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How to Study for the GREs – Part 3: Verbal

Back in November, I took the GRE (GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination, though the test’s longer name is almost never used) tests in preparation to go to graduate school next Fall. According to the results given immediately after the test, I scored a 780 on Verbal and a 790 on Quantitative.

Since my method of studying worked, at least it worked for me, I thought I’d share it in a three part series about studying for the three sections of the GRE: Writing, Quantitative (Math), and Verbal. Today’s subject is Verbal. Yesterday was Math and the day before was Writing.

What’s on the GRE’s Verbal Test?

The GRE’s Verbal test is made up of four types of question: Sentence Completion, Analogies, Antonyms, and Reading Comprehension. If you remember taking the SAT, it’s almost exactly the same.

Sentence completion – You’re given a sentence with one or two blanks and you must pick the word or pair of words which make the sentence coherent. If you’re up on your vocabulary (more on that later), this section can be easy enough to take sentence by sentence (though on the test they mix the problems up together).

Analogies – Juggler:Balls :: Guitarist:Guitar. I hate analogies. They’re hard for me because unless they’re crystal-clear I can spend a long time debating the merits of one answer over another. I majored in English, we’re trained to do this kind of thing (debate, that is). I prefer the hard answers of math or the relatively-straightforward ones in sentence-completion.

Antonyms – You’re given a word, you have to find its antonym (opposite). This is all about vocabulary.

Reading comprehension – Read a section and answer questions about it. It can be hit-or-miss depending on the subject matter & the questions. When I took the GRE I was fortunate enough to have reading selections I found interesting and the questions were reasonable. Questions like “What is the best title for this reading?” are hard for me for the same reason I have trouble with analogies.

How Do You Prepare for the GRE Verbal Test?

I strongly recommend using a prep book like the Kaplan GRE Verbal Workbook. You can often find them used or at libraries, just make sure it hasn’t been written in yet (and don’t write in it if it’s a library book)

Read carefully about how each part is done. I suggest paying particular attention to the info about how test-writers try to trick you through clever writing and answers that are perfectly wrong. Verbal is notoriously tougher than Math (650 in each will land you in different percentiles, Verbal’s being significantly higher). There are rarely clear, 100% correct answers in the verbal section. Read questions very carefully.

And do them. As painful as it might be to do them, do as many of the practice tests as you can stomach. Switch between the four sections as you get sick of them.

Preparing Your Vocabulary

Having a good vocabulary is critical to passing the Verbal test. With Analogies and Antonyms, you can’t answer at all unless you know what the words mean. In Sentence Completion and Reading Comprehension, you may get stuck with a tricky word that could change the meaning of the sentence. And big, rarer words in the GRE often sound like words with different meanings.

If you don’t read a lot, or your vocabulary doesn’t include the specific kinds of words that appear on SATs & GREs, don’t panic, there are a lot of ways to bolster your vocabulary. And some of the words they use are common.

First, try the GRE workbook. These books have entire vocabulary sections. The Kaplan book I used has a section of popular GRE words, meanings, as well as exercises on understanding the parts of a word so you can determine the meaning without knowing the word. Take advantage of these, you can even used a marked-up book since there aren’t tests.

Consider using an SAT vocabulary prep novel, like Tooth & Nail. Your local library may have a couple. These books are often too wordy to feel like a good novel, but they do use the words in context. For some people, this is a lot easier than memorizing lists. For others, it’s too stilted to be useful.

Also, sign up for one of the word-a-day e-mails that are available through many different sites. Not all of them will be relevant to the GRE, but it’s worth getting them into your head.


Aryn December 11, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I hate analogies, too! I wish they’d just get rid of them. I heard that the SAT actually did because they figured out that they can introduce bias.
.-= Aryn´s last blog ..The Argument for Stay-at-Home Mom Life Insurance =-.

Financial Samurai December 11, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Thos are great scores!

I guess an interesting question is: Is there a decent correlation with intelligence/success and one’s GRE scores?

I think the R-squared is no more than 60%. But, high test scores are a necessary evil.
.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Someone Has To Give Birth! Why Women Shouldn’t Be Penalized For Being A Mom. =-.

mrsmicah December 12, 2009 at 9:35 am

@Aryn that sounds familiar and I think it’s good for the SAT. I can see how they might test a kind of higher reasoning for the GRE (since it’s for grad school, not college), but they’re 100% out-of-place on the SAT

@FS I’d say there’s a strong correlation with a certain kind of intelligence or a certain aspect of intelligence. It’s the kind that responds well to structured problems under pressure. Whether or not that leads to success is based on other factors, like whether the person has other skills and what they choose to do with it.

I’d say that combined with a high undergrad GPA (which I also have) it shows that the person has the dedication to be a good student as well as the aptitude to succeed academically. Which should make one attractive to grad schools. 🙂

Financial Samurai December 12, 2009 at 9:52 am

Well, well, now Mrs. Micah! 🙂

How about this then. Which do you think is a more important indicator, a high GRE score, or a high GPA from a good set of courses taken in HS? If you have a high of one, you have a medicore of another.

I believe these standardized tests put urban, as well as minority kids at a disadvantage because they have a latent bias towards white Americana.

But, don’t look at me, as I’m fighting for women’s rights over on my site now, so one thing at a time.
.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Someone Has To Give Birth! Why Women Shouldn’t Be Penalized For Being A Mom. =-.

mrsmicah December 12, 2009 at 10:18 am

Highschool GPA means little or nothing when applying to graduate school unless you’re one of the one in a million who goes w/o doing undergraduate. Remember, this is GREs we’re talking about, not SATs. However, I think that a high college GPA is more important than a good GRE, because it shows aptitude in an academic environment, rather than good standardized test-taking skills.

Both may be biased against kids from an urban non-white environment, or it may be that schools in those areas may just be chronically underfunded so the children aren’t learning as well–nothing to do with race as such or personal aptitude, just being brought to that point by teachers. Which is a failure in the academic system, but of a different arm. Either way, I’m willing to believe they may not reflect the true potential of some students.

And they also don’t reflect the true potential of students who just don’t take standardized tests well. As I said above, I think they correlate with a certain kind of/aspect of intelligence…the kind that tests well on these.

Financial Samurai December 12, 2009 at 10:28 am

Cool, sorry, shoulda mentioned college GPA as well. Have you shared with the community where you went to college? If not, that’s cool too, just curious as you mentioned you’d like to apply to Maryland’s program.

I just had lunch with a client who is teaching a course at Berkeley’s Masters of Financial Engineering course. He mentioned there are some real smart but socially awkward people in his class. In his opinion, it’s the EQ, or emotional quotient that really matters for their students success.
.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Someone Has To Give Birth! Why Women Shouldn’t Be Penalized For Being A Mom. =-.

mrsmicah December 12, 2009 at 10:59 am

Because of my good scores, I’ve decided to apply to UMD as well. I didn’t want to do an in-person degree part-time, but if they offer me some sort of fellowship + scholarship, then I’ll go. It’s a “might as well” application.

I think your friend is write about EQ, which I hope my resume + personal statement will show…at least a little. Without a balance of the two, I think it’s hard to be successful. I’d go so far as to say that a person w/good people skills may even rise higher than one w/better “hard” skills. It makes them better suited for leadership. Fortunately, many people with the “hard” skills, like OCD cataloging librarians, are happy enough to live in Tech Services and not be running the library or reference desk. So it doesn’t make all of them feel at a disadvantage.

Writers Coin December 12, 2009 at 6:05 pm

I took the GREs a LONG time ago and didn’t do any preparation. Don’t remember my scores but I’m sure it would’ve helped if I would’ve prepared and treated them a little more seriously. In all, I got into grad school and got my advanced degree.
.-= Writers Coin´s last blog ..A Great Story of Persistence =-.

21 Guns December 13, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Make sure you get a scholarship. The job you are getting doesn’t seem that lucrative, so don’t get yourself into too much debt!


mrsmicah December 13, 2009 at 3:25 pm

@21 Guns Indeed. That or go part-time & pay my way as I do it. We’ve got enough student loan debt already from Micah’s grad school.

GRE Prep July 17, 2010 at 11:16 pm

I am also preparing for my GRE comes November and you have a great tips to follow. Kudos to you and I would be doing all of them and congrats by the way!

jackiejobtester October 2, 2010 at 11:12 pm

A high GRE is better than a high GPA.

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