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How to Cram GRE Vocabulary Words

I know, I know… I always preach the importance of learning vocabulary slowly and in-context, so the usage of a word really seeps into your brain. But sometimes, you just don’t have the time, and you need to cram as many GRE vocabulary words as you can in a limited amount of time. Maybe you only found out that the application deadline was sooner then you expected. Maybe you had intended to study vocab all these months, but…eh, you never got around to it. Or maybe you just figured vocab wasn’t that important on the GRE. Think again! It’s crucial to getting a good score.

No need to despair, at least entirely. You can still cram a large number of words into your head in a one-week period of time. But you are going to have to be intense, and you are going to have to be clever. Simply reading a vocab list or just relying on flashcards is not going to allow you to maximize your potential.


Don’t bite off more than you can chew

My colleague at Magoosh, Mike, bet me lunch that I could not learn the periodic table of elements in one week (yes, we make silly bets like this all the time). Though chemistry is not my forte (I remember the physical education teacher replaced my actual chemistry teacher at the last minute), I was definitely up for the challenge.

Instead of just staring at the periodic table of elements, which would probably have induced nausea, I learned a few at a time, constantly closing my eyes and rehearsing those that I had learned. I went up and down, left and right, all the time strengthening the connections between the elements.

Likewise, when you learn words, you should learn about a dozen at a time. Make connections, when appropriate. See if you can come up with the word when you just look at the definition. See if you can list a few synonyms.  When you feel you have a strong grasp of the words, build off of them by learning another dozen words. Always come back to the original words, comparing them to new words. Remember, it does not help to cram words for the GRE if they fall out of your head after an hour.


Quiz yourself frequently and creatively

Researchers who study memory have learned that after 90-minutes what we learn suddenly begins to dissipate rapidly. Instead of studying two hours at a time, study in little bursts, trying to return—even if for a few moments—to your studying within 90 minutes to 2 hours. These little breaks are a good time to let the words incubate; but not enough time so that they disappear completely.


Brain barf

This is probably not the most pleasant visual—but I’m sure it is colorful. Joking aside, “brain barfing” can be a powerful way to know what is inside your brain, and just how strong the memory of a word is (are you mixing up letters? are you mistaking one word for another?)

So here’s what you do: Take a blank piece of paper and see how many words, along with their definitions, you can write out. You will often find that the number of words you knew is fewer than expected. Don’t worry, go back and consult your list, especially for those tip-of-the-tongue words. That way you can identify those words that you tend to forget.


Take advantage of those quiet moments

Waiting for a bus? Eyeing that smartphone to kill the time with Angry Birds? Don’t succumb! Instead see if you can think of words that you had been learning. Maybe you can even use them to describe something in your immediate environment (“Where is that dilatory bus?!?”).


Do plenty of practice questions

Don’t just hang out with vocabulary the entire time. Crack open a GRE book or log in to Magoosh on your smartphone and start solving actual questions. You will be exposed to words, many of which you know, and probably many which you don’t. Of the words you do know, working with them in a problem-solving context, will only make the connection your brain has formed with that word that much stronger. For the words you don’t know, make them part of your daily list.


The flashcards

Don’t forget to use them as part of your all out assault on vocabulary. Grab a friend or family member, and have them quiz you. And remember to see if you can identify words from their definitions (and make sure you actually know what the definitions mean, instead of just saying them in a robot voice).

Aggressively following this schedule—making sure to include all six strategies—should help you learn between 500 and 1,000 words. As for the bet, I employed many of the strategies above and was able to memorize all 118 elements—reciting them forwards and backwards, up and down—in 48 hours. The best part was I got a free cheeseburger. Of course even the juiciest burger pales in comparison to a great verbal score, which you can only attain from learning lots of vocabulary words.


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 How to Cram GRE Vocabulary Words

  1. Larry September 23, 2016 at 6:28 pm #

    I found it quite helpful to run through the list of GRE words, write up a document with each word I wasn’t sure of, look up the definition and then come up with a sentence using that word.
    In this way I acquired a vocab surprisingly fast!
    Give it a go.

  2. Kei May 24, 2016 at 6:55 am #

    I have been studying vocabulary from Manhattan Flashcards ( Basic and essential ). I check the meaning on my dictionary first and then online ( mostly I understand the words better as I browse sentences available in the website. But the learning process has been very slow for me, I do just about 20 to 25 words only in some three to four hours. I am worried if I am really going slow or it’s fine. I have learnt more than half of MGRE words and have got two months for the test.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 25, 2016 at 1:42 am #

      Hi Kei 🙂

      It sounds like you’ve come up with a very good method to review GRE vocab words. Learning vocabulary in context, by reading and seeing vocabulary words in example sentences, is important to developing an active vocabulary. 🙂 With that in mind, you are actually reviewing vocab at a very accelerated pace! In general, it’s very hard to truly learn more than a few new words per day. We recommend that students don’t try to go through too many words in one sitting! In general, if you have seen more than 5 or 10 new words in a day, it’s almost definitely too much to really remember. Make sure to go back and review the words that you have learned. Daily review is very helpful to retaining the information you’ve learned. And with about more months before your exam, you have plenty of time to thoroughly review these flashcards and improve your vocabulary before test day 🙂

  3. Deven July 16, 2015 at 6:29 am #

    3 words : Use memory palace

  4. Maggie September 10, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    Is learning the “top” 1500 words enough to score well in the revised GRE?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 11, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      Hi Maggie,

      We released a 1,000 word flashcard recently, and I’d say those words are more than enough to score well on the GRE. That’s assuming that you have a decently strong vocabulary already, and are a native English speaker. Even for non-natives, 1500 is a pretty sufficient sum. Again, you’ll want to make sure you understand how those words work in context.

      Hope that helps!

  5. krishna November 20, 2012 at 6:42 am #

    hi chris,
    I am going to take my gre in couple of months. I am strong at the quant side. the only thing that i am worried at is the verbal section. I started Barrons guide to get familiar with the words. are 4879 words really require for me to have a better score? please help me out of this. because 4879 words, its really a huge task

  6. Ankita November 15, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    in such a short time, what is the best source of word lists to do

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

      Hi Ankita,

      I don’t know if I can truly say there is one best source…it depends on which one you feel will help you effectively learn as many words as possible before your test.

      Personally, I prefer MGRE, only because the cards have synonyms on them and helpful example sentences. Of course that could be too overwhelming for some. Kaplan on the other hand is basic, no-frills. I worry though that since most people study Kaplan, ETS (the GRE folks) are aware of this and do not try to include too many Kaplan words (this, though, is just a pet theory).

      Hope that helps!

  7. Sasha November 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    Here is something that I found to be a great help in learning GRE vocab. Its a blog that actually has a story where each sentance contains one of these words. Its a great tool because it not only gives you the definition, but provides some context and in-use examples in a funny story. Check it out:

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

      Great! Thanks for the link :). Sure, definitely yet another way to learn words. I would even encourage others to do the same. It seems as the author is studying abroad. Maybe write a story about a recent trip you took, threading in GRE words as you go along :).

    • Mohammad June 23, 2016 at 11:20 pm #

      How do I get to that blog, it says you don’t have permission !

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