GRE Verbal Reasoning

GRE Verbal Reasoning

What is on the GRE Verbal section?

Think of the GRE verbal section, officially known as the GRE Verbal Reasoning measure, as vocabulary on steroids. You won’t just be assailed by words like scurrilous, incorrigible, and portentous; these words will oftentimes be embedded in sentences that are so opaque they seemed to have jumped out of a philosophy dissertation (indeed a reading passage may be just that). Your GRE Verbal Reasoning practice will need to focus on reading comprehension, passage analysis, English grammar, and some intense vocabulary. Get ready to become a wordsmith!

The first question type you will see on the GRE Verbal test is a Text Completion (TC). They are those fill-in-the-blank sentences, you may have seen before. However, with the new GRE, the writers have really outdone themselves. Not only will you have a one-blank sentence, in which you have to choose which vocabulary best fits the blank, but you also can have as many as three-blanks, which can be all packed into one sentence or, more diabolically still, spread out over an entire paragraph.

A variant on the Text Completion is the Sentence Equivalence question. The good news is there will only be one sentence and one blank. The bad news is you have to choose two out of six answer choices. Sorry, no partial credit (which also goes for the TC questions).

Finally, half of the test will be comprised of questions that pertain to a specific reading passage. The reading passages can be as long as 450 words or slightly less than 100 words long. The passages are drawn from a variety of fields—science, literary critique, social sciences, etc.—and run the gamut from relatively challenging to forbiddingly dense.

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How many of each question type are in GRE Verbal Reasoning section? In what order?

Knowing exactly how many questions are on each section will help you greatly with pacing. So here’s the breakdown: Each verbal section will consist of twenty questions. Half of the section will consist of TC and SE questions; the other half will consist of RC questions.

The test will always begin with six TC, typically of increasing difficulty. Next, will be a reading passage or two, depending on whether they give you a long passage or two medium passages. Thrown in between reading passages will be four Sentence Equivalence questions.

The charts below give you an even more specific breakdown of the GRE Verbal concepts:

Text Completion

Question TypeNumber of Questions
Single Blank2 questions
Double Blank2 questions
Triple Blank2 questions
*NoteThe 2nd question in the pair is the more difficult of the two.

Reading Comprehension

Medium Reading Passage#7 - 9/10
Paragraph Argument#11
Short Reading Passage#12 - 13
*NoteThe medium and short passage will, on one of the verbal sections you see, be condensed into a very long reading passage.

Sentence Equivalence

QuestionsQuestion Numbers
Sentence Equivalence#14 - 17
*NoteQuestions don't increase in difficulty as you go along.

Reading Comprehension (Again)

Passage TypeQuestion Numbers
Short Reading Passage#18 - 19
Paragraph Argument#20
*NoteThis is an approximation. Sometimes the order is switched.

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What are some general strategies for the GRE Verbal section?

GRE Verbal Reasoning Strategy

The answers are not your friends. I know that sounds weird, but in the middle of the test, with our pulse racing, our palms sweating, we dive into the answer choices, as soon as we read the question, without taking a moment to stop and think.

The answer choices are your enemies. They call out seductively, “Hey, pick me – I sound so right.” And the more you read through an answer choice that ETS has spent time expertly crafting, the more you convince yourself that it must be the answer.

Text Completion Strategy

So again – think. In fact, look away from the screen, lest you be seduced. For example, it’s so easy on Text Completions to start plugging vocabulary words into the blank, and seeing how the word sounds. The test writers haven’t chosen random words as the wrong answers; the words are chosen for maximum seduction. Instead, cover up those sirens of standardized testing with your hand, and think, after reading the sentence, what word best fits in the blank. Then–and only then–match up your word with the correct answer choice.

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Reading Comprehension Strategy

For Reading Comprehension, read the question and go back to the passage. Find the part of the passage that best answers the question. Next read the question again and try to put the answer in your own words. Only then, should you look at the answer. This process may sound straightforward, but try it out. As soon as you read a Reading Comprehension question your eyes will feel this irresistible tug downwards into what you think is the safe haven of the answer choices. Learn not to be lulled.

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Do I need to memorize the dictionary?

Do not run home and immure yourself in the pages of Webster’s. Words that show up on the GRE are drawn from around 5,000 words that qualify as sophisticated, scholarly, and academic words. Or, to put another spin on it, words that you could encounter in the New York Times or the abstract of an academic paper. By contrast, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary contains hundreds of thousands of words. See, learning GRE vocabulary isn’t nearly as daunting as you may have thought.

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So how important is vocabulary?

Vocabulary is important, but not nearly as important as it was on the old GRE. That test had antonyms and analogies questions, which were heavily dependent on vocabulary (that’s why all the prep books stressed word lists).

But with the new GRE, the game has changed. You won’t have to be forced to define salutary on the spot. You will, however, be expected to understand how the word salutary works in a sentence.

If there is one word people must know for the GRE, it is context. I don’t mean the literal definition of context (though that wouldn’t hurt!). Rather, you must understand how words function in context, and, by extension, learn how to study words so you don’t just learn some canned definition.

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What is a good approach to learning vocabulary?

When you have a bad cold, you don’t rely on just one therapy to get better. You try to get plenty of rest, liquid, and sinus decongestants (and don’t forget the chicken soup!).

Learning vocabulary demands this same multi-pronged approach. Only using flashcards, to continue the metaphor, would be like only drinking soup every time you get a cold. And word lists, monotonous page after monotonous page of vaguely defined words, should be one of the least important parts of your vocabulary arsenal (though I’m not implying that chicken soup is the least important part of fighting a cold).

That doesn’t mean you should eschew learning the definition of words. Indeed, learning definitions is but the first step to truly learning a word. However, it is the ‘how’ of learning definitions that makes all the difference.

One great way to learn vocabulary is by reading. While this may sound extremely self-evident, all too often we gloss over words we don’t know, assuming that we can figure out the word solely on context. Sometimes you do guess correctly, but without looking up the word you won’t know for sure.

The process of trying to come up with the definition of a word you see in-context and actually looking that word up creates far long lasting neural connections than simply looking over a list. By reading, you will already encounter words you’ve already learned, thereby strengthening the memory of those words.

Of course what you choose to read is important (the gossip section of a pop culture magazine probably won’t cough up any GRE vocab). On the other hand, you will encounter plenty of GRE-level vocabulary by reading from sources such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Scientific American, and The Economist.

GRE Verbal Reasoning Recommended Reading

Understandably, the difficult words you encounter won’t simply jump off the page and lodge themselves for eternity in your brain, even after you look them up. So write the words down with the definition so you can return to them periodically.

For a fun, visual/audial way to learn vocabulary, check out Magoosh’s Vocab Wednesday videos on YouTube. That’s right, every Wednesday I present about five GRE words in the context of a theme (I also have these cool little whiteboards so you get to see the word).

Finally, you should utilize flashcards in conjunction with all this vocabulary word absorption as a review tool. We have an awesome free GRE flashcard site with 1000+ common GRE words and example sentences for each one to really help the words stick.

Click the image below to check out the web version of Magoosh’s free GRE flashcards:

free GRE flashcards from Magoosh

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How do I get better at Reading Comprehension?

Reading Comprehension is a tough section. Typically students put in a decent amount of work before seeing any improvements. The key—as is the case with much of GRE prep—is patience.

What’s also important is identifying exactly where you struggle with Reading Comprehension. For some, their biggest impediment is the passage itself. For others, the passage isn’t too much of an issue; it is how the answer choices are worded that trips them up. And for many, both the passage and questions are stumbling blocks. To improve at the passages, start breaking the passage down in your head as you read it. A good strategy is making mini-paragraph summaries in your head. Think of it as a quick mental snapshot. By the end of the passage, you should understanding of the main points of the passage.

For the questions, make sure not to just dive into the answer choices–as I mention in the general strategies to the verbal section above. Think about the question by going back to the passage and rereading the relevant part of the passage.

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Besides actually doing GRE passages, you can also improve at Reading Comprehension by improving your “reading brain.” Let me explain: when you are not used to reading dense, dry and difficult passages (which is what the GRE typically serves up) your brain balks at having to read a GRE passage–in timed conditions, no less. By reading long articles from the New York Times, The New Yorker, or just about anything you find on, your “reading brain” gets a workout, which is just what it needs on its study downtime.

Of course the passages aren’t the exact same as what you’ll find on the GRE. But the high-level of sophisticated prose and dense ideas will make the 450-word reading passage–during the third hour of the GRE–much easier to handle.

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How do I pace myself on the GRE Verbal section?

Earlier on I mentioned a startling fact about the GRE: every question is worth the same. That’s right, the really easy Text Completion is worth the same number of points as that four-line Reading Comprehension question that forced you to spend three minutes flailing about in morass of text for the right answer.

The fact that all questions are worth the same has a great impact on pacing; you do not want to spend time on the difficult questions, when that time can be better spent on questions you are more likely to get right. Sometimes you might not be sure if a question is difficult or not–and you shouldn’t go scampering off to another question just because a question is long. But if you’ve spent over a minute on a question and you aren’t making any progress that question could very well be a difficult one.

The second important thing to keep in mind for pacing in the verbal section is that some question types take less time than others. Sentence Equivalence questions typically take the least time to answer, followed by one-blank Text Completions, short-reading passages, dual-blank Text Completions, and finally, the most time consuming, Paragraph Arguments and long reading passages.

GRE verbal pacing tips

In addition to learning the ordering of question types, you should also learn the ordering of the difficulty of the questions, which doesn’t change test to test. That way you can better anticipate which questions to initially skip and come back to, time permitting. For instance, the time-consuming triple-blank sentence completions are usually the fifth and sixth questions.

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GRE Verbal Reasoning Practice: What are those logic questions?

We call these Paragraph Argument questions. Talk about an incognito question type – the GRE snuck in these paragraphs into the Reading Comprehension section without so much as mentioning it in the Official Guide. But if you’ve done any amount of prepping, you’ve probably encountered these paragraphs—and the logic-based question that follows each.

That’s right, each paragraph has only one question, and that question will ask you to evaluate the logic of the paragraph. I call these paragraph arguments, and if you are familiar with the GMAT or the LSAT, you’ll recognize that paragraph arguments are no different from the Critical Reasoning section.

These questions can be tough and time-consuming. Here’s a great place for some general strategies.

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GRE Verbal Practice: Do I need to know grammar?

I would be totally misleading you if I said there was no grammar on the GRE. Good luck getting higher than a ‘3’ if you totally botch your subject-verb agreement and pronoun agreement—especially if such grammatical flubs disrupt the clarity of your prose. At the same time, there is no section that asks you to identify a grammatical error in a sentence and choose an answer free of any such syntactical hiccups. Both the SAT and the GMAT have such questions. So know your grammar for the essay, but otherwise you should be fine.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.


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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!

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2 Responses to GRE Verbal Reasoning

  1. abhishek asapure December 21, 2016 at 5:55 am #

    you mentioned maximum answers of most common queries. thank you for your effective advices and strategies, but I need some more effective ways for building GRE vocabulary to crack sentence completion and sentence equivalence.

    • Magoosh Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert December 21, 2016 at 9:51 am #

      Hi Abhishek,

      I’m so glad that you have found our blog helpful 🙂 The most effective way to build your GRE vocabulary is through reading. This helps you to build your overall reading comprehension skills as well as your ability to recognize vocabulary in context. It’s not enough to just memorize definitions on the GRE; instead, you need to understand how words function and change in natural written English. We recommend that students read GRE-level articles for at least 30-60 minutes per day. Treat any unknown words like a blank in a text completion–try to determine it’s definition based on contextual clues. This will help you to really engage with the words and build your functional knowledge of vocabulary. For more on this approach, see this blog post: Vocabulary in Context. We also have a Google Chrome extension that will highlight common GRE words in your browser. This will help you to recognize common words and expand your vocabulary while reading articles 😀

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