My Favorite Way to Learn Vocabulary for the GRE

A More Efficient Way To Learn GRE Words

Ok, so you already know vocabulary is important for the GRE. Sentence equivalence questions, text completion questions, and even reading passages will test your ability to define certain words. If you don't know those words, some of these questions will be very difficult to work with, if not impossible. But what's the best way to study GRE words?

Let's Get Creative

I think most people need to take a more creative and active approach to learning GRE vocabulary, as opposed to a passive one. Notice that I say "learning" rather than "memorizing": if you use the right approach, you'll retain words long-term.

Passive vocab studiers often just flip through flashcards or a vocab app. I'm not saying this is bad or wrong. This way of learning can be a good supplement to the methods I'm about to describe to you. But think about how many more connections you'll create in your memory if you build multiple associations to the words!

Creating Effective GRE Vocabulary Flashcards

I like making flashcards for words that create multiple links in your brain to the meaning of the word. On the front, you'll write the word and its pronunciation. On the back, a brief definition, a mnemonic, a sentence using the word, and any synonyms you're trying to learn.

The pronunciation on the front of the card helps you say the word in your day-to-day speech (link 1) which will help you remember its meaning. The mnemonic (Prada gal) calls to mind the meaning (link 2). The sentence you create also calls to mind the word's definition (link 3). And the synonyms give you more connections (link 4), plus, they'll help you learn those synonyms.

Again, this is creating lots of associations in your memory to the definition of the word, so it will be easier to recall. In fact, I think you'll find that you permanently retain many of the words you study this way with much less effort than studying a typical, pre-made GRE vocab flashcard.

Yes, making a flashcard does take a lot longer than just whipping out your Manhattan Prep vocab flashcards or firing up your Magoosh app. But it also will make you learn the words faster. Perhaps doing a bit of both (making you own cards AND studying premade cards / vocab apps is a good compromise).

But how should you organize which words to study?

I recently read about research that said the best time to study something is right as you're about to forget it. The act of re-learning makes the memory stronger than it was the first time, kind of like a muscle rebuilding itself stronger than it was before a weightlifting session. So, I devised a process to help you organize your studying:

Organizing Your GRE Vocabulary Learning

1. Create 50 custom vocabulary flashcards:

    • Side A shows the word and its pronunciation.


    • Side B shows definition, part-of-speech, mnemonic, sample sentence, and synonym(s).

2. Label the cards with numbers 1-50 and stack them in order.
3. Use the table below to decide which cards to study and review each day.

The idea is to keep increasing the periods between reviewing certain cards, since it will take you longer and longer to forget their words the more you study. Notice that the amount of time between reviews of certain cards keeps doubling. Hopefully you'll know the words after a couple of reviews anyway.

How Many GRE Words Should You Learn?

One question I sometimes get is how much time should someone be spending on studying vocabulary. I usually tell people that studying vocab should only comprise about 10% or less of their study time. Knowing words helps: the problem is that you don't know which words will appear on the GRE that you take. And every single other part of the GRE is predictable: we know what math concepts will appear - we even know what all the essay topics are (since ETS publishes them on its website). So don't overdo the vocabulary studying.

Also, don't make the mistake of thinking that knowing tons of vocab is all you need for fill-in-the-blank questions. Text completion questions and sentence equivalence questions sometimes require a pretty high level of reading comprehension, as well as logic. The GRE is a reasoning test, and graduate programs care about it because they want to know if you can think. If knowing all the vocabulary was all it took to do well, the test would be fairly useless.

I recently talked to a GRE student from Kuwait who told me that when he recently took the GRE, he KNEW all the vocab but STILL had a lot of trouble figuring out what the sentences meant. He needed to work on his reading comprehension more than his vocab!

Other Ways To Learn GRE Vocabulary

One of the best ways to learn GRE words is to see them in the wild. Most people with strong lexicons have them from a lifetime of reading. Well-written publications like The Economist or The New Yorker will naturally expose you to GRE-level vocabulary. And since you'll be seeing those words used correctly, it's a great way to passively absorb what words mean. In fact, it will be easier to learn them since you'll be seeing them in context.

Bonus: you'll also educate yourself about what's going on in the world, which will have the added benefit of giving you more material with which to write GRE essays - and will probably come in handy when grad school interviewers ask you questions about current events.

I also like Merriam-Webster's Vocabulary Builder, since it provides context for words and organizes them by their roots. Make sure that you quiz yourself on the words you learn, no matter what study methods you use: being forced to recall information helps people learn it.

The Bottom Line

Whatever method you use to learn vocabulary for the GRE, keep in mind that knowing more words helps you communicate better and understand what you read more fully in everyday life.

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