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Bye, Bye Obscure Vocab: Revisited

Over the last few days, I’ve had a spate of replies and questions regarding a recent post : Bye, Bye to Obscure Vocabulary. I thought the post itself would be obscure, with only a few taking note; but, in the end, it has turned out to be quite a contentious issue! There were some discussions over what exactly I meant by ‘obscure’. For instance, if you’ve just started prepping for the GRE, the entire word list may seem obscure.

Then, there were others who were curious as to how I arrived at my conclusion. Had ETS made an announcement on its site? Had I gotten insider information from ETS itself? The answer to the first question is no. And the answer to the second is definitely no. But, I think it best to post a more comprehensive reply. So here it goes:

There definitely has not been any explicit announcement on the ETS site that the new GRE will dispense with obscure vocabulary. My prognostication is exactly that — a prediction based on my experience with the GRE, both past and present.

If one looks at the old GRE ETS book, they’ll see that the more obscure vocabulary is almost exclusively on the antonyms and analogies, which holds true even for the big book. The vocabulary for the sentence completions is more or less what you’ll encounter on a College Board SAT book. While many words on the SAT are difficult words (i.e. propitiate, traduce), they are not obscure words. The area in which the SAT and GRE Sentence Completions differ is in the complexity of the sentences. Even using relatively straightforward vocabulary, ETS is able to create some pretty nasty Sentence Completions, i.e. less than 20% of test-takers are answering the question correctly.

For the new GRE, I see this trend continuing. Difficulty of a text completion will not be because answer choice (D), let’s say, is the word nugatory. For instance, if you look at the Official Guide to the new GRE, you will see that some of the most difficult questions (in terms of the percentage of test takers who answer them correctly) do not have difficult, let alone obscure, vocabulary.

One of the most difficult words, sartorial, pops up on a one-blank sentence completion. Only 10% answered the question correctly. And while sartorial is a difficult word, it is by no means obscure – I’ve seen the word in articles online quite frequently. Nugatory, exoteric, nimiety…well, those not so much (you can also do a Google search on these words to see what I mean). Even then, one can use context clues to eliminate the other answer choices.

And that’s really what it comes down to: the new GRE is testing your ability to pick up on context – clues and style – and not your ability to know the rote definition of a word. Thus, the new GRE will use your typical Word Smart vocabulary book, but use the vocabulary word in a way that students who only study the rote definition of the word will be unable to pick up on (the word ‘belie’ is a classic, and oft-used on the GRE, example of this). So, in order to create a text completion in which only 10% of students are answering it correctly, ETS will rely on contextual complexity, and not extremely recondite vocabulary to do so.

At least, that is my strong hunch. Though, we’ll have to wait a few weeks to see just how accurate my prediction turns out to be.

About the Author

Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT for the last 10 years. He is the Lead Content Developer and Tutor for Magoosh. His favorite food is wasabi-flavored almonds. Follow him on Google+!

4 Responses to Bye, Bye Obscure Vocab: Revisited

  1. Nick August 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    thanks for your comprehensive reply.

  2. Arif August 1, 2011 at 11:33 am #


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 1, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

      Thanks, Arif! We may already see as soon as today, depending on forum activity, what the new GRE is really like. Speaking of which, I’ll be taking the test on Aug. 10th so I’ll get to see myself!

      • Arif August 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

        Best of luck for perfect score Chris!

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