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GRE Text Completions – It’s Not Always About the Vocab

When prepping for the GRE, it is easy to get carried away in learning big-sounding words, such as apotheosis and portentous, forgetting that success on Text Completions is dependent on your ability to understand the context of a sentence. Oftentimes, the answer-choices themselves are not these big—portentous—sounding words, but relatively straightforward words that, when you plug them into the sentence, seem to make sense.

Unless you are very careful and pay attention to the way a Text Completion is constructed, you will likely get a question wrong.

Below is a three-blank sentence that has a complex structure but only one bona fide vocabulary word in the answer choices—meaning a word your average person on the street has never heard—let alone used—before.


As spurious sightings of imaginary creatures that have captured the popular mind (i) ______________, however (ii) ________________ a story may be, once it has been circulated enough times it will gather a patina of (iii) ______________.

(A)  diminish

(B)  entail

(C)  suggest


(D) clever

(E)  apocryphal

(F)  captivating


(G)  neglect

(H) truth

(I)    deceit


#1 – Look for the big picture

There are two words in the sentence itself, but those are meant to trip you up more than anything, since you can still understand the sentence at a high-level without knowing exactly what these words mean. What we can farther is that people claim to see imaginary creatures. “Spurious” probably doesn’t mean actual, since people can’t actually see imaginary creatures. So what is happening with these sightings? You may be tempted to plug in the first answer choice, (A), because, hey, it’s the first answer choice. Before you do so, look at the rest of the sentence, starting with the word however. This use is not the traditional contrasting however; however here means to whatever extent/no matter how. Returning to the sentence, no matter how _______ a story is, if enough people hear it, the story becomes _________. Well, we are dealing with imaginary creatures and spurious, based on the context, probably means false, so a good word for the second blank is unbelievable and for the third blank true works well.


#2 – Deal with the easiest blank first

This reasoning leads us to (H) for the third blank. But what about the second blank? Would a word like interesting (clever and captivating are somewhat similar) work? Notice the “time shift” with the word “once.” Therefore, the two blanks have to be roughly opposite. It wouldn’t make sense to say that no matter how interesting a story is once a lot of people hear it that stories becomes true. But if we choose (E) apocryphal, the one tough word, which describes a story of doubtful authenticity. Even if you don’t know the definition of the word, you can still get the answer correct.

You’ll notice I skipped the first blank. Why? Because it was tougher than the second and third blank. A trap is choosing (A) and then either (D) or (F) for the second blank, and for the third blank (I). You make a sentence that sort of works, but not really. Essentially such a sentence would say that as sightings of imaginary creatures decrease, no matter how interesting a story is it becomes false if it spreads between many people.


#3 – Does the sentence with your answers plugged in make sense

Finally, once you’ve reasoned through the sentence, plug all the words in to see if a coherent statement is conveyed by the sentence:

As spurious sightings of imaginary creatures that have captured the popular mind suggest, however apocryphal a story may be, once it has been circulated enough times it will gather a patina of truth.


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9 Responses to GRE Text Completions – It’s Not Always About the Vocab

  1. priya February 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    hi Chris ..

    I actually chose those words which meant to be a trap… Can you suggest any particular way to overcome this problem…specially where there are two sets for all blanks..

    thanks in advance..

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele February 4, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

      Hi Priya,

      I think the best strategy is to force yourself to figure out the sentence as much as possible. Meaning try to come up with your own words. With this sentence it is pretty tough, but you should stick with it. If you are totally confused at that point, you will still be more likely to get the question right by plugging in answer choices because you’ve already thought about the question. What you want to avoid doing is diving right into the answer choice without first wrapping your head around the question.

      Hope that helps!

      • priya February 5, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

        thanks chris… 🙂

  2. Swati September 25, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    Thanks Chris for yet another valuable trick.I am following you dilligently.The problem with me and probably many of the test takers is, no marks are given even if we fill two blanks correct out of the three. In my case, this is being done at a frequent rate and really takes my heart out. I am almost at the verge of giving my exam and far from noticing any improvement in this particular area. Help Chris! 🙁

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      Hi Swati,

      These are tough question types! Luckily, there are only a few per section. So, have you been practicing vocabulary? That should help with these. What’s also important is doing a lot of reading in context,, newyorker, so that your brain becomes more “tuned” to the twists and turns of long sentences. I know you only have a week left, and that is not much time. At least, noticing words that contrast the blanks is also helpful. In the meantime, practice as much as possible with the official material.

      Hope that helps!

      • Swati September 25, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

        Thanks for the prompt reply 🙂 🙂

        Yes! I am watching your vocab wednesdays for quite a long. Also, following your “30 day weekly schedule”, Magoosh flashcards, the readings you suggested ( The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Economist, AL Daily etc), not that strictly though. Each one of these has definitely contributed to my confidence and scores.

        At this crucial time, I am giving as many mock tests as are available to me and reviewing them as well, though, wondering to what extent they represent the actual GRE score!!

        Hope I’ll perform better than what I am performing in mock tests:/

        In any case, a big thanks to you and your team for guiding me (and many like me) throughout this phase.

  3. Kshitiz September 24, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    Thank You Chris!…You are the best mentor.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

      You are welcome!

  4. Ashutosh September 23, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    Thanks Chris, this is really helpful. I tried to solve this before looking at the solution and made the mistake you pointed out in the post.

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