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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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40 Responses to How to Study Vocabulary for the Revised GRE

  1. Krithiga February 14, 2018 at 7:56 am #

    Hi, Well I often keep finding myself lost when learning words and have tried to create associations to un-forget them. I don’t want to get stuck in a vocab rut again – so I wanted to know where I could find effective vocab quizzes. Do you have any suggestions Magoosh?

  2. Peter-the-Vocab-Eater June 2, 2017 at 2:08 am #

    Amazing article Chris.
    Kudos to you.

    Also, I will now be learning 10 words a Day and will make sure that I know what those 10 words actually mean rather than merely cramming them up.

    Plus I religiously accept your recommendation to prep for the Maths portion of the GRE too.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 2, 2017 at 8:07 am #

      Thanks, Peter! We love hearing about how our materials help students. Thanks for using Magoosh 🙂

  3. MD SHOHEL RANA May 2, 2017 at 8:36 am #

    Hi I am Shohel (Bangladesh)

    I really poor in English. Now I want learn English. I want to start with vocabulary. What is your suggestion for me.Please tell me and help me for learn vocabulary.

  4. hastak72 September 12, 2016 at 10:20 pm #

    first, thanks for the amazing website!
    I had a TOEFL Ibt exam a few days ago, now I want to start studying for the revised GRE. I have 6 weeks and I can study a lot because I need good grades. for example verbal and quant 163 and writing 3.5-4. what is your suggestion ? I will really appreciate your help.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 14, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

      Hi there,

      first of all, congrats on taking the TOEFL! That is a great accomplishment and I hope you took at least a few days to rest in between 🙂

      The first step in studying for the GRE is making sure that you understand how the test works and the strategy for each question type. You can see our Ultimate Guide to the GRE to help you here. For the math section, you need to know your math basics inside and out—your goal is to see a math problem and immediately be able to recall related properties, rules and formulas to help you solve that problem. The quant section of the GRE relies on critical thinking, so even the most difficult questions come down to understanding and applying these basic math facts in specific ways. You can check out the Math section of our blog and our Math Formula eBook for support there 🙂

      The verbal section tests your overall ability to comprehend and analyze difficult texts. It’s important to expand your vocabulary and make sure that you know the high-frequency GRE words, but it’s even more important to improve your overall level of reading comprehension. We suggest that you read GRE-level material for at least an hour every day (that’s an hour outside of other studying) to build this skills. And you can’t just read–you have to practice focused, active reading. We have tons of article suggestions that you can use on our blog!

      And finally, it’s imperative that you take every opportunity to learn from your practice. Whenever you get a question wrong, take the time to really understand why you got it wrong and what you can do in the future to get it right. This way, you will start to make connections, understand question patterns and think more like a test-maker.

      There is a lot of information to cover on the GRE, and if you want some extra help with everything I mentioned above, I recommend that you check out our 7-day free trial! Our comprehensive GRE prep program will bring you through all of the material that you need to know for the GRE, and you will have access to our team or tutors to help you out 🙂

  5. Amini July 17, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    Hello Magoosh,
    First of all, Id like to thank you guys for the amazing content and reviews you post.
    Chris, You only mentioned magoosh`s and manhattan`s vocabulary lists. I am done with both of them and I still have about 3 weeks to my test. What do you recommend as for the left time? Should I start Barron`s 1100?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 21, 2016 at 4:00 am #

      Hi Amini,

      It’s awesome to hear that you appreciate and are enjoying our resources! On behalf of the Magoosh team, you’re very welcome 😀

      You can read more about Barron’s 1100 here. As Chris mentions in his review of the book, the Barron’s book is overall a great tool for studying vocabulary and one of our recommended options, in addition to our flashcards and Manhattan’s vocabulary resources. With that said, you will probably see a lot of overlap among the three sources, since they all include “high frequency” GRE words or words that are more likely to appear on the exam.

      Instead of starting with a new word list, in this case Barron’s, I’d recommend that you continue reviewing with Magoosh and/or Manhattan. In addition to reviewing individual words, and as mentioned in this post, it’s important to realize that remembering words and knowing how to use them is the result of more than just flashcards. It’s extremely important to see the words in real, natural English, which means doing a lot of reading. I recommend reading for at least half an hour a day, and if you have time, try to read for about an hour a day! As you read, make flashcards of the vocabulary words that you don’t know. Additionally, pause every so often, and recap the main message in your own words. Here are some recommended sources for reading material:

      1. The New York Times
      2. BBC
      3. The Economist
      4. Art & Letters Daily
      5. The New Yorker

      For some specific articles suggestions, I’d recommend browsing through our “GRE Article of the Month” series. About once a month, Chris selects an GRE-level article and provides both GRE vocabulary for you to focus on as you read, as well as a brief discussion of the piece.

      And if you would rather read books than articles, check out this post for fiction and non-fiction book recommendations!

      Happy studying!

      • Amini August 11, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

        Hi I wanted to give a big thank you to magoosh. Even though I never used your premium due to time constraints, i have recommended it to others. Your assistantance helped me a lot. I just gave the gre yesterday and got 170q 157v. THOUGH I’M not satisfied with my verbal, I really don’t think i can take any more time for gre. It’s a stressful period!
        Anyways, magoosh is great and I’ve used a lot of your products like the vocab, the book reviews and the articles of the month. Thanks

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 12, 2016 at 3:51 am #

          Hi Amini,

          We are so happy to hear that you were able to use Magoosh materials to help your preparation! Your score is nothing to be ashamed of, even if you might have wished for higher on verbal. I hope the score takes you where you want to go! Congratulations on your success, Amini. 🙂

  6. Sadanand July 10, 2016 at 6:15 am #

    Why are you so awesome?
    This is the only approach that made sense to me!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 10, 2016 at 10:38 am #

      We are so glad to hear that this worked for you, Sadanand! 🙂

  7. Nicole May 31, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    Hello Magoosh! So I have been studying your ebook and flashcards and I have a question regarding the word “Disabuse, as a verb you refer to it as “to persuade someone that their views are invalid. However I have found that in most other dictionaries and sources disabuse means “to free someone from error or deception”. Could you help clear this up?


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 2, 2016 at 7:35 am #

      Hi Nicole 🙂

      Thanks for writing! Disabuse is the action of showing or convincing someone that their belief is wrong. Both the definition you’ve found in other sources and the definition in our flashcards reflects this idea. “To free someone from error” is really to make someone realize that their belief or view is wrong. Maybe the word “persuade” in the Magoosh definition is troubling you a little. However, persuade means to cause someone to do something (take on a certain belief, do a certain action, etc). So, if we are persuading someone that their belief is wrong, we’re convincing them that they are mistaken. This “frees” that person from their incorrect belief.

      I hope this helps! If not, please let us know 🙂

  8. Suraj February 28, 2016 at 4:55 am #

    What do you think about the book “how to read better and faster” by Norman Lewis.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 3, 2016 at 3:03 am #

      Hi Suraj,

      Good question! 🙂

      We like the “Word Power” book Norman Lewis has written, and sometimes recommend it to our students. To be honest, the “How to Read Better and Faster” text is sometimes trickier to find and I have never had a chance to look at it. Some internet research on it indicates it is similar quality to his “Word Power” one, so if you have access to it, definitely give it a try!

  9. Rishik January 24, 2016 at 5:43 am #

    Hey Chris,

    I’ve Got two months left for my GRE ,I just wanted to know how You study the vocabulary part of the GRE and where Do you study it from?People say The barrons 300 words is enough, But what would you suggest?
    And also regarding the quantitative section,are the questions that appear on the magoosh website ,ie when you subscribe from the premium plan the same level as that which appear on the actual GRE?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 10, 2016 at 2:08 am #

      Hi Rishik,

      Good questions! 🙂

      It is usually good to start with a solid vocabulary core by learning words. The number of words you need depends on your starting point, but usually students will identify 1000-2000 words as their needed number over the course of their studies. Things like our vocabulary flashcards or ebook can help with that! (They’re both free. :))

      As for our quantitative questions, yes, we are proud to have questions that are quite realistic. We are constantly comparing student data on the real GRE to their Magoosh performance, we keep in-the-know regarding updates to the GRE and from ETS, and our GRE product offers very authentic GRE prep experiences. 🙂

      I hope that helps!

  10. Ankit September 27, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    A spelling mistake that i have come across:

    She checks around and finds that Magoosh has free GRE flash cards online. Pefect.

    It should have been *Perfect

    • Jessica Wan
      Jessica Wan September 28, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

      Hi Ankit,

      Thank you very much for catching that typo! 🙂 Your keen eye will come in handy for the exam!


  11. Victoira February 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    Hi Chris,
    You blogs have been just so helpful! I enjoy your writing style and how you mix GRE vocab in it 🙂 so glad I’ve found Magoosh!

    Would you do a blogpost about some good podcasts for GRE vocab prep? I know there’s the famous NPR, but sometimes they aren’t really that interesting. I want to find something else to switch it up a bit.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele February 14, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

      Thanks! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading the articles.

      I think a post on podcasts is a good idea :). I’ll have to do some research myself as the landscape changes quite frequently. I’ll try to get something up in a month.

  12. Beatriz September 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    Hi Chris,
    I took the old version of GRE and got a high score for the verbal section. I am re-taking it in less than one month and I am having a panic attack. I am making a lot of mistakes in the new verbal section and I think it all comes down to the fact that I don’t know how to use words in specific contexts. So I bought Barron’s New GRE words (500 words) and I am also using Magoosh’s flash cards on my iPad. Since I am already in graduate school (I am Master’s student trying to transfer to the PhD), I read a lot. Still, I feel this is not enough. What do you think? What else should I do?
    Thank you so much for your blog posts and lessons. You are a great tutor!

  13. Julie July 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    What do you think of Barron’s Verbal Workbook (2011)? There’s a GRE dictionary in the back with approximately 3,000 words. Do you think it’s okay to use this in lieu of Barron’s 1,000 word list?

    Also, I read in another article ( that you recommend Princeton’s Word Smart. My library has the 2003 edition. Do you know if the editions are similar at all? Would you recommend checking it out?

    – Julie

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 2, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      I have yet to see this book but have just placed an order on Amazon. I will go through the book and review it soon :).

      Word Smart is good as a reference guide – I would not recommend going through the list sequentially (it’s in alphabetical order, which always put the brain to sleep :)).

      Hope that helps!

  14. Praveen June 20, 2012 at 3:23 am #

    I have exactly one month to prepare.. I’m thinking of reading ‘Word power made easy’ and Barron’s essential GRE words in iPhone app..basically a flashcard app.. Do you have any suggestions on how to proceed?

  15. Akshay.S April 26, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    I had come across the two words you ve mentioned in scientific american which was listed in one of the articles a GRE taker should refer!!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

      Wow, that’s great! Thanks for sharing :).

  16. johnny March 28, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    I have 10 days to study for the GRE. How can I improve my vocabulary by then?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 29, 2012 at 11:20 am #

      Hi Johnny,

      In such a short time, I would recommend you head over to and use the existing top GRE word flashcards they have from the major publishers. For instance, use Barron’s top 300 words flashcards. If you can learn those 300 words a few will probably show up on the test. Again, there is no “magic list” – even if you end up memorizing 500 words, you will probably only see a handful of them on the test.

  17. ak0712 August 16, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Thanks for the inspiring article.
    Wanted to know your thoughts on using Norman Lewis’s Word power for vocab?
    Thanks alot.

    Erm…i can’t stop my self from mentioning this- In the Melissa’s Shoe Box Lexicon bit,
    suddenly Mellissa becomes Michelle after practicing online 😛 – ‘She does some practice questions, and a test, but is mostly content with what she found on-line. Michelle is feeling pretty good’

    Sorry for the triviality.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 17, 2011 at 11:56 am #

      Definitely not a triviality – I would hate to mislead people into thinking that studying for the new GRE can do something as profound as change one’s identity :).

      As for Norman Lewis book, I’ve heard very good things about it and cracked it open myself a few years back. I think the concept is the same as being a word detective on -line. In this case, Norman Lewis is breaking down the words for you and providing context so you don’t have to go on-line. Sounds like it could work well.

      Another excellent way to learn vocabulary is Barron’s 1100 Words You Need to Know. This is nothing like Barron’s laborious, vague magnum opus, the 3500 words. The 1100 Words You Need to Know provides clear definitions for each word. In fact, they make it so initially when you see the word you have to figure out what it means from context. There are plenty of exercises throughout the book, as well as usage of each word from a range of sources – from Shakespeare to The New York Times.

      Other books in the same ilk as Norman Lewis include Verbal Advantage and Merriam Webster’s Vocabulary Builder. Working with a combination of these books I helped a student go from 350 to nearly 700 on the old GRE verbal section. (She became a veritable vocabulary juggernaut – my grueling weekly quizzes also helped!).

      Hope that is helpful, and best of luck on your vocab quest!

      • ak0712 August 17, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

        😀 it is helpful! Thank you!

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