I know, I know… I always preach the importance of learning vocabulary slowly and in-context, so the usage of a word really seeps into your brain. But sometimes, you just don’t have the time, and you need to cram as many GRE vocabulary words as you can in a limited amount of time. Maybe you only found out that the application deadline was sooner then you expected. Maybe you had intended to study vocab all these months, but…eh, you never got around to it. Or maybe you just figured vocab wasn’t that important on the GRE. Think again! It’s crucial to getting a good score.
No need to despair, at least entirely. You can still cram a large number of words into your head in a one-week period of time. But you are going to have to be intense, and you are going to have to be clever. Simply reading a vocab list or just relying on flashcards is not going to allow you to maximize your potential.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew
My colleague at Magoosh, Mike, bet me lunch that I could not learn the periodic table of elements in one week (yes, we make silly bets like this all the time). Though chemistry is not my forte (I remember the physical education teacher replaced my actual chemistry teacher at the last minute), I was definitely up for the challenge.
Instead of just staring at the periodic table of elements, which would probably have induced nausea, I learned a few at a time, constantly closing my eyes and rehearsing those that I had learned. I went up and down, left and right, all the time strengthening the connections between the elements.
Likewise, when you learn words, you should learn about a dozen at a time. Make connections, when appropriate. See if you can come up with the word when you just look at the definition. See if you can list a few synonyms. When you feel you have a strong grasp of the words, build off of them by learning another dozen words. Always come back to the original words, comparing them to new words. Remember, it does not help to cram words for the GRE if they fall out of your head after an hour.
Quiz yourself frequently and creatively
Researchers who study memory have learned that after 90-minutes what we learn suddenly begins to dissipate rapidly. Instead of studying two hours at a time, study in little bursts, trying to return—even if for a few moments—to your studying within 90 minutes to 2 hours. These little breaks are a good time to let the words incubate; but not enough time so that they disappear completely.
This is probably not the most pleasant visual—but I’m sure it is colorful. Joking aside, “brain barfing” can be a powerful way to know what is inside your brain, and just how strong the memory of a word is (are you mixing up letters? Are you mistaking one word for another?)
So here’s what you do: Take a blank piece of paper and see how many words, along with their definitions, you can write out. You will often find that the number of words you knew is fewer than expected. Don’t worry, go back and consult your list, especially for those tip-of-the-tongue words. That way you can identify those words that you tend to forget.
Take advantage of those quiet moments
Waiting for a bus? Eyeing that smartphone to kill the time with Angry Birds? Don’t succumb! Instead see if you can think of words that you had been learning. Maybe you can even use them to describe something in your immediate environment (“Where is that dilatory bus?!?”).
Do plenty of practice questions
Don’t just hang out with vocabulary the entire time. Crack open a GRE book or log in to Magoosh on your smartphone and start solving actual questions. You will be exposed to words, many of which you know, and probably many which you don’t. Of the words you do know, working with them in a problem-solving context, will only make the connection your brain has formed with that word that much stronger. For the words you don’t know, make them part of your daily list.
Don’t forget to use them as part of your all-out assault on vocabulary. Grab a friend or family member, and have them quiz you. And remember to see if you can identify words from their definitions (and make sure you actually know what the definitions mean, instead of just saying them in a robot voice).
Aggressively following this schedule—making sure to include all six strategies—should help you learn between 500 and 1,000 words. As for the bet, I employed many of the strategies above and was able to memorize all 118 elements—reciting them forwards and backwards, up and down—in 48 hours. The best part was I got a free cheeseburger. Of course even the juiciest burger pales in comparison to a great verbal score, which you can only attain from learning lots of vocabulary words.
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