The GRE is a very challenging test. In a series of three posts I will discuss strategies for studying for the verbal, math and analytical writing sections. In this post I will focus on the verbal section. For roughly six years I have helped hundreds of students prepare for the GRE. Additionally, I’ve taken the GRE, and went to graduate school, earning a Master of Science in Global Affairs.
The verbal section essentially consists of four features: sentence equivalence, text completion, reading comprehension, and arguments questions. While the first two have similar strategies, overall the approaches for each question type are fairly unique. When it comes to the sentence equivalence and text completions, the primary barrier is vocabulary, and for that there are no shortcuts. Just about any GRE prep material will include a list of commonly tested words. Prep for the verbal section should start with reviewing such a list and looking up any words with which you are unfamiliar. Additionally, I advise test-takers to look up any word that they hear or see in their day-to-day lives, which they are unsure of the definition. This is especially crucial for those of you who are not so confident in their vocabulary. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict which words will be on your test, so studying vocab won’t be enough. There is a specific process you can employ for both sentence equivalence and text completion which can put you in a position to even get questions right that include unfamiliar vocab.
SENTENCE EQUIVALENCE AND TEXT COMPLETION
Before discussing this process it’s important to understand the tasks and differences between sentence equivalence and text completion. Each question type includes a sentence with a blank. Sentence equivalence questions then task you with picking two words that would fit in the blank and are also similar in meaning. Text completion questions only require one word per-blank, but some sentences have multiple blanks. The process for both, however, is similar. After reading the sentence, you should first identify what part of speech the word is meant to be, look closely at the context of the sentence, and come up with your own word for the blank. This word will be used to assist in process of elimination. Words that do not fit with your prediction can be eliminated. Words that are close in meaning and words for which you don’t know the definition can be kept. There may be occasions when after doing this you will still have to guess, but much of the time this process will put you in a position to make confident choices.
The good news about the reading section is that it is essentially an open book test. The bad news is that the passages are pretty boring and therefore, a bit of a slog. This is intentional. The fact that the test is computer-based also presents a challenge, and on top of all that there is not a whole lot of time to read the passages. You should still read the passages, but focusing primarily on claims and not worrying too much about details and evidence. For longer passages you should jot down main ideas for each paragraph in order to keep track of the passage’s narrative. Most questions will ask for inferences, main ideas, purpose, and vocab. You may also see questions that ask for information that will weaken or strengthen selected claims from the passage. For each of these question types, the best approach is to read the question, identify the topic and question type, go back to the passage, search for appropriate information (you can use the main ideas you wrote down to locate the appropriate paragraph), and use that information to generate a predicted answer. This answer will be used as a guide for process of elimination. Beware of answers that incorporate outside information or that use language more extreme than what the passage expressed. Do not eliminate answers just because they’re not an exact match. Your predicted answers should be used primarily for eliminating wrong answers, rather than matching them to correct ones.
A unique feature of the verbal section are the arguments questions. For these, you will be given a short “argument.” For most of these questions you should identify the conclusion of the argument, the premise for that conclusion, and the assumption that connects the premise to the conclusion. Some questions will directly ask what the assumption of the argument is. Others will ask about a main conclusion, an inference, or for information that would strengthen or weaken the argument.
A unifying feature or preparation for all portions of the verbal section is practice. One cannot cram for the question formats, the strategies, the computer interface, or the timing. Additionally, the strategies may not seem like a quick fix and will only be made truly efficient with practice. Practice will be an important element of the math section as well, however there is much more in the way of content that you will need to know. I will discuss these specifics in my next entry about the math section.
You can read more details about GRE Format and Structure by clicking here.