Many of us have grown up taking vocabulary quizzes. We’ve learned to excel by memorizing a definition of a word, coughing up those definitions for the quiz and moving on. It’s not surprising then that many studying for the GRE think that learning a definition to a word—even if they are not entirely sure what that word is saying—is enough to help them ace the GRE verbal section. This assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
Part of the reason the GRE changed is it wanted to better reflect what students were doing in grad school. Coughing up definitions to words like punctilious, animadversion and turpitude clearly wasn’t one of them. Understanding how academic level words functioned in context was. So the GRE made sure to include more verbal question types that required you to understand the context of words, rather than the definition of the word itself.
Now an essential part of studying vocabulary is not just to study endless GRE word lists but to read articles with challenging content—articles that use some of the very words you will see test day. You of course will always want to look up words you encounter in context, to make sure you know the literal definition. You will want to look up other instances of how these words are used in context (wordnik.com or dictionary.com both provide example sentences with their definitions). You will also want to look up example sentences for words considered top GRE words. That way when you are working with word lists you can see how the literal definition functions in context. Magoosh’s GRE flash cards do a good job of that. (Full disclosure: they were written by yours truly)
The takeaway is to not divorce a word from its context. The GRE will constantly test your comprehension of words. This is even true in the Reading Comprehension section. Indeed, not only will the passage themselves use GRE-level vocabulary but the answer choices will also use GRE vocabulary (one notable example in the GRE Official Guide is the word “perfunctoriness,” which pops up in an answer choice). If you don’t know that word, now is great time to practice looking up the definition of that word.
Ultimately, this dynamic back and forth—between definition and context—will help you best understand how a word function. And that knowledge will definitely reflect itself in your GRE score percentiles test day.
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