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Sentence Equivalence Questions

Yes, the GRE has undergone a major overhaul and has become the Revised, or new, GRE. While complicated, most of the new question types have unambiguous instructions – in a three-blank text completion, for instance, you must choose one of three answer choices to fit in the blank. For numeric entry, you must simply enter a number into an empty box. The latter is particularly daunting – yet the directions are very clear.

With Sentence Equivalence questions, however, the instructions are vague. Now, even though the Revised GRE has debuted, many are still scratching their heads, wondering what the difference is between synonymous sentences and synonyms.

Even if a Sentence Equivalence question is straightforward, you may suddenly find yourself  unsure of how to proceed. What if three answer choices work? Two of them are synonyms, and one of them isn’t. You feel, however, that one of the synonyms somewhat works in the sentence, but the one lone word that does not have a synonym amongst the answer choices works even better. What, then, is the answer?

Let’s take a look at the question below that puts us in the aforementioned quandary.

1.       The blitzkrieg of anti-smoking images has clearly had a(n) —- effect: both the number of total smokers and the rate of lung cancer has fallen in recent years. 

(A)  salutary
(B)  lasting
(C)  dramatic
(D)  ephemeral
(E)  unremarkable
(F)  beneficial

There are a few answer choices that could conceivably work here: (A) salutary, (B) lasting, (C) dramatic and (F) beneficial. However, lasting is a bit suspect, because there is nothing in the sentence implies that the changes in behavior are permanent.

So, now you are down to three answers. Let’s say you really like answer choice (C) dramatic. Indeed, this is the very word you came up with for the blank. However, because answer choices (A) and (F) are synonyms that work for the blank, there is no way (C) dramatic can be the answer. This is an important statement, so I will repeat it again: if two synonyms work for the blank, then another word cannot be the answer.

Of course, in the world of the GRE, and Sentence Equivalence in particular, it is not always that straightforward. What if you did not know the definition of (A) salutary? Then would it make sense to choose (C)? No. The overwhelming majority of Sentence Equivalence answers are synonyms. Therefore, your best bet, probability-wise, is to choose (A) salutary, even though you do not know what it means. The assumption here is that (A) salutary is one of the two synonyms. Then you want to choose either dramatic or beneficial. One of them will most likely be the answer.

You may balk, thinking that the odds are 50/50. However, if you simply pick (C) and (F), while avoiding the word you do not know, your chances of answering the question correctly are less than 10% (the odds that the two answers are not synonyms, yet create synonymous sentences). That is, the vast majority of the time, the two answers will be synonyms.

Of course, that does not mean all Sentence Equivalence questions always have answer choices that are synonymous – again, the vast majority do. So, let’s take a look at another Sentence Equivalence question.

2.       Despite tepid reviews from critics, the movie turned out to be a box-office —- , shattering records in its opening weekend and continuing to sell out theaters for months.

(A)  debacle
(B)  fiasco
(C)  darling
(D)  obscurity
(E)  juggernaut
(F)  medley

There is only one pair of synonyms amongst the answer choices: (A) and (B). Both words, however, are the opposite of the word that fits in the blank. So, do not pick them just because they are synonyms. At the very least, the correct answers must fit in the blank.

So, now you must pick two answer choices that create synonymous sentences. Usually, these two words are somewhat similar. In this case, to illustrate my point, I’ve picked two very different words. My point is that, if none of the synonym pairs work, then the answer must be non-synonym words, even if these two words are different in meaning. The main question now is: do the words create synonymous sentences?

In the sentence above, the clue is tepid reviews, and despite shifts the sentence so that the blank becomes the opposite of tepid. Our own word could be sensation, i.e. the movie did very well at the box office (which is a catch-all phrase for the amount of money a movie makes while in theatrical release).

Which two other words would show us that the movie did well at the box office? (C) darling implies that audiences embraced the movie and considered it a favorite. Answer choice (E) juggernaut is an indestructible force. In the context of the sentences, the movie did well and continued to rule the box-office week after week, pushing out and destroying the rest of the competition.

So synonymous sentences have been created: both juggernaut and darling create sentences showing that the movie did very well at the box office. None of the other answer choices creates this meaning, and, therefore, are incorrect. Again, this type of Sentence Equivalence is a rarity, especially one in which the words are so different. So, then, what are some good strategies for dealing with Sentence Equivalence questions?


1.     Always look for synonyms.  

2.     If you can’t find any synonyms amongst the answer choices, given you know the definition of every word, then the correct answers will be non-synonyms.

 3.     If you do not know a few of the words, do not just pick two words because they create synonymous sentences.

4.     Choose a word you do not know, and match it with one of the answer choices that work.

If the above sounds like a gamble, that’s because approaching Sentence Equivalence, in terms of guessing, is so complex, at least compared to the old GRE’s one in five answer choices. Essentially, you will want to do anything to increase the odds of guessing correctly. And, to do so, the steps above will be your most helpful strategy.

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.

4 Responses to Sentence Equivalence Questions

  1. Dana August 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your feedback! I took the test this morning and had some of the same feelings as you did regarding the test (reading comp. was on the more difficult side and was very time consuming, and the quant. tests wasn’t as difficult as I expected).

    I was, however, wondering if you had more insight into the score range provided at the end of the test. I was happy with the range given (even the minimum score was above my previous test scores), but am still unclear how that will translate to the new score. I’ve called ETS, but they seem to have little understanding of what will actually happen in November. Any thoughts? Were you happy with range/think it was accurate?


    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 19, 2011 at 10:52 am #

      Congrats on your score! I was happy with my range – I scored at the top on both sections :). I didn’t take the Powerprep test before so I am not sure how accurate the score was. I do think the test was easier – esp. in math – than I’d expected. I’m guessing that missing more than 2 questions will preclude someone from getting a perfect score on the quant. Ultimately, we’ll just have to wait till Nov. Like you I’m hoping I score at the top of my range.

  2. Siva August 18, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    Very nice explanation … Chris.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 18, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback! Sentence Equivalence questions are definitely very tricky so I’m happy I helped clarify things.

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