The GRE Verbal section is about more than just vocabulary and memorization. GRE Verbal also isn’t a bunch of subjective questions with no real right answer. Instead, it’s a challenging—and interesting—test of your reading, attention, English knowledge, and executive reasoning skills.
Here’s the official take on what the GRE Verbal section tests, directly from the Educational Testing Service (ETS):
The Verbal Reasoning measure of the GRE® General Test assesses your ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information obtained from it, analyze relationships among component parts of sentences and recognize relationships among words and concepts.
Note some of the keywords there: relationships, evaluate, synthesize. The core skill involved in every GRE Verbal problem is reading comprehension. And what is reading comprehension, anyways? On the GRE, it boils down to two things:
- The ability to read complicated text and translate it into a series of simple ideas
- The ability to figure out, based on the words in the text, how those simple ideas relate to each other
You’ll need those skills for every GRE Verbal problem, although the three problem types test them in slightly different ways. Let’s start with the two vocabulary-oriented GRE Verbal problem types: Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence.
What’s Tested on GRE Text Completion
You’ll see approximately six Text Completion questions on each of your GRE Verbal sections. Each question consists of a sentence or short paragraph which includes one, two, or three blank spaces. Your task is to pick the vocabulary word from the answer choices that “best completes the text.”
“Best completes the text” sounds fairly vague. However, the GRE is a standardized test, so every problem has to have a single right answer. That right answer needs to be right for a clear, logical, justifiable reason. Finding that right answer on a Text Completion problem relies on three skills:
- Can you find the information in the sentence that “proves” or “supports” the right answer?
- Can you figure out the relationship between that support and the word that belongs in the blank?
- Do you know enough of the vocabulary words to match that relationship with a right answer?
Let’s look at those skills one at a time. First, you need to find critical information in the sentence without being distracted by irrelevant information. Every Text Completion question contains clues that point you to the right answer. The clues in the sentence will always support one and only one of the answer choices. That doesn’t mean they need to be obvious! Part of solving Text Completion questions is figuring out what is a clue and what isn’t.
Here’s an example, adapted from the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems:
Finally, after refusing for a decade, the family patriarch, weakened by age and infirmity, surrendered to the impassioned pleas of his avaricious nieces, and gave his ______ to the risky investment stratagem.
Solve that problem before you keep reading! The right answer is assent, which means agreement. The clue that leads you there is that the patriarch surrendered to the pleas of his avaricious (greedy) nieces. That’s enough to tell you that he must have agreed to the risky investment, rather than disagreeing or remaining neutral.
How do you know, when you first read the sentence, that surrendered to the pleas is a clue but patriarch, age and infirmity, and refusing for a decade aren’t? If it seemed clear to you, that’s because you exercised the first skill involved in Text Completion: identifying useful information. This is a skill that we can all improve with time and practice—and careful attention to how you knew that the right answer was right.
The second GRE Verbal Text Completion skill is figuring out how the clue relates to the blank in the sentence. In that example, the relationship was straightforward. However, it often isn’t that clear:
When first introduced by senior management, the new boss was viewed as a figurehead at best; but after months of watching him shake up the office hierarchy and double productivity, even the most ______ of his employees was astonished at what he was able to accomplish.
A huge clue here is that the new boss was viewed as a figurehead at best: he wasn’t seen as an effective leader. However, how does the blank relate to that clue? Does it refer to employees who didn’t believe in the boss, or employees who did believe in him? There’s the second skill tested by Text Completion: can you work out, using transition words and other signals in the sentence, how the blank relates to the clues?
The right answer to that problem is skeptical. The phrase even the most ______ of his employees was astonished tells the savvy reader that these employees wouldn’t normally be astonished by the boss’s accomplishments. The words when first introduced, at the beginning of the sentence, also indicate that views of the boss have changed.
Finally, Text Completion problems test a third skill: vocabulary. It’s easy to put too much emphasis on vocabulary knowledge, which is why it’s last on our list. You do need a strong vocabulary to solve tough Text Completion problems, but vocabulary isn’t everything. After all, you can solve a lot of the problems on GRE Verbal with relatively little vocabulary, but you need reading skills to even start any problem.
The GRE doesn’t care whether you can rattle off definitions. If that was the case, GRE problems would look a lot different! Instead, you want a more subtle kind of vocabulary knowledge: the kind that comes from reading and understanding words in context. That’s why it’s so important to always use example sentences when you learn vocabulary words, and to look up words to learn how they’re actually used. Since Text Completion asks you to put words in context, knowing the nuances of how vocabulary words are used is critical.
What’s Tested on GRE Sentence Equivalence
GRE Sentence Equivalence is similar to Text Completion. There are approximately four of these problems on each GRE Verbal section, and each problem includes a sentence with a single blank. There’s also a twist: unlike Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence problems ask you to find two words that could each fit in the blank.
The two words have to follow the same rules as in Text Completion: they need to fit the sentence, based on the clues elsewhere in the sentence and the way those clues relate to the blank. On top of that, they need to be synonyms, which means that Sentence Equivalence leans a little more heavily on your vocabulary knowledge than Text Completion does.
In fact, it’s sometimes possible to solve a Sentence Equivalence problem without even reading the sentence! In some cases, there’s only one pair of answer choices that are synonyms. Since the right answers will always be synonyms, you can be sure that those answers will be right. More generally, you can eliminate any answer choice that isn’t part of a pair of synonyms.
This means that the clues in a Sentence Equivalence problem might (although not necessarily) be less clear than the clues in a Text Completion problem. Since you can use the information from the answer choices themselves, as well as the text of the sentence, you don’t always need extremely clear clues to solve a Sentence Equivalence problem. That said, there will always be some kind of clue in the sentence! However, Sentence Equivalence is definitely the most vocabulary-focused GRE Verbal problem type.
Like Text Completion, the vocabulary knowledge you’ll need relates to vocabulary in context. Read our tips for learning GRE vocabulary to learn how to develop this knowledge yourself.
What’s Tested on GRE Reading Comprehension
Reading Comprehension is the most diverse problem type on the GRE Verbal section. All Reading Comprehension questions involve some kind of passage and a multiple-choice question regarding that passage. However, the passages can be as short as a single paragraph or as long as four or more paragraphs. The questions can ask you to spot a small detail in the passage, understand the broad theme of the passage, or anything in between. There are even problem types that ask you to analyze and respond to a flawed argument in the passage.
The first thing that GRE Reading Comprehension tests is how effectively you read the passage. This means quickly breaking down the passage—which may contain complex jargon and fancy rhetoric—into a series of simple ideas, and understanding how those ideas relate to each other. A Reading Comprehension expert can read a 50-line passage about an unfamiliar topic in biology, sociology, or economics and come away understanding the basic outline without knowing what any of the technical terms mean.
You’re also being tested on whether you can spot the right answer to a question about the passage. Some questions will ask you to identify the main idea of the passage, which involves figuring out, using only the text, what the author thought was most important. Other questions will ask you to identify details, requiring you to quickly skim the passage for keywords and avoid getting confused or overwhelmed by complex language. Some questions are oriented more towards the logic of the passage, asking you to draw a conclusion based on the passage or identify a weakness of an argument. The skill involved here is the ability to understand the basis of someone else’s argument and spot logical flaws in it.
GRE Verbal Also Tests Executive Reasoning
GRE Verbal tests your vocabulary, your ability to read and understand relationships between ideas, and your ability to spot important information while ignoring extraneous detail. Like the Quant section of the GRE, the Verbal section also tests your executive reasoning skills. These are the skills that you use when you quickly decide whether to commit to a problem, take a well-reasoned guess, or guess randomly and move on. You can’t devote all the time you want to every single GRE Verbal problem and still finish each section within the time limit. The GRE test writers know this! They’re intentionally testing your ability to set smart priorities and maximize your number of right answers.
The GRE is a test of vocabulary and reading skills, but it’s also a test of self-awareness and high-level reasoning. You’re not only trying to get the problems right—you’re trying to quickly make the call on how likely you are to get them right, in order to decide how much time and energy to spend on them. Luckily, just like reading comprehension and vocabulary, this skill can be developed with focused practice. Check out our article on how to study for the GRE for some starting points! 📝
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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.