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Studying Vocabulary for the New GRE – Does Learning Synonyms Help?

You Must Know Your Vocabulary for the New GRE

Now that the new/revised GRE is simply the GRE, and the other GRE is officially the old GRE, many mistakenly assume that vocabulary is no longer an issue. True, the new GRE is no longer solely a test of vocabulary. Still, test takers must have a strong vocabulary in order to successfully interpret and deconstruct the formidable Text Completions and Sentence Equivalence Questions waiting for them on the actual test.

Now, more so than before, you have to know not just the meaning of the word, but the way in which a word is used in a sentence. In other words, robotically reciting a vocabulary word is not going to help much; constructing an eloquent sentence using a word, on the other hand, will mean you’re probably ready for the GRE.

To Group or not to Group – That is the Synonym Question

How does this increased focus on usage influence learning vocabulary? One specific area I’ll talk about today is grouping. Before, for the old GRE, an effective way of memorizing words was lumping them into the same group. For instance, the word sullen, meaning unhappy and brooding, could be thrown together with morose and saturnine, two GRE synonyms. We could go even further and include words that mean unhappy, though not necessarily brooding. Or, we could include even more extreme words for unhappy, such as doleful and dolorous.

Eventually, we’d have a large group of synonyms that more or less meant the same thing. In general, this level of differentiation would have been sufficient for the old GRE. At a certain point, however, synonyms have slightly different shades of meaning, so we cannot use them interchangeably in a sentence. This is especially the case for the new GRE.

What does ETS think?

In ETS’ Official Giude to the Revised GRE, one text completion has the words prosaic and hackneyed. Before, these words would inhabit the same synonym-sphere. Indeed, they still do. However, they are not quite the same thing. And it is this subtle difference in meaning and usage that the GRE is testing. Let’s take a closer look.

Hackneyed typically refers to an idea/movie plot/joke that lacks any originality, because it is overly familiar or stale. For instance, to call a writer a hack is to suggest that he/she is bereft of talent and is simply churning out the same type of story over and over again.

Prosaic means dull and unimaginative, and doesn’t have the strong negative connotation that hackneyed does. If I told a prosaic story it would simply be boring and straightforward – you wouldn’t be too interested. If I told a hackneyed story, even one with imaginative details, you would think, “Hey, I’ve heard that before – that sounds like countless other stories. Come up with something new”!

Of course, memorizing words from rote – especially from Barron’s 3500 word list, which gives vague, watered-down definitions – you would never be able to pick up on these nuances.

The Dangers of Synonym Over-Generalization

But Barron’s is by no means the only vocab offender in this case. A more egregious example would be Kaplan, at least as far as synonym grouping goes. Kaplan blithely lumps vocabulary into general groups – something they did on the old GRE, and which they continue to do in their recently released New GRE Verbal Workbook. Learning words this way is potentially harmful, as you will have, at best, a vague understanding of certain words, and, at worst, a total misunderstanding of some words.

For instance, Kaplan has piled aberrant, eclectic, anachronism into one heap, with the facile tag eccentric/dissimilar. That grouping is so general to the point of being useless. After all, a word is either similar or different. That is, the converse of the dissimilar group, the similar group, would house all the words in the English language that are not dissimilar.

Somewhat ironically, in this particular case, a student will end up associating words that end up being wildly dissimilar to one another: out of the context of the time (anachronism), a person who defies convention (iconoclast), a mixture of diverse elements (eclectic) and deviant (aberrant) are all now part of the same group.

The Verdict on Synonyms

So, how should one group vocabulary for the new GRE? By knowing not just the definition, but also how the words are used in context. If words are used in the exact same sense, like hackneyed and trite, then you can put them in the same group. To learn how words are used in context, you can rely on the Internet. How? Well, simply enter a word into Google and you have a virtual treasure trove of how that word is used in context (my one caveat: make sure the source is reliable – The Economist vs. Joe’s Daily Blog).

Learning vocabulary, and then – and here is the important part – learning how that vocabulary functions in the context of a sentence, will be the single most beneficial strategy for success on the GRE verbal section. So, don’t throw your flashcards away…though you may want to think of getting that subscription to The Economist.


  • You must still learn vocabulary for the New GRE
  • Know important differences between synonyms
  • Learning words from context is key to 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.

12 Responses to Studying Vocabulary for the New GRE – Does Learning Synonyms Help?

  1. Hims June 17, 2013 at 12:33 am #

    Hi chris
    I’m preparing for GRE since one month. I’ve given the two ETS mocks and scored 319 (Quant-170, Verbal-149), 321 (Quant-169, Verbal-152). As you can see my achilles heel is verbal. I’ve completed barrons 333 high frequency words and 150 other words which I compiled from the tests I wrote. So I’m close to a 500 words on the vocabulary part. I’ve been suggested I should learn all the 3500 words but I didn’t see the point in it as the new GRE is much more contextual than the old one. Could you suggest an optimum number of words that I should rote(with usage ofcourse)? I was planning to stretch upto 800 and 1500 at the very extreme. Please suggest.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      Hi Hims,

      Since you are at about 150 verbal, and we can assume that a fair proportion of those mistakes are from vocab-related questions, improving vocab will help. I think Barron’s 1100 Words You Need to Know is excellent. There are, of course, Magoosh’s freshly released flashcards that are from the ebook. Many of those words overlap. But this should take you to close to 1500 words. You def. don’t need to go beyond that! At that point just improve your strategies and in-context reading.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Madhu December 16, 2011 at 7:04 am #

    Thanks Chris! I was hunting all over the web to find the proper approach to prep for the vocab part.! This really helped me! 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris December 19, 2011 at 11:49 am #

      Happy it helped! Good luck!

      • chandresh January 5, 2016 at 5:10 am #

        Hi Chris, For gre vocabulary I have been studying from magoosh flash cards and now planning to go through barren’s 333 will that be enough for the vocabulary part and for quants I have almost finished solving the manhattan 5lb and official gmat guide 2015 will that be enough ??

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 1, 2016 at 6:39 am #

          Hi Chandresh,

          This is a good question but tough to answer! Remember that the GRE is not a vocabulary test, so there’s no set number of word you should memorize for the GRE. It really all depends on you. Whether or not our your current vocabulary level is enough depends entirely on your starting vocabulary—the GRE can include many, many other words than what is in our list (or any list) of GRE vocabulary, which is why reading extensively is VERY important no matter what level your vocabulary is at. 🙂

          Again, just try not to think of the GRE as a simple vocabulary test. In part, the GRE tests English vocab in general, not just “GRE words,” and even then, there’s more involved! Throughout the verbal section, you’ll face twisted, complicated sentences, often even filled with really easy vocabulary. You need to be able to decipher these. My recommendation is to finish the flashcards and worry more about getting as much reading practice in as possible between now and your test day. Focus more on your strategies and in-context reading after you’ve gotten a good vocabulary core. 🙂

  3. surbhi August 8, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    hi chris,
    could you tell me from where can i prepare for latest Vocabulary as am clueless regarding what are the new words being added from 1 august even though i browse through many sites. Will Barrons be suffice for new pattern

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 9, 2011 at 6:40 pm #


      Do not worry surbhi, the new GRE is not using new words from English. The old lists – especially Barron’s – will keep you in good shape. If anything, the range of vocabulary tested on the new GRE is less than it was for the old GRE. Again, the key is context. Vocab will only be half the battle.

  4. Karthik August 5, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    Hey all your posts are too useful for us Chris. Looking forward for more posts. I think you can go ahead and give some synonyms (as you have done here) and also their context/usage. 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

      Definitely! I think the new way about talking about GRE synonyms – and for that matter any GRE word – is context, i.e. how is the word used. Definitions will of course still be indispensable but only part of the bigger picture. Look for more synonyms and their respective contexts coming soon!

  5. Arif August 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    Thanks Chris!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 4, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

      Great! I’m happy my posts have been helpful

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