The most common GRE vocabulary words are rare but reasonable. The vocab questions don’t test the simplest GRE Vocabulary words, like cat or go. They also don’t test the hardest GRE Vocabulary words, like conodont or acnestis. The words tested on the GRE fall between these two extremes. They aren’t words that you see every day, but you’ll eventually run into them if you read plenty of high-quality writing—which is one thing the GRE is testing for!
The most common GRE vocabulary words are “academic” words, of which English has many, and pretty much any academic word is fair game on the GRE. Odds are, you won’t see any of the same vocabulary words as someone who takes the GRE a month later. That makes it futile to try to list the “most common GRE vocabulary words”: since there are so many different possibilities, and since everyone sees different problems on the GRE, there’s no way to predict which words you might see! However, you’re not out of luck. If you choose your study resources wisely, you can maximize the odds that you’ll know the words you need.
A good starting place for GRE vocabulary is the 500 Essential GRE Words. You can get this set of words as a stack of paper flashcards here, and that’s a good choice if you’re planning to add your own imagery and examples to your flashcards.
To develop this list of words, we started with the words that had appeared in published official GRE problems. Then, we analyzed those words and found that they had a number of common characteristics. Based on this, we were able to add additional words that might not appear in the Official Guide to the GRE, but that were very likely to appear on the GRE in general. To boost your GRE vocabulary, start with this set of words, then move to the 500 Advanced GRE words, which are rarer but still useful. You can also use the Manhattan Prep GRE app, which contains both!
What follows is a sample of common GRE vocabulary words that have appeared in published problems in the past. That doesn’t mean that they’ll appear on your GRE. However, this list will give you a sense of what you might see on your GRE—and how much vocabulary you need to learn! Look at these words as a sampling of GRE vocabulary—enough to get a taste of what to expect. We’ve divided them up based on the difficulty of the problems in which they initially appeared.
Basic Common GRE Vocabulary Words
Imminent: Something that’s imminent is about to happen in the near future. You might have heard the phrase “imminent danger”: it refers to danger that’s immediately present, as opposed to danger that might cause problems in the future. An approaching tidal wave is an imminent danger, while rising sea levels are less imminent.
Extraneous: A long, dull textbook might contain a lot of extraneous information: information that’s not really relevant to the topic. Extraneous means irrelevant or unrelated.
Erroneous: This word is related to the word error. In fact, it means “wrong.” One common phrase is “erroneous judgment”: an erroneous judgment is an incorrect one. For instance, you might make an erroneous judgment of someone’s character based on their appearance.
Insular: This GRE vocabulary word generally refers to a group of people, such as a community or a family. An insular group is one that doesn’t welcome people or ideas from the outside. The word comes from the same root as island and peninsula: think of an insular group as being similar to an island, where it’s difficult for new people and ideas to come in and out.
Medium Common GRE Vocabulary Words
Prosaic: Something that’s prosaic is ordinary and everyday. This word is the opposite of glamorous or exciting, and it could be a synonym of quotidian or humdrum. It comes from the same root as the word prose: prose is ordinary, everyday writing, as opposed to poetry.
Partial: This looks like a straightforward word, but it’s on this list because of its second definition. Partial can refer to a part of a whole, but it can also serve as the opposite of the word impartial. In that sense, partial means ‘biased’ or ‘favoring one side over the other.’ Judges are supposed to be impartial; a partial judge would probably do a poor job. You can associate this word with the words partisan and prejudiced, which are near-synonyms.
Ubiquitous: A ubiquitous thing is something that shows up frequently and is all over the place. For instance, coffee shops and rain are both ubiquitous in Seattle. Smartphones and the internet are ubiquitous. An experience or a phenomenon can also be described as ubiquitous: a ubiquitous danger is one that’s always lurking around the corner no matter what you’re doing.
Propagate: This word literally refers to breeding something, such as an animal or plant. However, the GRE often uses it in a more metaphorical sense. To propagate an idea or a belief is to spread it widely around to other people. In this sense, propagate is a synonym of disseminate and promulgate.
Tricky Common GRE Vocabulary Words
Quotidian: This word is the big brother of prosaic, which we saw earlier in the list. Literally, it refers to something that happens every day. However, it is typically used to describe something as mundane, ordinary, or unglamorous.
Restive: Restive tricks a lot of GRE test-takers because of its resemblance to words like rest and restful. However, restive is actually related to restless! It refers to something or someone that’s fidgety, on edge, tense, or unable to keep still. You may see this word used to refer to a restive crowd, which is a crowd that’s starting to lose its cool and become confrontational.
Pernicious: This word means harmful. However, it’s worth your while to learn exactly how it’s used. Something that’s pernicious isn’t just harmful; it’s typically harmful in a particular way. It’s not outright dangerous or violent, but rather, it causes a subtle or gradual type of harm. A blow to the head isn’t pernicious, but something like heart disease or the influence of social media might be. A good synonym for pernicious is insidious.
Diffident: This word refers to a type of personality. A diffident person rarely speaks up; he might be described as timid or reluctant.
Learning GRE Vocabulary
Learning GRE vocabulary words is a tough but important task. Your next step should be to read our tips for learning GRE vocabulary. Find a good source of words to learn—the 500 Essential GRE Words are a good starting place!—and go through and remove the ones you already know by heart. Then, read about the spaced repetition strategy to learn how and when to study words effectively. If you start now, you can master 50 or more new words per week between now and test day. 📝
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.