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Ways to Memorize Difficult GRE Vocabulary Words

In trying to memorize really arcane words—you know, the type of words that will help you on the GRE—you do not want to stare at the word with trepidation. Neither do you want to write all these nasty-looking, multi-syllabic monstrosities on a piece of paper and hope your brain can grok them in one go.

Instead, you want to avail yourself of multiple tools to help make sure that a GRE vocabulary word, which 99% of the population has never seen before, sticks in your head.

Below are some powerful tools below at your disposal.

1. Free flashcards

First off, to get an idea of the words you know and don’t that are likely to show up test day, check out our free GRE flashcards. Obviously knowing the word is the best way to avoid struggles come test day, but when that fails you can follow the steps below.

2. Context

“Know thy enemy” is a hoary adage that has helped many in dispensing with their respective adversary. For difficult GRE vocabulary words, we want to know how these words are used in context.

For our first specimen, we will take the goosebump-inducing word below:


A panegyric is high praise, either spoken or written. To see how it is used, I have done a quick google search, using my trusted media source—The New York Times.

Thursday night’s Vision Festival bill at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side included a panegyric for the living, in the form of a lifetime-achievement celebration for the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams

Looking up several examples will give you a strong sense of how this strange-looking vocabulary word is used.


3. Back Story (Etymology)

Sometimes words have a very interesting back-story or origin, formally known as the word’s etymology. The word canard, which comes to us from Old French, today means a rumor or baseless story. In Old French, canard meant duck. The logic was, when you spread baseless rumors, you quack like a duck (or a canard, if you are French).


4. Mnemonic

Spurious is a word that shows up often on the GRE. For some reason, many students have difficulty remembering this word. One day, a student in one of my GRE classes told me that he couldn’t remember the meaning of this word because every time he tried to think of it, he kept seeing spurs on a cowboy boot.

Rather than see this as an impediment, together with the help of the rest of the class, I came up with the following mnemonic:

Hank, dressed up as a cowboy for Halloween, brandished a set of silver spurs that were clearly spurious.

Spurious, by the way, means fake or counterfeit. I’m guessing Hank didn’t go out of his way to get real spurs just for his Halloween costume.


5. Describing (Active Usage)

Some GRE words are fun to use to describe other people. Pusillanimous, for instance, means despicably cowardly. Next time you are watching one of your favorite reality T.V. shows, or any T.V. show, for that matter, and one of the characters lets everyone walk over him, you should think, “How pusillanimous of him”!

If stuff going on around you triggers GRE vocabulary words out of the blue, then you know you are definitely learning (though make sure you know the definitions).


6. Grouping – Synonyms and Antonyms

Returning to panegyric (see above), we have a better chance of remembering this word if we group it together with synonyms. There is eulogy, a much more familiar word, that usually, but not always, applies to a deceased person.

Another synonym for panegyric is encomium, itself a strange word. Are you worried that you won’t remember it? Well, try using any (or all) of the four steps above. Something tells me you won’t forget it then.

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