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GRE Vocabulary


When learning GRE vocabulary, we need to arm ourselves with as many approaches as possible to stand a chance against the verbal section:

1. GRE Flashcards

Our new and free GRE flashcards do a great job of providing you with the most useful vocabulary words to learn while still providing you some context to the word. This is essential in learning new words.


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Why is reading for vocab necessary if you’ve got great flashcards?

Unfortunately, in the cozy flashcard milieu, words come to us a lot easier. But, the GRE is far from cozy. When we see a word we’ve seen before, the context — the GRE testing room — is very different. Likewise, when we are reading, we don’t expect to see a given word. It is this element of surprise, this jolt of recognition, that makes reading such an effective vocabulary-learning tool. I recommend a combination of reading and usage of our flashcards to really solidify those words you’re learning.


Once you’ve exposed yourself to many new words through reading or reviewing GRE word lists, you don’t want to just look at them and put them in a notebook for safe-keeping. A technique you can rely on is active usage – a highly effective way of embedding words into long-term memory. If you don’t make active usage part of your arsenal, you are selling yourself short.

The key to active usage is to be creative. So, if vocabulary words start randomly popping into your head, think of where you can use them. Indeed, the zanier the connections you make with words, the more likely you are to remember them (this zanier-is-better approach applies to the next part of the vocabulary arsenal as well).


Suppose there is a really pesky word that you just can’t get into your long-term memory, no matter how many times you see that word. Okay, perhaps you don’t have to suppose, as there are many words that fall into this category. But let’s pluck a word at random from the GRE vocabulary tree: lambaste.

Let’s say whenever you encounter this word, the first four letters, l-a-m-b, throw you off. You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition — to reprimand harshly — it always surprises you.

Instead of trying to snuff out the image of a lamb, however, you should try using it to your advantage.

Imagine a boss, or anybody who has exerted some power over you in the past (a middle school gym teacher works perfectly). He or she calls you into their office (or lair) and is now berating you for something you did incorrectly. Now, I want you to imagine a large lamb’s head in place of this person’s head.

Or, if that doesn’t quite do the trick, imagine you are cooking. You’re not very adept in the kitchen, but you want to surprise your significant other with his/her favorite dish. Well, in the end, you end up ruining the lamb. Your significant other arrives and, witnessing your culinary debacle, gives you a good going over, “you don’t baste a lamb, you roast one.”

The process of coming up with a creative—and often offbeat—way of remembering a word is called a mnemonic. Above are two mnemonics that I thought of on the spot. What I’ve learned from coming up with mnemonics in front of a class is that the best mnemonics are our own mnemonics. Sure, a few students like my mnemonics, but others devise their own wacky ones up (or lean back slightly, looking at me as though I’ve gone a little mental).

As silly as my mnemonics may sound, the main takeaway is that a good mnemonic is the one that works for you. And by good, I mean it is memorable. Case in point, you may have already forgotten my lambaste mnemonics, because you didn’t think of them yourself. But, if you are struggling with a vocab word, a clever mnemonic will not only make the word easier to learn but will also — hopefully — make the word more fun to learn.

Video: Vocabulary Strategies

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53 Responses to GRE Vocabulary

  1. Alejandra August 14, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Hi Chris, First of All, the vocab ebook is great! Love the strategies and examples.
    Thank you for providing such an amazing material.

    I like the mnemonics strategy, however it was difficult to find good ones for some words. This is when I found this amazing site:
    You should recommend it to your students. For example, for the word Bedlam:
    “when we keep an alarm near bed (bedalarm), when it rings, we are confused where it has been kept and we are in a state of total CHAOS and DISORDER to find the alarm and stop it” 🙂

    Oh I also have a question, which of the GRE preparation guides is better for verbal? Manhattan, Kaplan or Barron?

    Thanks for everything!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

      Hi Alejandra,

      Thanks for the kudos :). I’m happy you’ve found the ebook helpful!

      I think that the mnemonic dictionary is great – I will definitely recommend it to those who like mnemonics.

      As for overall preparation guide, I’d say Barron’s is okay all around. MGRE falters a little in the Text Completion/SE component, though it’s six online tests (which you get for free) are helpful. From RC standpoint def. MGRE. Steer clear of Kaplan’s for Verbal.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Nadeem August 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    How many word should one learn everyday for GRE, considering 90 days prep…..

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 15, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

      It depends on your current vocabulary level and the score you aim to get. I think a general, safe bet is about 10-15 words a day, provided you build off words (meaning you don’t forget any).

      Hope that helps!

  3. Rebecca August 12, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Two questions.
    Firstly, I have the old Kaplan GRE vocabulary flashcards 2nd edition. Does it matter if I use them for studying for the new GRE?

    Secondly, what is your favourite book for learning vocabulary? I have been recommended both the new Princeton Word Smart and Barron’s Essential Words. I learn best through written practice and exercises, so it would be nice to have something more than just a list. I am also working through the Magoosh ebook.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

      Hi Rebecca,

      For the first question, you can use those vocab cards. Not a problem. But it is good to always build off of those by using other vocab materials.

      Good questions! For the second question, I’d recommend Barron’s 1100 Words. It is a vocabulary work book replete with helpful exercises, quizzes, etc. While it is not billed as a “GRE book”, it contains vocabulary that can pop up in any of the standardized tests.

      Hope that helps!

      • Rebecca August 19, 2012 at 5:45 am #

        Thanks! This is very helpful.

  4. Salman August 7, 2012 at 3:26 am #

    I want to ask you a question Chris. In all your book reviews, you have mentioned that text completion and sentence equivalence is not up to the mark, even in MGRE. So which is the book you advice me to follow for these questions..I have bought the MGRE set. One more thing is “are the verbal workbooks of princeton, kaplan and barron’s really good”. Please give me a detailed advice for all these books also..I really want to score big in gre..

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm #


      I’d say Barron’s is probably the most okay. The surprising thing with MGRE is that their TC and SE are off the mark. That is not to say they are as bad as those found in Kaplan. In general, the verbal work books for each are not much different from the general guides. Book-wise I have yet to see any publishers that are really able to do a very good job in TC/SE.

      • Salman August 8, 2012 at 4:41 am #

        Thanks a lot Chris..But i would like to ask you one more thing. I have gone through many blog sites and even asked some people who have scored well on gre. They said that the online tests that KAPLAN offers very much resemble the actual gre questions. I dont know if its true. I want you to guide me on this….

        • Chris Lele
          Chris August 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

          I am doing a review on the new Kaplan book along with the CD. I will give you a run down of the online tests then. Stay tuned!

  5. satish August 2, 2012 at 12:21 am #

    Hi Chris

    A bit perplexed about verbal section section as a whole. I have my exam on 22nd of this month and I am not at all confident of the verbal section. Quant though I feel like managing but the verbal ambit is in arrant danger.

    From the past couple of days I have started reading articles from Selected articles provide quite a lot of vocab but the main point is “time”.

    Also I vacillate over the thought of just taking up tests and improving on it or else just keep reading the articles and improve vocab in context (which may help in all three verbal sections). But I am really not sure if I am veering into the right path. Please assist.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 2, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

      Hi Satish,

      The combination of in-context reading and GRE prep is the magic combination. So if you are studying GRE-specific material a couple of hours a day, and reading the Economist during your afternoon break or the commute home, you are on the right path (Also, make sure to always make a mental summary of what you’ve read vs. just gobbling up as many articles as possible).

      Basically you will be whipping your verbal brain into shape, making sure that you have a strong sense of the way vocabulary functions in complex sentences.

      Hope that helps!

      • satish August 2, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

        Thanks Chris. Forgot to ask if there are any specific articles or category that has confers sufficient abstruse GRE words because I find 4/5 articles quite discernible. The same is with The Atlantic.

        Or are there any articles specifically meant for the aforementioned?

        • Chris Lele
          Chris August 6, 2012 at 11:28 am #

          I wouldn’t say there are specific articles for abstruse words. You may want to mine the works of certain authors for a penchant for abstruse vocabulary (though I wouldn’t recommend learning abstruse words for the new GRE). The words used in the Atlantic/New Yorker/nytimes are the words you’ll see test day.

  6. satish July 19, 2012 at 11:30 pm #

    thanks for that Chris. I ll try it out

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 23, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      You are welcome 🙂

  7. satish July 16, 2012 at 2:22 am #

    Hi…i just now downloaded the vocabulary ebook of yours. I have 30 more days for my gre. I am quite nervous and also afraid of what will be asked in gre verbal section. My main concern is that will it suffice learning the words from that ebook? also i have the barron’s endless wordlist which i dont feel like mugging up. the readinf comprehension also seems too “esoteric” and i alwyas get its answers wrong. from my tone itself u may presume how confused i am. so was wondering if i can get any suggestions from ur side to how to cope up wid the verbal section withing the stipulated time.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 18, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

      Hi Satish,

      Yes, do not learn all the words in the ebook. I’d say get Barron’s Words you need to know for the GRE, or Manhattan GRE’s list, which is about 500. Again, you will only see a handful of those words test day.

      For reading passages, it is a question of practice. Most everybody finds the passages esoteric. The key is your approach to the passage. That said, how are you approaching passages?

      • satish July 19, 2012 at 7:49 am #

        Thanks for the reply. Ok….so catch 22 is my situation!!!if i read the whole passage and then answer the questions, the score will be 6/15 else if I read the question and then answer the question (in order to save time though not so drastically) then my score wud be 4/16. Approximately I take 3-5 mins for getting a question answered (both right and wrong). Moreover I dont feel confident about answering any question. If I get anything right its then by God’s grace.

        • satish July 19, 2012 at 7:50 am #

          the scores are both out of 16..

        • Chris Lele
          Chris July 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

          Hi Satish,

          In answering the question, I’d recommend going back to the passage, finding the relevant info., and anticipating the answer. That way you have a sense of the answer without vacillating between two answers, both of which may be wrong. This will save you time so that you are spending mo more than 2 min per question.

  8. princenawsher July 6, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

    Hi Chris>

    I need a full mp3 vocab file with illustration. Can any body help me? My email address

  9. Meenakshi July 1, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Hope you are doing good.

    I will be appearing for gre exam on Aug 17th 2012.

    I have 46 days to prepare.I need to work on my verbal.I want to score 320 in my exam.I want to prepare effectively and there is so much of information available.I am a bit lost.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

      Hi Meenakshi,

      I understand – learning about the GRE with all the info out there can seem a bit overwhelming. Well, you’ve come to the right place :). In terms of what to study, there is no better place to begin than our study guides:

      Let me know if you have any questions as you navigate around :).

      • Meenakshi July 2, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

        Thank you 🙂

  10. jay June 27, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    Hi Chris

    I am done with magoosh gre vocab ebook , and I absolutely loved it. The elaborate explanations with sentences, and the grouping of words under subheadings was very helpful. However, moving on to other sources on, as you suggested in your study plan , how would you compare the wordlists of different companies available there. I came across Barrons 3500 ( which I’ve seen you mentioning in your blogs several times), manhattan wordlists (words are scattered in different groups, each group with around 50 words) , and then there is Kaplan 500.

    Thanks again for the wonderful ebook 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris June 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

      Hi Jay,

      I’m happy you enjoyed the ebook! Moving forward, you should be fine with the words from the other major companies. I wouldn’t stick to just one. Rather mix in a few of them to get a feel for the one that works best for you. That said, I do like the way Manhattan organizes it’s flashcards. Barron’s 3500 word list words tends to be vague definition-wise and it doesn’t (at least to my knowledge) provide example sentences.

  11. Ankit Laddha June 24, 2012 at 6:59 am #

    I want to give my GRE on september 11th 2012. My maths is good and i have got 48 question correct out of 50 on the paper test at the back of ETS official guide but my Verbal score is only 50% i.e. 26 correct out of the 50 questions. So please give me some advice to increase my verbal score. I am planning to do all the words on “Barrons Essential words for GRE”(it contains 800 words and some word roots) and also one article from the economist or other newspaper daily to increase my vocab.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris June 27, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

      Hi Ankit,

      Have you read our vocabulary ebook yet? It contains many helpful tips that, I hope, answer your questions. Have a look, and afterwards let me know if you have any questions.

      Good luck!

  12. Craig June 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Chris. I have all of the gre books and I was looking at grubers and see that yes, he may make the voc stuff and or the verbal easier. As I see so far his book has good stuff in terms of voc. I see alot of the same words you use. Ok to use it supplementing with other books? Also, merria Webster voc builder? Worth it? Thanks.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris June 26, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

      The Gruber’s book definitely has a lot of GRE vocab. I fault them mostly for the quality of their verbal practice questions and the way that said vocab is employed. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt from a solely vocab building exercise. Ditto with Merriam Webster.

      Hope that helps 🙂

  13. vivek March 23, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    hi chris,

    How would you rate software like “ultimate Vocabulary software” to start working on vocabulary? Would this be useful at all and sheer waste of money? It seems to have rave reviews everywhere in the net.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm #


      Ultimate Vocabulary looks great! I like the flashcards with pictures. The thing is I’ve never used it, but from the research I’ve done it may be a helpful system. I will have to buy a copy and spend some time researching it more. But for now, I say it looks like a good way to learn vocab.

      • vivek March 26, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

        thanks Chris

        • Chris Lele
          Chris March 28, 2012 at 11:36 am #

          You’re welcome :).

  14. Jennifer March 14, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    I just posted a comment on my boyfriends facebook using 3 of your “top 20 GRE words.” Active word usage is the strategy that works best for my learning style!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

      Great! I say keep using them, sprinkling them out across multiple FB friends :).

  15. Niti February 25, 2012 at 7:23 am #

    🙂 I will make a note of that..Thanks!

  16. Niti February 23, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Hi Chris

    Thanks for your suggestions, quite helpful!:)
    I do not have a specific strategy for vocab per say. I just keep picking up words from Kaplan and Princeton, and then look up meaning of unknown words that I find, while reading books/online news. I have also checked out Quizlet. Indeed it is quite helpful but I don’t get much time to study online as I am working late hours almost everyday, just enough time to study quant and verbal. But let me again go back and try using the flash cards strategy, perhaps would help!

    Thanks again, for your advice.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 23, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

      Sounds good! Also, don’t forget the ‘use it or lose it’ strategy. Try using GRE words throughout the day (to yourself, of course 🙂 ). Describe yourself as feeling phlegmatic in the morning, co-workers wrangling in the cube near you, a martinet of a boss making you stay late at work :0.

  17. Niti February 20, 2012 at 4:56 am #

    Hi Chris

    I am planning to take GRE April end 2012, to this end – I have been trying to work on my vocab learning words from Kaplan/Princeton. However, they provide a limited list of words. Could you suggest any other source/method/book for me to improve vocab. I would prefer a source which is handy all the time – something like an online source, where in I could download the list and take a print out, to keep with me and learn even when I am travelling (I am working with a MNC). I found few links on Barron’s – not sure how useful they are. (see Barron’s sorted word list, pg 1086 onwards)

    Does it make sense to download them?

    Also, not sure flash cards work for me, but would be great if you could suggest an alternative source/technique to work on the word lists.

    Thanks a lot for your suggestions!


    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

      Hi Niti,

      Let’s see if I can help :).

      For methods, what did you think of the strategies in the post above? I stress the importance of not solely relying on lists. Cramming words this way isn’t terribly effective.

      Of course at the end of the day it is nice to have words in one convenient place. For a reference book I recommend Princeton Review Word Smart – though it would be crazy as well as inefficacious to work through the book alphabetically.

      Flash cards are much better. is an amazing web site that allows you to make on-line flashcards. So read a lot and make note of words you see by putting them in flashcard form (the level of reading has to at least by at the nytimes level). And whenever you encounter a word you don’t know in a practice question, you can also make an on-line flashcard of it.

      Hope that helps!

  18. Pri January 18, 2012 at 6:39 am #

    Hey Chris,

    I just started preparing for my GRE’s and was absolutely terrified of memorizing definitions. Then, I came across your article where you compare two students (one with flash cards and the one who actively reads examples). I am finding it much easier to remember meanings using the latter technique. Do you think it is also useful to memorize a group of word which have the same meaning? For example: Courageous, Dauntless, Audacious could be linked to bold every time? I read this strategy in Kaplan Verbal Workbook, could you let me know what you think about it?

    Thanks 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris January 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

      Hi Pri,

      I am happy the example method is working well. Word groupings can also be a great way to go. However, you have to tread carefully.

      How similar must words be? Courageous, etc. are definitely synonyms.
      Kaplan is notorious for lumping “similar” words under some general tag. Often times the words are related only in a vague sense and differ significantly. Basically both could pop up as answer choices in a sentence correction, and one of the words can be the answer.

      My advice: do the grouping on your own and make sure the words are similar. For example impudent, insolent, and impertinent would be a good group. Keep the group exclusive because as soon as you start grouping words that sort of fit, you run into trouble.

      Hope that helps!

  19. Praveen December 11, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I came across an iphone app which adopts the method of learning you have suggested in this post. I apparently found the developer’s site and found it to be quite useful.

    This helps memorize words a lot easier! I hope you check it out.

    Cheers 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris December 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

      Hmm…the site seems to be down. I’ll definitely try to check it out later.

    • Nitish August 15, 2012 at 11:24 am #

      Thanks a lot Praveen for sharing the link! Cannot thank you enough! 🙂

  20. Rajiv Tanwar December 8, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    I got one more good vocab resource that is Word Dynamo on
    Its amazing and easy to play with words.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris December 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

      Hi Rajiv,

      I’m just trying this out. Depending on how it goes, I may include on my next vocabulary write up.

      Thanks for the link!

  21. Robert December 1, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    I like your mnemonic technique, but you can take it slightly further. If you have ever studied anatomy, you will remember the Gray’s Anatomy coloring book. You color a body part one color, and then you bubble in the name of that part with the same color. You are essentially creating a pictorial mnemonic. You can apply the same technique to learning vocab. One of my favorite examples is the word ubiquitous. I draw a stick figure who is looking at a ton of biscuits floating in the air all around him (10 in fact). In each biscuit, I write u, b, i, etc.

    I like your lambasting, basting, roasting, picture. If one takes the 30 seconds to draw a stick figure cartoon of a guy getting yelled at, I would imagine most people will never forget it. I think many are better at remembering pictures over the format of “word, pronunciation, part of speech, definition, etc.”

    Just make sure your mnemonic focuses on the definition. One of the worst examples I saw of a ‘fail’ was in a flascard collection (I don’t recall the publisher)…

    They drew a picture of someone prodding a sea gull for the word prodigal; how they relate, I have no idea.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris December 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Robert,

      I agree – pictures can serve as a powerful mnemonic. The reason I am more biased towards imaginative mnemonics is because they are the ones that I have always used. Indeed, when I was younger my friends and I would try to come up with clever mnemonics. The sillier and more random the better. In fact, I could even make prodigal work – a gull can be a person who is easily deceived. And you could easily prod a gull to giving you lots of money so in essence they become prodigal. Totally silly – and obviously not what the flashcard publisher was thinking – but making these random connections has helped me learn lots of words.

      But quirky mnemonics aren’t for everyone. I’ve shared some wacky ones with SAT students, some of who give me the same look I reserve for certain people on the subway (you know, the ones talking to their invisible friends). Many of these students prefer either drawing their pictures or using some pre-made pictorial representation. It really depends on how one learns, so I thank you for mentioning the pictorial method, one I’d given short shrift to on the blog.

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