GRE Tip: Hack Your Memory with Memorable Mnemonics

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blog-brainhackCan’t get enough of Neil’s GRE tips? Few can. Fortunately, you can join him twice monthly for a free hour and a half study session in Mondays with Neil.

In front of you sits a big stack of GRE vocab words you want to memorize. How do you get all of these words in your long-term memory as quickly and efficiently as possible? You could just try to cram things into your head through sheer force and repetition. But in my experience, that’s too slow, and students often learn the word-for-word definition without actually processing what the word really means. I’ve had more than one student tell me that “obsequious” means “servile” without knowing what “servile” means…

The key is this: you must make effective mnemonics for yourself as the first step to learning words. You’ll be shocked at how quickly you can memorize 50 words if you only make the effort early in the process.

Wait. What’s a mnemonic?

By the way, a “mnemonic” is basically any tool you use to help you retain and recall. You’re probably familiar with several already:

Rhymes: “i before e except after c”

Acronyms: H.O.M.E.S. to remember the great lakes–Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.

Visual Aids: Using your knuckles to determine which months have 31 days.

“But aren’t mnemonics cheating?”

You ask. To which I say: 1) Who cares? And 2) No, not really. According to Barbara Oakley in her book A Mind for Numbers, “Research has shown that students who use these types of tricks outperform those who don’t. In addition, imaging research on how people become experts shows that such memory tools speed up the acquisition of both chunks and big-picture templates, helping transform novices to semiexperts much more quickly— even in a matter of weeks.”¹ So there.

On the Quant side of the GRE, there are several effective mnemonics out there, and even more if you use your creativity. You may know these:

  • Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” can help you remember the order of operations (Parenthesis → Exponents → Multiplication/Division → Addition/Subtraction).
  • MA/DS/PM (pronounced “MAD SPaM!”) are the rules for manipulating exponents with the same base:
    • When you Multiply exponents with the same base, you Add the exponents.
    • When you Divide, you Subtract the exponents.
    • When you raise an exponent to a Power, you Multiply

And so on. Whenever you come across a new math concept, do what you can to create some kind of acronym or rhyme (or anything) to make it stick. (Sing this: “When dividing Fractions, don’t ask why, just flip the second and multiply.”)

Now, back to vocabulary.

The next time you run into a word you don’t know, take a moment a free-associate about it. What other words does it look like? What does it sound like? What images does it conjure? You’re not trying to guess the definition of the word, so the images you see may be completely unrelated to the definition. That’s okay, as long as they’re visual.

Let’s take the verb “scotch.” Regardless of the definition, you might see a roll of Scotch tape or a bottle of Scotch whiskey. Great! You have the first step to making an effective mnemonic.

A great vocabulary mnemonic creates a neat chain from the word to the definition. The word triggers an image, which contains some link to the definition:

Word → Image → Link → Definition

So now look up the word “scotch” and consider how it’s used. In our books, scotch is defined as “To put an end to,” to foil, or to prevent from happening. A good sentence for the word might be, “The storm scotched our plans for the picnic.”

So now you need to link. Make your image part of a little mental movie that acts out the definition. Take the Scotch tape: imagine someone trying to break into your house but getting caught in a web of Scotch tape. Or tripping over a bottle of scotch, foiling his criminal work.

Word →         Image →      Link →                    Definition

(Scotch)        (Tape)          (Tape blockade)  (to end something)

Finally, add a note about your mnemonic on the definition side of your flashcard, so you can keep using the same mnemonic until it sticks.

Let’s try it again. Apart from its definition, which you may or may not know, what does the word “hegemony” remind you of? Maybe hedges (well-trimmed shrubs) with lots of money. (Weird, huh? That’s the point!)

So what can you do to link hedges with money to the definition “dominance of one group over others?” Maybe the hedges are big mafia boss hedges that control all the hedges in the neighborhood (Shrubby Soprano).

Word →           Image →                           Link →                            Definition

(Hegemony)  (hedges with money)  (mafia boss hedges)  (dominance over others)

Your images and links should be strongly visual, so make them silly, weird, obscene, morbid, or shocking in some way. The word skullduggery should be conjuring skulls and shovels—something straight out of the Walking Dead. (You don’t have to tell anybody your sick mnemonics.)

Sometimes, you can go backwards. A word’s definition will remind you of a person you know, a celebrity, an event in your life, a movie, or anything. Who do you know that is totally“fastidious?”  (extremely nit-picky, critical, and hard to please.)

Once you realize that your Aunt Edith, with her obsessive cleanliness, is the epitome of fastidiousness, you just need a silly image to link her to the definition. Maybe her running around cleaning like a fast idiot?

Word →          Image →       Link →                    Definition

(fastidious)   (fast idiot)   (Edith cleaning)  (extremely nit-picky)

That’s it. Make a silly visual mnemonic for every word you want to learn. After few tries, you’ll be able to generate mnemonics easily in about 20 seconds, and after a few days of quizzing yourself, you’ll never forget them!

Your turn! Help each other out. Find a word from your GRE study and make mnemonics for the rest of us. Post in in the comments below. I’m looking forward to seeing them.

Find this blog helpful? The best way to learn all you need to achieve your goal score on the GRE is to try out one of our Complete Courses. The first class session is always completely free, so you’ve got nothing to lose.

¹Oakley, Barbara (2014-07-31). A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) (p. 179).


Can’t get enough of Neil’s GRE tips? Few can. Fortunately, you can join him twice monthly for a free hour and a half study session in Mondays with Neil.


neil-thornton-manhattan-prep-gre-instructorWhen not onstage telling jokes, Neil Thornton loves teaching you to beat the GMAT and GRE. Since 1991, he’s coached thousands of students through the GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and SAT, and trained instructors all over the United States. He scored 780 on the GMAT, a perfect 170Q/170V score on the GRE, and a 99th percentile score on the LSAT. Check out Neil’s upcoming GRE course offerings here or join him for a free online study session twice monthly in Mondays with Neil

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