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Meet a New Question Type

As many know, there are numerous changes coming to the GRE Verbal Section. Amidst all the tumult, it is easy to overlook a new question type that has made its way into the Reading Comprehension section. For those who still remember the SAT, this type of question may not be unfamiliar. Known as a vocabulary-in-context question in SAT-speak, this question requires you to define a word based on how it is used in a passage.

Let’s take a look below:

Ernst Haeckel, the great German zoologist, refurbished an old theory of creationist biology, and suggested that the tree of life might be derived directly from the embryological development of higher forms. He proclaimed that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” or, to explicate this mellifluous tongue- twister, that an individual, in its own growth, passes through a series of stages representing adult ancestral forms in their correct order—an individual, in short, climbs its own family tree.

In the first sentence, the underlined and bolded word “refurbished” most nearly means in the context of the passage:


(A) developed
(B) proved
(C) resurrected
(D) employed
(E) rebuked

The way NOT to approach this question is to simply try to match the answer choices with the word in quotation marks. Oftentimes, the word has a secondary, or even tertiary, definition.

To avoid getting trapped, do not look at the answer choices. Instead, go back to the passage, and read the relevant part. Do your best to actually forget the word in quotation marks. Indeed, you want to make the sentence in which the word appears a text-completion, by replacing the blank with your own word. Doing so will require you to break apart the sentence, and focus on the relevant parts (or clue words), much as you would do on actual text completion. Finally, match your word with the answer choices, choosing the one that most closely matches your word.

If you follow these easy steps, you should get the question correct. The primary challenge is not looking at the answer choices. Once you see them, they bias your interpretation of the passage. Also, make sure not to simply plug the answer choices back into the passage, and determine which one sounds best. Doing so could very well get you in trouble.

Returning to the passage, let’s try to put our own word in (for simplicity’s sake, I’m paraphrasing):

Ernst is — an old theory (and expanding on it).

Words/phrases that could fit in the blank include, “dusting off,” “touching up”, “resuscitating,” etc.

Which of the answer choices is the closest match for these words? (A) developed is too neutral. We want a word to show that these theories have been around, and Ernst is simply bringing them back and elaborating on them. The only answer choice that does this is (C) resurrect.

Finally, as far as practice goes, an excellent resource is the SAT College Board book. Sure, you probably thought you’d never have to crack open an SAT book for the rest of your life. But with dozens of vocabulary in-context questions, not to mention short reading comprehension passages that are relatively similar to those on the new GRE, the SAT book is a trove of practice questions. And if you need any more convincing, the SAT is written by ETS, the same people who write the GRE.

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6 Responses to Meet a New Question Type

  1. HenryL January 6, 2015 at 8:10 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Just wanted to check if I am on the right track.

    I choosed “developed” at first but my own words were “enhanced, furthered”, one of my common pattern of mistakes is that I tend to be not that accurate when I match my own words to the answer choices… would you be able to give me some pointers on how I can do better?

    Or are my own words too way off?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Jonathan January 6, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

      Sure! It looks like you first chose words that were just a little off, and then you chose an answer choice that was a little different from your word, taking you farther from the correct answer.

      “enhanced” and “furthered” are not way off, but they don’t quite capture the idea that an old idea was brought back.

      If your accuracy is a problem, then that’s sign that you need to pay more attention to the clues in the sentence. You may also want to improve your vocabulary-in-context as well; you can do this through high-frequency word lists such as Magoosh flashcards and lots of outside reading.

      It’s also very important than when you do miss a question because of a word that wasn’t accurate that you analyze exactly what went wrong. What clue did you miss? Why should you have chosen the correct word? How can you avoid the same error next time? Reflection on each mistakes is important — this way, you can start to recognize some of your error patterns and improve! I hope that makes sense: )

  2. Prasanna R N June 23, 2013 at 6:53 am #

    how did you come up with touching up? We can even come up with “changed” 🙁 as i do not know about the theory

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      That is a good question! “Changed” could work…based solely on the context. One final measure of the vocabulary-in-context question is the answer always has to be a synonym with the underlined word. In this sense, only (C) works.

      It is rare that you would see a question like this. Typically, you would get slightly more context.

      Hope that helps!

      • Prasanna R N June 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

        Thankuuu 🙂

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele June 26, 2013 at 11:55 am #

          You are welcome!

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