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Difficult GRE Vocabulary – Words You Have to Know!

So the new GRE has arrived, but that doesn’t mean ETS is changing its tricks. If the ETS Official Guide is any indication, you should definitely know the vocabulary words below. For those who get the more difficult second verbal section (remember, the test adapts between sections), knowing these words may make the difference between a 159 and a 160 (yeah, I know – that doesn’t seem as dramatic as the difference between a 690 and a 700).


This is ETS’s number one favorite word for harder questions. Period. If ETS needs to make a Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence questions difficult, all it needs to do is throw in “belie”.

The key to answering a text completion question that uses the word “belie” is to know how the word functions in context. Let’s take a look below:

Her surface calm belied her roiling emotions.

The effortless fluidity with which the pianist’s fingers moved belied the countless hours he had practiced.

Her upbeat attitude during the group project belied her inherent pessimism towards any collective endeavor.

In each case, note how the outward appearance does not match up with the reality. That contradiction is the essence of belie.


Much as the addition of belie is a difficult vocabulary word that tends to make a question harder, the addition of disinterested into a text completion can make it a difficult question. Why? Everybody assumes that disinterested means not interested. While this is acceptable colloquially, the GRE, as you’ve probably come to learn by now, is anything but colloquial. The definition of “disinterested” is unbiased, neutral.

The potential juror knew the defendant, and therefore could not serve on the jury, which must consist only of disinterested members.


Equivocal does not mean equal. It means vague, undecided.

“Equivocal”, especially in its more common form “equivocate”, has a negative connotation. If a politician is equivocating, he/she is not answering a question directly, but is beating around the bush.

In the academic GRE sense, if a phenomenon is open to multiple interpretations it is equivocal.

Whether we can glean an artist’s unconscious urges through his or her art remains equivocal – that we can ever even really tap into another person’s hidden motives remains in doubt.

Instead of answering the reporter’s question directly, the politician equivocated by providing an answer so vague that it could have referred to anything.


“Undermine” is common in all sections of the GRE, not just difficult sections. It can pop up in reading comprehension answer choices just as commonly as text completion questions.

“Undermine” means to weaken and is usually paired with an abstract term, such as authority. It can also have the connotation of slowly or insidiously eroding (insidious mean subtly harmful).

The student undermined the teacher’s authority by questioning the teacher’s judgment on numerous occasions.

5. BETRAY – reveal the existence of something

To betray means to go against one’s country or friends. Right? Well, yes, but not always. Especially on the GRE. To betray means to reveal or make known something, usually unintentionally.

Let’s try a sentence equivalence question:

As we age, our political leanings tend to become less ——–; the once dyed-in-wool conservative can betray liberal leanings, and the staunch progressive may suddenly embrace conservative policies.

(A) pronounced
(B) obscured
(C) contrived
(D) earnest
(E) diplomatic

In this case betray means reveal. As we age our political biases become less obvious/extreme (my own words). Which word is the closest? (A) pronounced.

Summing Up – Quality over Quantity

Cramming thousands of words for the new GRE will not be efficacious. On the other hand, knowing not just the correct definition of high-frequency words, especially the difficult GRE vocabulary above (and by difficult I don’t mean obscure, but confusing/nuanced) but how these words function in a sentence, will be paramount to your success.

By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

3 Responses to Difficult GRE Vocabulary – Words You Have to Know!

  1. Chris Lele
    Chris Lele August 11, 2011 at 10:42 am #

    The way I conceived it was that the pianist makes playing look so easy, yet he practiced countless hours. But that doesn’t fit with the word belie. The sentence should have read:

    The effortless fluidity with which the pianist’s fingers moved belied the difficulty of the Rachmaninov Prelude.

    So you’re right – his playing is not being belied by the countless hours. Had he practiced thousands of hours and had his fingers than moved in a labored fashion, that would have belied the countless hours he’d practiced.

    Thanks for your very observant eye!

    • Saurabh August 12, 2011 at 6:55 am #

      Thanks a lot Chris!! now it looks perfect…..

  2. Saurabh August 10, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Hi Chris…First of all thanks for the useful post!

    I have a doubt in one of the sentences ….it goes like this….

    “The effortless fluidity with which the pianist’s fingers moved belied the countless hours he had practiced.”

    Here as per my understanding the effortless fluidity of pianist is an outcome of his countless hours of practice…then how come they belie each other ?

    Please clarify my doubt….. it will be really helpful!!

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