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How to Study Vocabulary for the Revised GRE

Melissa’s Shoebox Vocabulary Method

Imagine a student—we’ll call her Melissa—who is about to begin prepping for the Revised GRE. She is especially worried about her vocabulary, and needs to strengthen her verbal for the new GRE. She runs out to the bookstore – wait, scratch that, it’s not the Stone Age. She checks around and finds that Magoosh has free GRE flash cards online. Perfect.

Melissa works through a few hundred flashcards in what she’s deemed her virtual flashcard “shoebox” and enlists her younger brother, Tommy, to quiz her. Tommy is still in high school, and thinks Melissa is quite the whiz as she whips out one definition after another:

Tommy: Belie

Melissa: Fail to give a true notion or impression or something 

Tommy: Afford (Tommy only knows the first definition)

Melissa: Provide or supply an opportunity or facility

Melissa works her way through the deck and feels good—after all, she can rattle off the definition to 90% of the words (Tommy can attest to this). She spends little time on reading comp, as she figures she can read pretty well. She does some practice questions, and a test, but is mostly content with what she found on-line. Melissa is feeling pretty good. The questions all seemed easy, and her virtual word shoebox is looking pretty impressive. Melissa has become the vocab killing machine – nothing, apparently, can stop her.

Confident, Melissa walks into the test. Though she knows the definitions of many of the words, she doesn’t understand how they relate to the blank in the text completion. As she flounders through question after question, her definitions turn out to be, for the most part, pretty useless. Needless to say, she scores far lower than she expected, and far lower than those on-line practice tests had suggested. Distraught, Melissa returns home, sets her computer on fire, and resolves never to utter the letters G-R-E for the rest of her life.

Okay, maybe the last scene is a little histrionic, but, even if Melissa doesn’t end up consigning her flashcard-filled shoebox to a burning pile of rubbish, she is very upset after all the hours she wasted memorizing hundreds upon hundreds of words.


Peter – The Vocab Eater

For an autopsy into Melissa’s GRE debacle, let’s contrast her to another student: we’ll call him Peter. Peter, too, is worried about the verbal section. He hasn’t been in school for about ten years, and, in his line of work, he doesn’t have to read much. He definitely doesn’t encounter 90% of the words that come up on the GRE.

Pete trawls the forums and learns, to his surprise, that learning roots is mostly counterproductive, especially when one attempts to apply them to unknown words. He starts off with a vocabulary book. Many people tell him to learn a set number of words each day, 20 or so, and remain consistent. Peter tries this for a couple of weeks, but quickly realizes this method isn’t very helpful.

For one, Peter feels like he is parroting back definitions from a flashcard, but doesn’t actually know what they mean. This frustrates Peter and he gets the feeling he is simply spinning his wheels. Instead, Peter begins to learn fewer words each day through the same GRE flashcard tool, but resolves to learn each word more thoroughly. He goes on-line, and begins looking words up on popular news sites. This activity helps, as Peter feels he is now able to use the words himself. Sometimes, when he watches the news – and he has forced himself to watch BBC and listen to NPR –he begins to hear many of these words in context. Soon, Peter is using the words naturally, describing his world around him in GRE words. Wow, that guy who cut me off in this truck was so…truculent.

Peter soon starts making deeper connections between words, and finds that he can remember words better when he makes clever associations. And, certain days, when Peter feels he knows his five words thoroughly, he adds more and more words. He always revisits other words, and also begins to notice how these words are similar. Pugnacious (he imagines a yapping pug dog) is very similar to truculent.

Peter begins doing prep exercises around the third week, and encounters several of his vocabulary words in the practice problems. Words he doesn’t know he makes part of his pile. Soon, Peter’s daily word intake is above ten. He feels as though he is no longer learning words in isolation, but is making them part of his “web of words”.

Peter also finds a GRE podcast, so when he is at the gym running on the treadmill, he is running to the tune of magnanimous, impetuous, and prosaic. Again, when he is unsure of a word he looks it up on-line. In fact, he is reading so much more that he begins writing little summaries of what he has read, including vocab words he is learning over the last month.

“The editorial said that the restive nation was likely to tumble into chaos but I aver that claim is spurious…”

Peter continues on in this fashion for another month, constantly honing his skills with New GRE practice tests from ETS. There are still many words he doesn’t know, but, often, he feels he is able to eliminate wrong answer choices with greater confidence. And, with all the reading he is doing, he is also able to pick up on the tone and the context of text completions. Even reading comprehension, a section that always put him to sleep, doesn’t seem nearly as dry and soporific.

Test day, Peter is well rested and confident. During the test, he notices several words he has never seen before, but is usually able to eliminate a few of the answer choices. There are, of course, a few really difficult questions. Otherwise, Peter feels confident with most of the material.

When he sees his verbal score he is very happy (I’m ecstatic, exuberant, elated, rapturous, Peter thinks). Still, he is nonplussed when he sees his math score—his verbal score is much higher than his quantitative score, though he always felt he was better at math (and therefore, didn’t prep much for it).

Peter leaves the testing room a little disheartened. He thinks he is going to sulk when he gets outside, but as he exits the testing center he sees another test taker. She is distraught, her eyes glazed and bulging, and she mutters incoherently – something about a shoebox.



  • Make sure flashcards are not your primary means of learning vocabulary.
  • Supplement rote vocabulary learning with a liberal amount of reading, writing, and other creative endeavors (mnemonics for one).
  • Don’t forget to prep for quant, too, even if you’re a “math person”.
  • Not doing well on the test the first time isn’t a reason to give up.
  • I’d also recommend reading How to Study for the GRE: The Total Immersion Approach.

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