Why Isn’t My Vocabulary Knowledge Helping Me on the GRE?

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Why Isn't My Vocabulary Knowledge Helping Me on the GRE? by Chelsey CooleyDid you know that you can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person GRE courses absolutely free? We’re not kidding! Check out our upcoming courses here.


You’re up to your ears in flashcards. You know the meanings of ‘nostrum’, ‘pelf’, and ‘maculated’. Maybe you’ve even used the spaced retrieval technique; here’s a piece that I wrote on this technique, and here’s another from my colleague, Céilidh Erickson. But when you take practice tests, your hard work with vocabulary doesn’t seem to be paying off. Why are you still missing GRE Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence problems?  There are plenty of SEq and TC problems that you can solve with minimal vocabulary. There aren’t any that you can solve without careful reading. If you don’t get the right read on the sentence initially — if you make a wrong judgment on what sort of word belongs in the blank — no amount of vocabulary know-how will help you. Here’s one example from the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems.

The music of the late ’70s is often described as _____________, despite the notable exception of a few innovators in the budding punk and hip-hop scenes.

  • derivative
  • visionary
  • enigmatic
  • cerebral
  • evolving

Most of my students get this one wrong on their first try. Here are some arguments I’ve heard in favor of wrong answers:

‘I picked cerebral, because punk and hip-hop aren’t usually thought of as intelligent music. So, I thought it formed a good contrast to the rest of the sentence.’

‘I picked visionary,  because it fits well with the description of ‘innovators’.’

Both of these students were able to define all five answer choices, but both of them still missed the problem! The first student used outside knowledge without realizing it. That’s a no-no on Text Completion — unless the problem tells you that punk and hip-hop aren’t cerebral forms of music, you aren’t allowed to include that in your reasoning. The second student missed the words ‘despite’ and ‘exception’, which show that the first half of the sentence shouldn’t fit with the second half.

Neither of these mistakes had anything to do with vocabulary. Are you making errors like these? If you’re not sure, review some of the vocabulary problems that you’ve missed recently. Create a list of critical ‘structure’ words such as ‘despite’ and ‘exception’, or start asking yourself whether your reasoning is based solely on clues from the sentence. Non-vocabulary-related errors are far more common than many GRE students think — they just don’t stand out as much as a vocabulary word you don’t know.

It’s also possible that you know a lot of vocabulary, but you’re missing some of the words you really need. Some words you come across are immediately recognizable as ‘vocabulary words’ — like the examples in the first paragraph of this article! Others, though, are more subtle. Would you create a flashcard for the word ‘qualified’? Most of my students wouldn’t. But you might run into a sentence like this one:

The committee offered only qualified praise for the mayoral candidate, citing his _______ voting record as the basis for its beliefs.

  • spotty
  • impeccable

Even if a word looks simple, it may still deserve some serious attention. This also applies to metaphorical uses of common words. A polar reception, for instance, is one that’s metaphorically ‘cold’. If you spot a word being used in a non-literal sense while you practice, jot it down, even if the word itself is one that you know. Vocabulary items don’t need to be single words, either! Some multiple-word phrases, such as rack and ruin, arms race, and tantamount to, rarely appear on flashcards but can still be tricky.If you skimmed past the word ‘qualified’ in your studies, this problem may be harder than it looks. Typically, ‘qualified’ means ‘having qualifications’, and has a positive connotation. But, on the GRE, it’s often used with a second, lesser-known meaning. ‘Qualified praise’ actually refers to praise that’s less than completely enthusiastic: perhaps the committee did praise the candidate, but only because all of the other candidates were worse! The right choice here would be spotty.

If you’re not sure why you’re struggling with Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence, look away from vocabulary. No matter how many five-syllable Latin and Greek words you memorize, they’ll represent only a very small portion of what you see on the GRE. Much more often, you’ll need to rely on your ability to dissect a sentence, notice small context clues, and identify the real meanings of words with multiple different uses. Hone these skills, and you’ll see your GRE Verbal score improve. 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor 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 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

  1. Christopher Ammons August 14, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    An insightful article, thanks.

  2. Manhattan Prep August 10, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    Hi, Vikrant.

    Yes, it is! Good work!

    Best,
    Chelsey

  3. Vikrant July 13, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Is derivative the answer for first text completion?