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How to “Read in Context” for the GRE

Words are elusive, chimerical creatures. They shift connotations depending on the situation, rearing their heads in surprising contexts. A dictionary, or denotative definition, can become all but useless. So it is no surprise that any attempts to cage the semantic beast in the static, one dimensionality of a flashcard will be doomed.

What does this all mean for the GRE? Well, there appears to be a trend towards Text Completions and Sentence Equivalence questions in which relatively common words are used in contexts you would not expect were you to only read the dictionary definition. Oftentimes words are employed figuratively, which can throw you when it comes time to picking an answer on a Text Completion.

The take away from all this is to not fall temptation to the following way of thinking: I am making a lot of progress on the GRE Verbal. I’ve studied 500 flashcards. Now I’m going to study another 1,000 flashcards. Then I will be ready for the test.

That you will learn the inert, dictionary definitions of a 1,000+ words is not worth debating. What is clearer is your performance test day: it will not show your true potential.

Working through flashcards as you explore the many ways in which various words function in context will help you test day. is a great resource. It plucks sentences that are often as varied and complex as the words themselves. And these example sentences aren’t drawn from some random person’s blog, but are taken only from respected resources: published works, eminent newspapers and magazines.

In addition to Wordnik, also features example sentences, and often a quote from some literary luminary. Another option you have is to go to (or any major news site, for that matter) can furnish further example sentences. Simply enter your word into the search field.

For instance, let’s say I am learning the word stolid, which means unemotional, not reacting much. Such a definition does not really help one understand how the word functions in context. Now let’s see what my search coughed up (I looked back over the last 30 days):

The productions are ornately stolid: far more traditional visually than the Met’s current version of either opera. Early in the film the shimmering …

Mr. Jones and Ms. Streep keep the therapy scenes lively, despite Mr. Frankel’s stolid direction, as he cuts between Dr. Feld, murmuring

… as he hugs a bright young Toumanova, crowned not in her usual tiara but a rather stolid rubber bathing cap.

Wow, just like that the word stolid comes utterly alive (which is slightly ironic). By only looking at the definition, I imagined an old man, hunched over drunk in the corner. So much for definitions! With these example sentences, I can see stolid, embedded in the sophisticated prose of the GRE, function in varying—and surprising—contexts.

Now instead of imagining a person passed, I think of the pacing of a book I read lately (or at least tried to). I realize that even inanimate objects, such as a bathing cap, can be legitimately described as stolid. Instead of dealing with an inert word, I have a wealth of associations and contexts pertaining to stolid.

Such a multifaceted presentation of the word allows me to spot the word in context; I will also be more likely to remember the meaning of the word than if I were to only see a static definition contained within a flashcard that looks no different from the other 1,000 flashcards in my deck.

So do your burn your flashcards, or block the site? Not at all. Use flashcards to help you re-conjure up the associations of a word, associations you have created by looking at rich, multilayered sentences.


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.

33 Responses to How to “Read in Context” for the GRE

  1. Tuhin August 30, 2016 at 11:41 am #

    How will help ?as i am trying to learn definitions from it? or i should go for other source like

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 31, 2016 at 9:05 am #

      Hi Tuhin, and are great because they provide context for a word. They give you the definitions of a word, but they also provide several example sentences so that you can see the word in context. We have found these two websites to be the best vocabulary-learning aides because of the examples that they use 🙂

  2. Devin July 30, 2016 at 3:00 pm #


    I will be taking the GRE in exactly two months. I have one entire month free to study, while the other month I have a full 18 credits course load to take. I was wondering what will help me best win the verbal. Reading magazines and articles that have high level vocabulary words along side memorizing vocab and the different meanings, or just using a GRE prep book?


  3. Rahul July 23, 2016 at 1:56 am #

    Hii chris basically i am new in this section and verbal is my weaker part ,and wana grab the min 305 score so to get better universities ,having 3 months and what plan i should work on to improve my verbal vocab and what you recommend me to improve my skills

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 24, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

      I can definitely give you some general advice about how to improve GRE Verbal. As this post mentions, context is key. Practice active reading strategies for the GRE that help you really notice and deeply understand the context of a passage. And be sure to seek out reading practice that helps you encounter vocabulary in context.

  4. chirag July 19, 2016 at 10:55 pm #

    Is the MGRE 5lbs book good enough for reading comprehension practice?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 21, 2016 at 4:42 am #

      Hi Chirag,

      Here’s what Chris has to say about MGRE 5lb RC practice in his review of the book:

      Reading Comprehension also contains some flaws. Both the passage (save for a couple of exceptions) just don’t merit the structure of those found on the actual test; the questions and answer choices following each passage are also without the subtlety contained actual test questions. Doing a smattering of verbal practice from this book might not hurt much, but relying solely on this book for verbal would be a big mistake.

      For better questions, I’d recommend using the Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions. This book is written by the makers of the GRE itself, so the questions are a good reflection of what you’ll see on test day 🙂

  5. Ally May 26, 2016 at 10:08 am #

    What about words with multiple different meanings? For example, I originally thought of hack as in “he hacked the computer”

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 27, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

      Great observation! Often on the GRE, commonplace words such as “hack” are used in unusual/less common senses. These “advanced” alternate meanings of words are common in graduate-level, GRE-like tests. This is yet another reason you can really boost your score by sharpening your “reading-in-context” skills.

  6. Student November 20, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    In your text…”In addition to Wordnik, also features example sentences, and often a quote from some literary luminary.”…dictionary is spelled incorrectly. It has an extra “t”.

    Just a helpful catch, no reason to post as a comment.

    All the best.

    • Dani Lichliter
      Dani Lichliter November 22, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

      You have a great eye! Thanks for catching that! I just updated the post.

  7. Fatema June 22, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    Hi Chris,
    I really enjoyed reading the blog. This is going to be my first attempt for the GRE. How difficult is it to reach a minimum 300 score? Cause, that’s what my university requires. I love reading in general but I don’t know if newspapers and magazines relating to American politics or American news interest me. I live in Germany and I like being updated with the BBC, I don’t know if that will help. If you have the time, could you please recommend me some novels ( of any genre) that could help increase my vocabulary?

    I thank you in advance for your time.

  8. Agasti June 18, 2015 at 6:47 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I’m student studying engineering.English is not my first language so verbals seems quiet difficult.As you have mentioned verbals require reading.I read fantasy,drama like George R.R.Martin’s books.Will it help? I know I should read newspapers or magazines like TIME,I’ve tried reading them,but after some time I get bored and start reading other books.Is it necessary that we should read only newspapers and magazines?

  9. Sharma August 6, 2014 at 12:18 am #

    Hi Chris,

    My test date is 1st Oct, and I have started preparation few days back. My Verbal is poor, I have started studying your Vocab Flash cards. Apart from this I am trying to read few articles in a day on NYtimes, new yorker. But the problem is I am not able to grasp and understand the whole idea of any article I read, somewhere I get lost while reading and so has to read more than one time to understand better. That means my pace is very low for reading 🙁

    This is my first attempt for GRE, also I need to get good score (300+) to take admission next year, there is no second attempt or any other option for me. If I subscribe to magoosh’s GRE study plan for verbal, will that make a big difference as per my situation. Also I am not taking any coaching i.e, preparing by myself, I found some of your strategic videos for verbal to be helpful. So I am following your 1 month study plan, but I am getting vibes that I need to do more than this in order to improve myself to get upto the mark.

    Kindly advice, your help can make a difference.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 6, 2014 at 11:24 am #

      Hi Sharma,

      I commend you on reading difficult articles, as it can be very tough at first. Keep at it–though you don’t realize it your brain is making progress in reading at a high level. But you’re right–you’ll also have to do more GRE-specific prep. Magoosh, MGRE, etc. but starting now is a good idea. It will–with hard work–make a difference. And remember–the verbal will always seem challenging. But you are not trying to master it. If you are going from a 142, when you start off, let’s say, and end up at a 150, that is a worthy feat. The key is not to get discourage, but to remember that improvement comes in increments.

      Good luck 🙂

      • Sharma August 6, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

        Thanks a lot Chris!

        Even as a full time employee, I have started following the 30 days of GRE preparation plan (that covers vocab,verbal lessons, practice ques each day covered in premium package) + some articles daily from nytimes etc in this month. Next month I will try to write as many full Practice papers as possible. I hope this plan is gonna work out.

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele August 8, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

          Hi Sharma,

          Yes. But remember that to improve you must also understand why you missed a question. That awareness can help you avoid similar mistakes in the future. Otherwise, your plan looks good to me 🙂

  10. Canaan Mekonnen July 7, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    Hello Chris,
    I have a year to two years to take the GRE. However, English is my second language. As I revised so far the verbal reasoning is difficult for me. As a result, I want to start studding early. Is there anything you recommend me to start with to lift up my verbal score? I was going to sign up on Magoosh, but I feel like it is too early.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      Hi Canaan,

      At this point it doesn’t hurt to read Vocabulary books, like Word Power. Reading articles from the Economist and nytimes, looking up words you don’t know–and writing them down somewhere–will also help you build up your vocabulary (and reading skills) over time. A little at a time will go a long way. So when you are actually ready to prep seriously your vocabulary will have improved.

      Hope that helps 🙂

  11. reza April 18, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Hi Chris,
    I have a question about learning words in the context via wordnik or I rea some examples of wordnik. The examples/sentences of wordnik are very long and by reading them I can not memorize the words. I use Babylon an use many different dictionaries such as Webster, Oxford, Cambridge an Longman. The examples of these dictionary often are very easy and short. Do you think learning via short sentences of these dictionaries are good or I should read long sentences like wordnik’s examples?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 21, 2014 at 10:58 am #

      Hi Reza,

      That’s a great question! The short answer: both.

      Reading short, punchy sentences helps you remember words better, because your brain isn’t focused on all these other details. At the same time, if you want to improve your general GRE reading comprehension skills as well as see multiple contexts in how a word is used, longer sentences can be helpful. To illustrate, I’ll take the word “internecine”–one my colleague and I were discussing earlier today. Here is a short example from Oxford:

      “the party shrank from the trauma of more internecine strife.”

      That’s a good quick way of seeing the word in context. So, in general, that’s a good place to start–with the short example sentence. If you want more, follow up on, which tends to have sentences longer than Oxford, but not as formidable as those found on

      “Mr. Moore’s challenge in California’s Fourth Congressional District is an unusual one, even against the backdrop of the Republican Party’s internecine battles.”

      Finally, there is, if you want a true challenge, and want to encounter similar language as you’ll see on the more advanced TC questions:

      “Therefore, it seems reasonable to propose that for male hippies as well as male residents of the Iowa frontier, tensions expressed through the manhood act — counterbalanced, at times, by the restraining hands of men like Murcott — dissipated some of the emotional energy that might otherwise have found expression in internecine violence.”

      The takeaway: start with Oxford, Webster, etc.; go to for more examples; head over to if you want a challenge.

      Hope that helps!

  12. Debbie May 14, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Hi Chris!

    I am having difficulty with just the verbal section of the GRE. I am planning to retake it in a month and a half and really need to increase my score by just 4-5 points. I have the ETS, the Kaplan, Barrons, and the MGRE verbal books. I am not sure where I am going wrong with this whole process. Does Magoosh Have any personal tutoring for just SE, TC, and RC on the verbal? Do you have any other suggestions for me? Please advise. Thank you:)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele May 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

      Hi Debbie 🙂

      Sometimes too many books can be a bad thing, as you’ll spend so much time reading different–and sometimes conflicting stuff–that it’s hard to really get a solid grasp of anything. I recommend sticking just to one book–the MGRE series is pretty good, though TC/SE has some flaws. Magoosh, however, can fill that gap nicely. While we don’t offer personal tutoring, you can get the verbal subscription, which will help you become much stronger at the SE, TC, and RC.

      A great place to get the “lay of the land” as far as the test and the verbal section are concerned, here is the Magoosh ebook:

      Now, I don’t want to burden you with yet another book, but I think the ebook will really help you with the general approach to studying vocabulary and the verbal section. It has given a lot of students direction in the past and helped their score immensely. So yes, the 4 to 5 point bump you are looking for is definitely possible :).

      Let me know if that helps, and if you have any questions along the way let me know!

      • Debbie May 16, 2013 at 11:20 am #

        Hi Chris,

        Thank you so much for the response. I will be down loading the ebook and am planning to Get the Magoosh Verbal as well. I am planning to take the verbal portion again in the beg of July. Should I get the 30 day plan or will the 30-60 day be more beneficial for me? I just need a lot of practice, and as I mentioned, I am only concerned with the verbal and not the essay portion of the test. I also have the MGRE 2 verbal books on my kindle, and I am wondering if you have/had any feedback as to whether it is more beneficial to study from the books itself, or whether the ebooks are ok. If you could let me know. Thanks:)

  13. Christine September 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    Wow, a stolid rubber bathing cap! I never thought I’d actually meet one of those 😀

    That was a very funny post Chris. Thanks.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

      You are welcome!

  14. Aditi September 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Shouldn’t it be “inanimate objects such as bathing cap”!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 12, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

      Hi Aditi,

      Thanks for catching that! Quite a scary visual: an animate shower cap :).

  15. Jong September 7, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I was just wondering what kind of articles in The New York Times I should read in order to improve my reading comprehensive ability.

    I’ve been studying the GRE since this summer and unfortunately, I received the unsatisfied verbal score…

    Here is my plan for the next coming exam…

    In order to improve my verbal score, I’m just going to focus on the text equivalence and reading comprehensive section but not the text completion problems during the exam.

    Do you have any recommendation other than the plans I explained above?

    Thank you for your time and I’m enjoying your lecture videos and they helped me a lot!


    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 12, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

      Hi Jong,

      I’m glad we’ve been helpful :).

      If I were you I’d definitely try a few of the Text Completions. Only the ones in which are clearly difficult (you aren’t really sure what they are saying) should you just guess and move on. A little bit of vocab study will help you answer a few TC. Even SE requires a decent vocab knowledge.

      To increase knowledge through in-context reading, you should look at the following sections:

      Magazine (it’s a weekly supplement)
      World News

      Remember to write down those words in the article you do not know. You can turn them into convenient flashcards using

      Good luck on your test!

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