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Studying vocabulary was probably my least favorite part of preparing for the GRE. Nope, that’s not true. It was definitely my least favorite part. The first time I took the GRE, I thought I could roll in cold and knock it out of the park. That’s another nope. My math score was killer, but my lack of esoteric vocabulary knowledge killed me.
So I had to learn it, and learn I did—all the way to a 1600. We all know some of the good vocabulary learning tricks covered in the Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides, like sorting words into groups, sharing words through social media, and labeling items or rooms in your house. But here are other ways you might learn vocabulary — some weirder than others.
- Replace words in songs you know. Music is a great learning tool because it contains sets of words that we already have memorized. When your vocabulary words offer up a synonym, try to think of a song you know that features that word, and just swap in your GRE word. If you aren’t that into songs, you can do the same thing with famous quotes.
- YouTube video-search the word. Sometimes, hearing a word in context can really make it stick. Try doing a YouTube search for the word you have in mind. A YouTube search for inchoate makes me aware of the phrase inchoate crimes, which I can hear in context and internalize. A search for laud reveals a number of songs containing the word. The list goes on!
- Take your flashcards to the gym. The repetition of many fitness activities, from running on the treadmill to doing push-ups, makes them perfect for studying vocabulary. Plus, with your body moving, your brain is better activated. I like to pick a word at a time and repeat it, with its various definitions, 10 or 20 times along with my movements. After the first read, try doing the rest of the repetitions from memory.
- Put a face or motion with each word. Some people learn kinetically, and most of us benefit from learning in more than one way. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are the four classic ways to learn language, but adding in motion and other sensory learning methods can really help. Associating a word with a grimace, a disgusted face, a sigh, a huge smile, a growl, a sly look, or a jump into the air can help cement its meaning in a way that memorization can’t. Try it!
- Use Google Images search to “picture” words. A general Google search is of course a great learning tool, but don’t forget about Google Images. An image may stick in your mind in a way that words don’t. Image-search a word such as lavish or luminous, and it will stick with you. You can even print out an image that really helps you and put it on your flashcard—for this test, that’s often definition enough.
- Color-code or sticker your flashcards or notes. Sometimes you come across a word on the GRE that you know you knew. Once upon a time, you read and defined the word, but it’s not cemented in your memory. In those cases, even a glimmer of the word’s meaning can make a difference. Think about putting all the “bad” words in red and all the “good” words in green. Or putting smiley-face stickers on all the words that define something positive or pleasant. At any convenience store, you can buy a pack of round label stickers in red, green, yellow, and blue—why not assign those colors to mean bad, good, happy, and sad?
- Match a stack of words to a collection of items. For me, forcing vocabulary words into categories helps me to understand them. It makes me tell a story, which causes me to think about the word in a new way. Sorting words is one great way to do this. But for a different take, try taking a collection of items and assigning each word to one of the items. This might mean you dump out a box of crayons or the contents of your spice rack, and then force yourself to assign each vocabulary word to one of those items for whatever reason you can come up with! The collection doesn’t have to be physical items—it could be your list of Facebook friends or the contacts in your phone. Searching your mind for qualities that each word’s definition shares in common with an item or person in the collection helps form connections that stay with you.
- Write the word in a way that shows its definition. Writing is often neglected as a learning tool, especially with more students printing or buying pre-made flashcards than ever before. But if you’re stuck on a word, try writing or doodling it in a way that mixes the word with the meaning. Maybe you turn the “o” in loquacious into an open mouth, talking and talking. Maybe you write the word lethargic long and melting along the bottom the page, or the word inimical covered in spikes.
- Label a magazine or newspaper with vocabulary words. Whether you print your trouble words on actual labels or just crack open a magazine with a pen, try putting those words on other words, images, or ads that evoke the correct meaning. When you go through the process of searching for words or images that match the word and meaning you have in mind, you are actively using the words and their definitions—and that’s the best way to long-term memory!
- Post your top-ten hit list where you’ll see it. Despite all the unique, multifaceted ways you find to study vocabulary, there will probably be some words that elude them. Pick ten of the worst offenders, and give them each a one-word definition. Then, put those words and their definitions on a Post-it note, and put that note somewhere you can see it. Sticking it on the bathroom mirror and reviewing it while you brush your teeth is a great option, or posting it by your computer at work. Once you feel you’ve mastered those words, make another hit list. Short, manageable chunks and lots of repetition are key.
If you have other ways that have helped you learn vocabulary, please share them with us! 📝
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