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New GRE Vocabulary Lists

Update 3/4/2013: Interested in  the trends for this year? Read GRE vocabulary for 2013! Also don’t forget to check out our free GRE flashcards!

Or, for a full list of the most popular vocabulary words, check out our GRE Vocabulary eBook.

Today I’m going to answer the question, “What’s the best way to use a vocabulary word list for the revised GRE?”. Wait a second, you’re probably thinking. Don’t you just read the list? Actually, reading through a vocabulary list is the last thing you want to do. In fact, I tell this to my GRE students with a menacing, authoritarian tone, because I know how easy it is to fall into the temptation of going up and down a list, covering the definition with your hand, and then coughing up the definition. Again (my brow is knitted)- do not do this.

So, what does this injunction mean then? Burn your vocab lists? Use telepathy, or worse pay $200 dollars for that vocabulary software that promises instant recall after one listen? Actually, no. A vocab list can be useful, if used wisely.

To illustrate let’s take two of my former students (I’ll obviously change the names). One was a vocab juggernaut, the other struggled and struggled…and then finally got it. Why? Because he changed the way he learned vocabulary.


Timmy’s GRE Vocabulary Lists

“I’m bad at learning words.” This was Timmy’s common refrain. I would talk to him about the power of mnemonics and word grouping. He would look hopeful for a moment but then horrifically bomb the following vocab test. “I’m bad at learning words” inevitably following each 2/25 score. (The class had to study 25 words a day and the daily quizzes were cumulative).

I pulled Timmy aside after a week of his abysmal performance and asked him the simple question, “How are you studying vocabulary?” He shrugged his shoulders and gave the not very helpful response, “I just kind of study.” I prodded him further, “Well, I read the list and cover it up.” He went on to tell me he usually did this about fifteen minutes before class. “It works at school. I usually pass.”

But Chris’s boot camp wasn’t school – it was a grueling vocab experience that required students to retain thousands of words for when they take the actual exam – not for when they take an in-class quiz. So, I worked with Timmy to help him become more like Shirley.


Shirley’s GRE Vocabulary Lists

Shirley aced every quiz, and could spout out a trio of synonyms for almost any word, sometimes throwing in a clever mnemonic. We probably all had a Shirley in our classes and assumed she (or he) is naturally gifted. While that may be the case, more often than not it is the method, not the person.

Shirley would review words shortly after class. She said she would usually learn about five words at a time, consulting the list only so she could remember those words. Then, she would go about her day, intermittently, thinking back to those five words. Sometimes, she would totally draw a blank on a definition and would have to go back to list, “Oh yes, of course, desultory means rambling.”

In this fashion she would work through the 25 daily words, moving on to another five words every few hours. When possible she would try to use these words to describe something in her everyday life. Basically, the words were always floating around in her head. Just as importantly, she would make sure to revisit the first half of the list throughout the day instead of simply trying to reach the 25th word.

Unlike Timmy, she didn’t hover over the list, covering up the definition. Timmy’s method never allowed him to turn a short-term memory into a long-term memory, much the way we can memorize a phone number only long enough to call that number. As soon as we’ve done so the memory vanishes.

Finally, Shirley would turn to flashcards when she had to study for the 1,000-word vocabulary final (I told you my bootcamp was grueling). Because the words were already in her long-term memory the flashcards helped her maintain those neural connections. She wasn’t using the flashcards for the initial step of taking a short-term memory and changing it into a long-term memory. She worked with a few words at a time getting them into long-term memory before moving on to new words.

Remember that the revised GRE, is a test that requires a cumulative knowledge, not a crammer’s last-minute effort.


Timmy’s Triumph

For Timmy it wasn’t easy going at first. He wanted to revert back to his old method, but through hard work, on both our parts, he soon became more like Shirley. By the end of the bootcamp he was scoring close to 25 out of 25.

So next time you are tempted to cover up a list, remember Timmy (and my menacing brow).



Learning words from a vocabulary list by covering up the answer turns off your brain.

To move words from short-term memory to long-term memory bite off a little at a time, and do your learning away from the list. Meaning, think back on the words and definitions. Then if you forget them, consult the list. We have a lot of lists here on the blog, ranging from basic to advanced to themed lists, so learn from Timmy’s mistakes and apply Shirley’s method from the start!

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