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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 an incorrect vs. a correct answer on reading comprehension. Those are, without a doubt, important. 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 made up of 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 reading GMAT-level writing, your reading brain will become stronger. 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 colloquial writing as much as possible, and, instead, choose sources venerated for their elevated style: The New York Times rather than USA Today, The New Yorker instead of The National Enquirer.

It’s important to read what interests you. This is especially true when reading books. To slog through a book, even a revered classic, is going to make you disdain the reading process. On the other hand, a page-turner doesn’t have to be a John Grisham or an even pulpier tome. Have a look at the Modern Library’s 100 Top Books. There is something for every taste here (and with Amazon you can click “Look Inside” to see whether 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-worthy) 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. The sooner you start doing this, the more time you 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 holistic but often glossed over in 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, rather than 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. Here’s the first.

When you begin your studies, focus on a single concept at a time. That way, you’ll be able to make definite progress in one area. If you jump around from prepositional phrases (Sentence Correction) to paradox question types (Critical Reasoning), you risk making only superficial progress.

So: do not try to do too 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 at which you are comfortable with anything up to the 650-level. You can carry this approach over to Sentence Correction and focus on just one area, such as Parallelism. Once you have strong grasp of it, move on to another concept — but review every few days.

Once you’ve made clear progress in one area, 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 come test day.

Review What You Read

Speaking of review, it can be tempting to simply push forward, constantly doing new questions and tackling new concepts. While seemingly noble, this approach is actually scattered, and does not allow concepts to really sink in. Make sure you review what you’ve learned. Don’t think of a given question as one you’re done with. 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 the age of two or consider English your 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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