You might think you know how to memorize GRE vocabulary. However, a lot of what we learned in school about memorization—and about learning—has turned out to be inefficient or outright incorrect. There are faster and easier ways to learn GRE vocabulary than just staring at flashcards or repeating the words over and over, and they aren’t all obvious! Here are our best science-based GRE vocabulary tips for speeding up your vocabulary acquisition.
1. Tap into the “testing effect.”
The testing effect is a phenomenon studied by education researchers. You can also use it to boost your GRE vocabulary!
Suppose that there are two classes of students and both classes will take the same final exam. Both classes learn the same material, from the same teacher, for an entire semester. However, one of the two classes also takes a five-minute quiz at the end of each class session. The students in the other class get five minutes of extra time to study, instead.
It turns out that the students who took the quizzes end up doing a better job on the final exam. Your brain loves making mistakes, even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. When you get a question wrong and then correct yourself, you’re much more likely to remember that question. You’re also more likely to retain information that you were forced to think hard about—say, when you were trying to remember the answer to a quiz question.
Start each GRE vocabulary study session by choosing five random vocabulary words and quizzing yourself. (The Manhattan Prep GRE app is an easy way to do this.) End each session the same way. Over time, you’ll be more likely to remember those words than if you simply spent more time reading over them. And for more on the testing effect and how you can use it on the GRE, check out this article.
2. Give your brain a gift.
Take a moment to think back to a vivid childhood memory, good or bad. Picture it as clearly as you can in your mind’s eye. What makes that memory so vivid? Your brain loves four things more than anything else, and most of your strongest memories probably have one or more of these features.
- Personal experience: You’re more likely to remember things that happened to you than facts you learned in school.
- Strong emotion: You’re more likely to remember moments of anger, sadness, joy, fear, frustration, disgust, and so on.
- Sensory experiences: You’re more likely to remember memories that include vivid smells, tastes, sounds, etc.
- Surprises: You’re more likely to remember things that are unusual, shocking, disgusting, surprising, or strange.
If you’re struggling with a GRE vocabulary word, associate it with a mental image that includes some of those four characteristics. To really connect the image to the word, make sure to somehow include the sound of that word as well. Here’s an example.
The word dissipation sounds a little bit like diss, pay, shun. The word itself refers to a drunken, debauched, over-the-top lifestyle—like something that might be fun in your youth, but quickly catch up with you. And here’s a mental image to go along with it:
A medical patient is waiting in the doctor’s office… he’s bloated and sickly because he lives a dissipated lifestyle—he drinks too much alcohol and eats too much fried food. The doctor tells him to stop his dissipation, but the patient becomes furious! He screams at the doctor, telling him not to diss or shun him for his lifestyle. He refuses to pay for the visit because he didn’t get the advice he wanted.
That’s a lot more memorable than a boring and dry definition! If you’re struggling to remember the definition of a GRE vocabulary word, take advantage of the fact that your brain prefers to remember certain things.
3. Keep a file of tricky words for your GRE vocabulary.
What do these words have in common?
They all sound like they mean something they don’t! This makes them GRE vocabulary favorites. You’ll run into words like these as you study: words that logically should mean one thing, but actually mean something different.
Keep a special set of flashcards for words like these—and any words that always seem to trick your ear. And if you’re having trouble learning one of these words and keep making the same mistake over and over, check out the next of our GRE vocabulary tips…
4. You can’t delete a GRE vocabulary memory, but you can create new ones.
Have you ever had a vocabulary word that you just couldn’t seem to remember? Somewhere along the line, your brain decided that ‘disinterested’ meant ‘bored,’ and now that’s always the first thing that pops into your head when you see it, even though you know it means something else. These situations can be incredibly frustrating, but you can overcome them with this simple GRE vocabulary tip.
You can’t choose to ‘forget’ an incorrect definition that’s gotten stuck in your head. Instead, use that incorrect definition as a starting point. ‘Disinterested’ doesn’t mean ‘bored;’ it actually means ‘impartial.’ Use the tip from earlier and come up with a wacky mental image that links the two together.
For instance, imagine somebody being arrested and put on trial for being too boring! They’re brought to court, and the judge is so bored that she almost falls asleep right there at the bench. But she has to stay awake, because she needs to judge the case fairly and remain disinterested. That’s a memorable visualization—if you can bring it up when you need to remember the word disinterested, you’ll recall that it means not biased.
5. Definitions aren’t everything.
Try looking up the words you’re learning to see how people are actually using them. The results might surprise you. You can type the word into Google, but an even better resource is COCA—the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Type in a GRE vocabulary word, such as dispassionate, and check out the results:
COCA uses text from news articles, television shows, and other sources of American English to show how words are actually used. It can be more reliable than a search engine if you’re specifically looking for example sentences. And having example sentences can really help you deeply understand a word! Which leads to our next tip…
6. You can know just enough to be dangerous.
In this article, GRE instructor Tom Anderson asks a million-dollar question: is it better to really know 500 words or to sort of know 1,000 words? He concludes that you’re better off really knowing a smaller number of words and gives some great examples of how weak vocab knowledge can be dangerous on the GRE. Check out the article now!
7. Beware of second definitions.
Consider the GRE vocabulary word ‘flag.’ It seems weird that I even called it a GRE vocabulary word, right? ‘Flag’ is a simple word that’s easy to define: it’s that colorful piece of fabric, flapping in the wind, that represents a nation or a group. But there’s an infamous GRE vocabulary problem that tests the word ‘flag,’ and a lot of people get it wrong.
That’s because ‘flag’ has multiple definitions. One definition is common and very widely known. It’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word. The other definition is used much more rarely. ‘Flag’ can also mean ‘lose energy’ or ‘wear out’: ‘the runner started to flag during the last mile of the marathon.’
The GRE, of course, loves testing these second definitions. If you see something strange while solving a vocabulary problem—like a word that seems too common to be a GRE vocabulary word—think about second definitions. And make sure you’re writing down these definitions when you make flashcards!
8. Step up your GRE vocabulary learning with science.
Check out this article on spaced repetition for GRE vocabulary learning. Here’s the short version: when you partially forget something, then re-learn it again later, you create a stronger memory than you did initially. When you first learn a vocabulary word, you should review it frequently. Then, let longer and longer periods of time go by before you review it again. This will strengthen your memory of that definition by training your brain to recall it under difficult circumstances. The article linked above has an outline of how to use this method in your GRE vocabulary learning: it’s easier than it sounds, and has great results!
9. Change it up.
An old myth says that you should always study in the same place at the same time. Here’s the truth: you’ll form stronger memories if you study in different places at different times. When you change it up, you train your brain to practice retrieving memories under various conditions. By the time you take the real GRE, you’ll be ready for anything, and you’ll be able to recall definitions even in the testing center. Study at different times of day and in different places! Change up the way that you study, too: have somebody else quiz you, or quiz yourself. Look at the back of the flashcard or the front. Write down the definitions, or say them out loud. Your brain loves variety, so give it as much as you can!
10. Vocabulary isn’t everything.
That’s a strange thing to write on a list of GRE vocabulary tips. Here’s the thing: the GRE doesn’t have any problem types where you only have to recite definitions. Both of the GRE vocabulary problem types—Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion—require you to put vocabulary words into context sentences. In some ways, this makes your job easier, but it also adds a level of complexity that you need to prepare for!
There are multiple reasons you might miss a Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence problem. It’s possible to miss a problem because you didn’t know some or all of the vocabulary words. However, you can also miss a problem by misreading the sentence, or by misunderstanding the relationship between the blank and the rest of the text. Spend plenty of time doing practice problems instead of just memorizing definitions. (The 5lb. Book of GRE Practice problems has hundreds of GRE vocabulary problems!) When you miss a problem, don’t assume that it’s always a vocabulary knowledge issue. Pay careful attention to situations in which you misunderstood the structure of the sentence, as well. Learning more vocabulary isn’t always the answer—you can also gain points by becoming an expert at predicting what answer the GRE wants. 📝
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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.