam. They can also help you build strategies for how to obtain the best result when you encounter challenging or unfamiliar words.

MyGuru’s expert tutors all have years of experience working one-on-one with students to help them achieve their best possible GRE scores. One-on-one tutoring can also help you boost your score in every other section of the GRE.

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Studying for the vocabulary you’re likely to encounter on the GRE can seem like a daunting and endless task. But applying these simple strategies can help you make your GRE vocab prep simpler and more effective.