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The Importance of Vocabulary on the GRE

gre-vocabularyVocabulary is one of the biggest and most important aspects of the GRE. You will need to start studying vocabulary well before you take the test, because it is a slow process. There is a limit to how many words you can effectively study at one time; it is impossible to learn thousands of words by cramming at the last minute.

There are no real shortcuts, either. Some people try to learn root words in an attempt to minimize study time, but this technique does not work very well on the GRE, for various reasons:

  • Some roots, such as ver (meaning "truth," as in verify and veritable) and vers/vert (meaning "turn," as in versus and revert), can be easily confused.
  • Many words tested on the GRE are not derived from Latin or Greek roots; for instance, the word kowtow (meaning "to act in an excessively subservient manner") is of Chinese origin, derived from Cantonese.
  • Even if you identify the correct root of a word, it can be difficult to make the connection between the meaning of the root and the meaning of the word. For instance, the word sanguine (meaning "optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation") contains the Latin root sangui (meaning "blood"). This is due to an association between optimism and having a flushed complexion, but you are unlikely to figure that out on test day.

Therefore, your best bet is to study the actual words. A reasonable goal is to learn twenty new words every day, while continuing to practice the older words to keep them fresh in your mind. At this rate, you could learn about 600 words in a month.

Since many experts recommend learning about 3,500 words, six months is probably the optimum amount of time to spend building your vocabulary. If you only have a month or two to study, make sure you limit yourself to learning only the 500-1000 most commonly used words. There are many resources, from apps (such as Magoosh's GRE Vocabulary Builder app) to books (such as Essential Words for the GRE from Barron's), that can help you determine which words to learn.

You should also start to look up any unfamiliar words you see; the best way to learn new words is to see them in context. Read publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, which often contain GRE-level words. Also, if you see a word you know being used in a way that confuses you, do not hesitate to look it up - words with multiple meanings are very popular on the GRE.

When you are done reviewing your words for the day, most likely with flashcards, a good way to solidify your learning is to practice using the words yourself. Try writing a story or a journal entry using all the words you just used.

For words that you have trouble remembering, using mnemonics can be a good way to make them stick. For instance, the word cacophony (meaning "unpleasant mixture of sounds") sounds kind of like "cough on me," so you could memorize the definition by remembering that having someone cough on you would be unpleasant and noisy. The sillier the mnemonic, the better, because you will be more likely to remember it if it is ridiculous.

Finally, if you must learn a lot of words very quickly, try grouping together words with similar meanings. Instead of learning the exact definitions of 1000 words (for instance), you might only need to memorize the approximate definitions of 100 different groups of words. You may want to invest in the Kaplan Verbal Workbook, which takes a number of popular GRE words and splits them into groups of 10-15 words.

However, if you have time, it is better to learn the exact definitions, as the GRE may ask you to choose between two words with similar meanings but different connotations. Therefore, it is in your best interest to start studying as soon as you decide to take the test.