Me Learn Big Words: A GRE Verbal Overview

A typical GRE verbal overview glosses over the fact that you’ll be tested on many of English’s 1 million words (or at least the most common 60,000 or so) and goes straight into explaining the difference between the different question-types. We’re going to talk about that topic today, too, but we’re going to focus on something more important first. What do you need to know on the GRE Verbal section? How should you prepare for it? And how do know know if you’re ready? A thorough GRE verbal overview starts at the beginning, so that’s where we’re going to begin.

What Do You Need to Know on the GRE Verbal Section?

The GRE Verbal section is a messy combination of reading comprehension questions and vocabulary-in-context questions. These questions will test your knowledge of the language, but not in the sense of testing your grammatical ability or fluency. Instead, the test focuses on your ability to pick out fine details from a dense block of text and your ability to infer meaning from context.

If we think about our GRE verbal overview in this way, we can break the test down into a list of required skills instead of question types:

  • inferring the meaning of individual words from context
  • distinguishing between major and minor points in a paragraph or passage
  • summarizing a passage
  • understanding the structure of a text and why it was constructed that way
  • identifying the author’s perspective (and contrasting it with perspectives in the passage)

This part of the test is intended to challenge your ability to engage with the text and actively construct it instead of passively understanding it. But does it actually do that?

You Must Read Closely

Spoiler alert: no, it doesn’t actually do that. The way the test is designed, I suppose it could do a passable job at challenging your active construction of a text’s meaning, but that is an inefficient way to approach the test. Instead, nearly all students will benefit from exploiting the fact that this is a multiple-choice test, and therefore the challenge lies in recognizing incorrect answers, not constructing correct answers. Most of our strategies for beating the test involve a close reading of the answers and key parts of the text to identify what is clearly wrong, then working from there. On the GRE Verbal section, you will often rely on a close reading of a particular sentence or phrase to give you the details you need to eliminate incorrect choices and then pick the right answer.

You Must Know Your Vocabulary

You may have also noticed that the list of skills above relies heavily not on your mastery of the English language, but on your recognition of details, and therefore on your vocabulary. Many of the answer choices will present synonyms to phrases in the passage, careful reinterpretations, and obfuscatory reimaginings. You’ll need to be prepared to wade through the dense sentences to find the answer without the help of a dictionary or a thesaurus. This means that a student without fluency in English can perform reasonably well on the GRE Verbal section. The test does not cover grammar or English construction, so if a student can study vocabulary and get reasonably quick at reading the passages for key details, they can do quite well.

A GRE Verbal Overview of Question-Types

Now that we’ve looked at the skills required on the GRE Verbal section, our GRE verbal overview should turn next to the question-types we’ll see. There are really only three:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Text completion
  • Sentence equivalence

These question-types all challenge a student’s ability to scan answer choices for important details and to identify words correctly in context. While the reading comprehension questions have a great deal of context to work with, the text completion questions often don’t. You’ll need to determine the meaning of several answer choices in context using only a single sentence. The sentence equivalence questions are purposefully constructed with little context at all, forcing you to know the words in question, or at least to require you to make a highly educated guess. For this reason, I often see vocabulary size as a deciding factor on the GRE Verbal section.

In my opinion, the best way to take a GRE Verbal score from good to great or from great to excellent is to expand your vocabulary. There are a few common methods, but we’ll discuss those in another post.

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