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How to Study for GMAT Verbal

Many GMAT Verbal improvement tips are focused on the nitty-gritty: nail your idioms, learn to deconstruct the elements of the Critical Reasoning argument, know what constitutes a wrong answer on reading comprehension—and what constitutes a right answer. Those are without a doubt important, and if you haven’t learned them yet that should be your next order of business. But this post is going to focus on an oft neglected but equally important area for success on the GMAT Verbal Section: your reading brain.

Your what? Yes, I know. I should explain first. The GMAT Verbal is not your average English. It is sophisticated and academically inflected. As such, it is not easily digestible. Unless, that is, you make it a habit to read this kind of writing—and I don’t just mean reading GMAT passages (that would be a most unwelcome form of prep!) By becoming a stronger reader, your reading brain will grow. Taking the verbal GMAT will not be nearly as difficult or at least as mentally draining. Sure, you’ll still need to know those nitty-gritty details upon which a question hinges. But with a strong reading brain, you’ll have a better shot at picking up on these things in the first place.

GMAT Verbal, GMAT Verbal Section, Verbal GMAT

Before the GMAT Verbal Test: Read

Do not think of GMAT prep as an isolated activity, done solely over the familiar spread of books. To truly prepare yourself for the GMAT Verbal Section you should immerse yourself in words – books (fiction and non-fiction), magazines (long and short form), and newspapers (the ones with national circulation).

If this sounds superfluous, remember that developing an ear for proper English comes far more naturally than imbibing a list of idioms. Of course not all English is equal. Be sure to avoid the colloquial form as much as possible, and instead choose sources venerated for their elevated style: The New York Times vs. USA Today, The New Yorker vs. The National Enquirer.

It is also important to read what interests you. Nowhere is this more true than with books, both fiction and non-fiction. To slog through a book, even a revered classic, is going to make you disdain this process. On the other hand, a page-turner doesn’t have to be John Grisham, or even pulpier tomes. Have a look at the Modern Library 100’s Top Books. There is something for every taste here (and with Amazon you can click “Look Inside” to see if the books suits you).

And for those who live near bookstores – assuming they have not all gone the way of Tower Records – scan the book displays. As long as the topic is relatively sophisticated, the book is sure to have correct, idiomatic (read: GMAT) language.

Plan on reading a total of 50-pages a day from a variety of these sources. Doing so will fine tune your brain and make Reading Comprehension far less formidable. Finally, the sooner you do this the more time you’ll give yourself to grow your “reading brain”.

Think in Your Own Words, Not in GMAT Verbal Vocabulary

Now that we’ve covered the reading brain, I want to focus on other aspects of the GMAT Verbal Section that are still holistic and are often glossed over in most strategy guides.

Yet, it is still connected to the idea of being a stronger reader, one adept at navigating the treacherous verbiage of the GMAT. Your ability to process words will increase as will your ability to make sense of what you read.

This latter skill is crucial for Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension. When you read a question, you will want to be able to anticipate the answer. That is you want to verbalize a rough answer. That way you control the question – instead of the letting the answer choices control (and corrupt) you.

Of course this anticipation of the correct answer also carries over to Sentence Correction. By developing your ear for proper English, you should be able to identify what is wrong with the underlined section.

While reading outside is important, ultimately your score will depend on the GMAT sources you use. Make sure you learn the fundamentals of the verbal section. Manhattan GMAT and Magoosh do a very good job of breaking down the test so you can understand the principles behind the question, instead of relying on clever guessing strategies.

Focus on One Area of the GMAT Verbal Section

Okay, I promised to talk about holistic tips to GMAT Verbal success. This next tip falls under strategies, yet it is still holistic since it doesn’t deal with any one section. Rather, it deals with how you approach studying the different sections.

When first start off, I found that it is good to spend a day or two just focusing on one area. That way you are able to make progress, versus jumping from prepositional phrases (Sentence Correction) to paradox question types (Critical Reasoning).

So do not try to do much at once. Pick a certain area in Critical Reasoning and stick to it for a few days. For instance, practice inference questions to the point where you are comfortable with anything up until the 650-level. You can carry this approach over to Sentence Correction and focus in just one area, say Parallelism. Once you have strong grasp, move on to another concept, but review every few days.

Once you’ve made clear progress in one area, then it makes sense to do daily practice sets in which you mix up verbal question types. After all, this is exactly what you’ll face test day.

Review What You Read

Speaking of review, sometimes it is tempting to just push forward, constantly doing new questions and tackling new concepts. While noble, this approach is scattered and will not allow concepts to really sink in. Make sure you review what you’ve learned. So don’t think of a question as one you’ve already done. For you to truly be able to move on from a question, you should be able to effortlessly articulate why the wrong answers are wrong and right answer is right.


By combining reading with smart GMAT prep, you can boost your verbal score quickly, whether you’ve been speaking English since two or consider English as a third language.

Would you like some more GMAT Verbal Tips? Check out these posts from the Magoosh GMAT Blog:


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2012 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.


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