Don’t know which GRE word list to choose from the massive number that exist on the internet? Are you dreading committing yourself to one GRE vocabulary list only to find out it is not the right one?
To allay any such anxiety, I aim to provide an overview of the most popular GRE word lists out there. I will also discuss how to and how not to use a GRE vocab list. But first, it behooves me to give you real opinion of word lists for the GRE, for they’re not the Holy Grail of a good vocabulary.
A Better Way To Learn GRE Vocabulary
Instead of getting weighed down with long word lists that don’t really do much but leave your head swimming in useless vocabulary, check out our free GRE flashcards!
Here are several posts I’ve written on the topic of vocab lists:
Alright, alright, you came here to find out about some word lists, so here are my reviews.
GRE Word List Reviews
Kaplan’s 900 Words: Good
The words found on this list are high-frequency GRE words. Remember this does not mean that if you study all 900 words you will know every word that will show up test day. Far from it. But this is a good beginning.
To really take advantage of this word list—and any word list, for that matter—is to use quizlet.com. The good news is that quizlet already has this set of flashcards ready to go. If you don’t know already, quizlet.com is an excellent (and free) online flashcard resource. Better yet, each word list comes with a ready-made quiz. Studying this way is a thousand times more effective than looking at a list of words.
Barron’s 4,759 Words: Avoid
Simply put, this list is overkill. If you slog through it, you won’t know the difference between high-frequency and low-frequency words. Even though this list is already built into quizlet.com, skip it.
Barron’s 3500: Avoid
This is a word list from the Barron’s prep guide for the old GRE. Notice I said old GRE. Some of these words are not applicable to the new GRE (they are words that popped up on the analogy section). The fact that Barron’s chose not to publish this list in their new GRE guide is telling.
You also want to avoid using this list because it is extremely dull and tedious. Hundreds of words are crammed on one page. Your eyes will glaze over quickly, your brain will fall asleep…you might as well being watching daytime television.
Perhaps most importantly, the definitions here are very vague and not at all adequate for the sense of how a word functions in context. That’s probably why Barron’s did not include this list in their new guide.
Nova’s 4500: Definitely Avoid
This list is in the Nova’s verbal book. Like anything Nova releases for verbal, avoid. This list really is a travesty to GRE word lists. Words are vaguely—and often mistakenly—defined. Words you’ll never see are lumped together with high-frequency words. Throw in the fact that this is simply a word list and I can think of no better way to waste one’s precious GRE prep time than studying this list.
Internet Word Lists: Beware
These are a dime a dozen, and often they poach Barron’s word list. Others are just a random word list filled with archaic words or “analogy words” that appeared on the old GRE. Avoid these lists at all costs. Not just because the content is ‘iffy’ but because they are static lists.
Vocabulary.com GRE High Frequency Words List: Very Good
The words chosen here are all pretty much high-frequency words. My biggest complaint is that the definitions cited are sometimes not the GRE-figurative definition but the primary, literal definition (for “distill” we get the science definition–not very helpful for the GRE verbal section). But what you do get is vocabulary.com’s excellent description of words. All you have to do is click on the word itself.
The best part, though, is the “play feature”. This is a quiz in which you either have to come up with the definition or choose an answer that best matches the context in which a word is used. You’ll also get to see the excellent description of the word instead of just a definition. So if you use vocabulary.com High Frequency GRE Words this is where to start.
Magoosh’s (Unofficial) GRE Word Lists on Quizlet.com: Good
Many of the words that have appeared in our Vocabulary eBook (and “Vocab Wednesdays”) have been conveniently set up in quizlet.com. Since we don’t necessarily endorse any of these lists, you have to snoop around. But it’s easy! Just type in Magoosh GRE into the search box, and you will come up with different sets of Magoosh flashcards. Some of them also, use words that show up in our product, words that are also high-frequency vocab words.
How To Use a GRE Vocabulary List
This is perhaps the most important part of using a word list – doing it the right way. Reading through a word list of unknown words is the single most ineffective way to study vocabulary. That’s right – ineffective. If you catch yourself studying this way, stop. Do something else, anything else short of committing a misdemeanor, for reading a word list truly is criminal.
Why? What’s with all my hyperbole? Well, our brains learn from being challenged. What most are wont to do is to read each word, then the definition. At that point, they think they have learned the word. After all, the definition is right there. They carry on and by the end of the word list they think they’ve learned something.
If you were to quiz such a person 30 minutes after they’ve read the list, they will remember the definition for very few words. They will remember the placement of words, Oh yes, ‘stymie’ was next to ‘esoter…i…’ something, uh…). Ask them to provide the word once you read the definition and you might as well be asking them what the capital of Equatorial Guinea is.
GRE Vocab List Pro Tip
Whichever list you end up using, don’t forget Quizlet. It takes the flashcard concept (which is based on randomized order) and expands upon it by offering excellent quizzes. Remember, the brain learns while being challenged!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2013 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.