The GRE/SAT Tutor: A Secret Weapon for Learning Vocab

Posted by Mac Staben on 3/13/15 11:00 AM

weapon_of_choice_bannerLet us tell you about our new weapon of choice.

As an SAT and GRE verbal tutor in Boston, one of the hardest parts of my job has been to help my students improve on the vocabulary section of the GRE or the SAT. We can talk through how to solve a math problem or figure out the main point of a passage, but I’ve always thought of Vocabulary as a skill that has to be acquired by reading books and using hard words. Because you mostly find challenging words in challenging books, it’s my hunch that organizations like the College Board and the ETS use vocabulary as a proxy for asking “Does this person read lots of books?” If the answer for any student was no, (either because she didn’t read much or because English wasn’t her first language) then the student was out of luck.

But the tremendous gains in vocabulary by one of my current GRE students have forced me to reconsider. Her progress has made me realize that vocabulary can be taught and mastered rapidly. The secret? Anki. 

I discussed Anki a few blog posts ago as a tool for aiding memorization on the MCAT. When I teach that test, I have my students use it constantly, because it’s a very powerful tool for learning facts. Anki helps you answer questions like “what part of the body secretes hormone X?” or “What’s the formula for the area of a circle?” It’s not very good for higher-level questions like “How do I determine the main theme of this passage?” But, as I’ve come to realize, Anki can be hugely helpful to my work as a private GRE verbal tutor as well. After all, vocabulary is just a collection of facts that ask “What does this word mean?” Therefore, Anki applies extremely well to learning vocabulary.

Here’s how you do it: 

  1. Find a list of vocabulary words: Companies like Manhattan Prep (for the GRE) and Princeton Review (SAT) have put out all kinds of vocabulary lists of words the appear on the SAT. Finding a deck of “500 essential words for the GRE”
  2. Download Anki: (there’s an app for iOS and for Android. The Android one is free, but the iOS one is $25. Worth every penny by my estimation)
  3. Read this.
  4. Every day, put 20 vocabulary words into a deck. Don’t go down the page and add all the “A” words at once. Mix it up by adding words that start with different letters at the same time.
  5. Do your cards daily. This should take about 20 minutes or so, depending on how fast you are. I like doing flashcards at the end of the day because I’m most productive in the mornings. Running through flashcards is quick and easy, so I don’t like to waste productive time in the morning.
  6. Overawe your compatriots and antagonists (and standardized tests) with your loquacity.

Anki is a total breakthrough in learning new vocabulary. But most importantly, it’s not cramming. These words will stay in your head as long as you practice with Anki daily. The program uses spaced repetition to show you a card just as it knows you’re about to forget that word. Whether you’re trying to learn a new language (Spanish, Chinese, Arabic) or trying to improve your knowledge of your own language (SAT/GRE), Anki can help. And for further help, contact Cambridge Coaching! Our private GRE math and verbal tutors from Harvard and MIT can get your GRE prep on track, and help you get the score you need! 

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our SAT and GRE tutors in Boston and New YorkVocab Building for the SAT, What Happens When a Tutor Takes the GRE?, How Rusty Test-Takers Can Fight GRE Anxiety

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Tags: SAT, GRE