If it looks like a trap, IT’S A TRAP.
Many of us—even some private GRE tutors —take the GRE specifically because we excel in an English-language based field, and we’re going on to graduate work in this field because we gained this mastery in our work with or on the English language at the undergraduate level. We remember the Verbal SAT, perhaps vividly, perhaps only hazily, but it’s likely we did extremely well on it. We expect the Verbal section of the GRE to be something of a breeze. Compared to writing research papers at the graduate level or writing creative work for publication, how difficult can a standardized test be?
Really, really hard.
If you’re not familiar with the GRE, you may assume that the sentence completion sections will be similar to those on SAT. However, this is true in format only, and even there only partially true.
What Makes These Questions So Difficult?
The GRE presents you with sentences containing two or three blanks, and asks you to pick two or three vocabulary words from a given list with which to complete the sentence. The words are not paired, but must be chosen individually. Therefore, unlike the SAT, one cannot work by eliminating entire answer choices via focusing on the relationships within pairs of words—each blank is its own separate battle. The vocabulary is also exponentially more advanced than that on the SAT, or, indeed, that which ones uses in an advanced college-level Literature course, let alone in daily life. And the questions categorized as “devilish” really, really are just that.
Go Old-School: Use Flashcards
Therefore, even if you’re already a genius of the English language, you’re probably going to have to devote some time to studying for this section before you take the test for real. As with any vocabulary test, the first thing you can do is go back to that old middle-school standby and make flashcards. However, these need to be done in a way that’s precisely structured, rather than haphazard. One important strategy is to combine flashcards with practice sections. As you correct any practice section or practice test, notate any vocabulary words that weren’t familiar to you (even ones that you knew were not the correct answer), and add them to your flashcards. If you’re using a vocabulary flashcard app (there are some good ones, but they aren’t structured enough on their own), notate the words you habitually miss. Add these to your own flashcards as well, so that you begin to compile a collection of the most challenging words for you. Look for patterns in this compilation: Is there a type of word you always miss? Are you tripped up by commonly used words that are tested on the GRE with a secondary, less-known meaning? Are you tripped up by huge polysyllabic adjectives, or more by words that look simple but aren’t? What kind of associations do you find helpful in memorizing new words?
Watch Out, It’s a Trap!
In addition, the GRE gets extremely tricky on this section and tries to anticipate common errors students make. As mentioned above, many commonly used words have rarely used secondary and tertiary meanings, and the GRE tests this with an awareness that most people will assume that the well-known meaning rather than the correct one. Approach this section as you would a booby-trapped tomb in an Indiana Jones movie: get cocky for even a minute, and before you know it the ground gives way and you’re plunging into the alligator pit. Always double-check that the word does not have an alternate meaning before deciding to choose or eliminate it. Further, watch out for words that look like synonyms but aren’t. There are many words tested that either look similar to well known words but mean something entirely different, or are almost a synonym for the correct word but have some crucial difference in connotation. Being very vigilant about these common traps can make a huge difference.
Work One-on-One with a Private GRE Tutor to Strategize
Working one-on-one a skilled tutor can better allow you to strategize against these and many other traps on this part of the test. As a GRE verbal tutor in New York, I find that many of my students assume the Verbal section should be easy for people who already excel in English, but it rarely is. To avoid unpleasant surprises on test day, our private GRE tutors in NYC and Boston can tailor strategies to help you utilize the skills you already have in the English language and use them to beat even the most devilish vocabulary questions.
For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our private GRE tutors in NYC: The Key to the GRE Analyze an Argument Essay, Combating Testing Anxiety, Study Tips for Busy People, What Happens When a GRE Tutor Takes the Test?