My Favorite Way to Learn Vocabulary for the GRE


New! I created a free 30-page e-book called "Vince's Complete Guide to Learning GRE Vocabulary" (link goes to the e-book).

After you read this post, make sure to check it out. It has literally everything you need to know about GRE vocab. 


(Check out @GRE_vocab_words on Instagram for more of my GRE vocabulary cartoons.)


How Do I Study For GRE Vocabulary?

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.

This can be frustrating for native English speakers, let alone people for whom English is their second or third language! 

To study, 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!


(note: I am not really in a boy band.)


The Fastest Way To Learn GRE Vocabulary

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.

Let's say you're learning the word "prodigal", which means "wasteful". The front of the card will have the word - prodigal - and the pronunciation, PRAH-dig-ul.

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.

Then on the back of the card, a mnemonic (Prada gal - get it?) 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. 

Pro Tip: looking up a word on a good online dictionary like Merriam-Webster will not only provide synonyms for a word but also real-life usages, etymology (where the word originated), and more.

Again, this is all 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.


(good example of English co-opting a French word)

Yes, making your own flashcard does take a lot longer. 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).


What Is The Best GRE Vocabulary App?


I recently posted all 1300 of my GRE vocabulary cartoons along with 160 root word cartoons on Quizlet, for free! I like to think it's the best of both worlds: a convenient app that creates multiple links to the definition of the word in your memory.

If you haven't used Quizlet before, it's basically an app built for flashcard review. So it makes it easy to quiz yourself and restudy words you didn't know the first time you saw them.


Just click on a letter and start learning! You can click on the image to make it bigger so you can actually see it.

Check out my GRE vocabulary cartoons on Quizlet here.

So are there any tricks to making your GRE vocab study more efficient? Yep. There are.


Organizing Your GRE Vocabulary Learning


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:

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.


(gross, I know. But you'll remember it.)


How Many GRE Vocab Words Are There?

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.

Sadly, there's a common myth - perpetuated by test-prep companies - that there are the "300 most popular GRE words" or the "101 most important GRE words".

Bullshit. These companies don't know which words will show up on the GRE you take and neither do I. 

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!


(learning vocab through cuteness)


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. 

Make sure you check out my free e-book "Vince's Complete Guide to Learning GRE Vocabulary" if you missed the link above. And I've got a ton of free GRE resources on my blog, including 1, 2, 3, and 4-month study plans.

P.s. Need to work on the whole verbal section? I've got a course for that.

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