General Verbal Strategies
General Verbal Strategies
First, let’s take a quick look:
  • Read Widely and Deeply
  • Ken Thy Lexicon (Know Your Vocabulary)
  • Avert Distractors (and Guess!)
Now let’s see how they work.
Read Widely and Deeply
If you’re not a reader, become one. Reading high-quality prose and learning by example are two of the most important (and pleasant!) ways to gain a better vocabulary, as well as develop the ability to read at a faster rate.
Make reading a part of your daily routine, even if only for fifteen or twenty minutes. If you’re not a natural reader, read stuff you’re interested in just to get in the habit. Read the sports pages, the fashion blogs, People magazine, cereal boxes, Ulysses. In other words, read widely and deeply.
Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. The more you read, the better a reader you’ll become. You’ll learn how to quickly absorb information, how to make inferences and identify the author’s main point, and how to understand words in context—all of which are skills tested by the GRE.
What to Read
Eventually, you’ll want to start reading material similar to that found on the test. Don’t worry—you don’t have to pore through dusty old anthologies. The test makers cull the reading passages from all kinds of sources that appeal to a smart, general audience. Keep this in mind as you prepare for the test: You don’t have to be an expert to understand GRE passages. You just have to be able to quickly grasp the main ideas and answer the questions.
Reading any of the following on a regular basis will help you improve your literacy skills:
  • The Wall Street Journal (
  • The New York Times (
  • The New Yorker (
  • Harper’s (
  • The New York Review of Books (
  • The Economist (
  • Scientific American (
  • Arts and Letters Daily (basically an electronic broadsheet, this site has links to articles from all kinds of scholarly publications. Check it out at
  • The Onion (that’s right, the Onion. Who says funny writing can’t be smart writing? The articles are surprisingly advanced. See for yourself at
Ken Thy Lexicon (Know Your Vocabulary)
The GRE wants to make sure that you know how to use words correctly, and vocabulary remains a critical component of getting a good score. People with better vocabularies will recognize words faster and more easily avoid traps than people with limited vocabularies. Vocabulary is tested directly in Antonym and Analogy questions and in context in Sentence Completions. Of course, vocabulary also comes into play in understanding Reading Comp passages, a key factor in answering those questions correctly. The bottom line is that having a solid vocabulary is a crucial requirement of achieving a great Verbal score.
Begin by reading with a dictionary by your side. Look up any unfamiliar words you come across as you peruse the Economist or the New York Times. You might consider keeping a list of words you don’t know or don’t know well.
We also provide you with the 400 most commonly tested GRE words in a tear-out chart in this book. You should have these babies down cold by test day.
Avert Distractors (and Guess!)
As the GRE is a CAT, you have no choice but to answer every question you see before moving on to the next question. So if you’re in a position where you have to guess, you may as well guess intelligently. By guessing intelligently on questions you don’t know, you’ll increase your score. Guessing intelligently is not cheating: It’s using what you know to eliminate wrong answers and find the correct answer.
But the test makers don’t want you to stumble across the right answer, so they’ve designed two types of traps, or what we call “distractors”:
  • Sentimental Counterfeits. These distractors will frequently seem to fit into the question by associating themselves with a feeling or idea in the question. But they’re really fakes, designed to distract you from the correct answer.
  • Look-alikes. These are words with similar, but not identical, meanings to either other answer choices or to words in the question.
Sentimental Counterfeits
Let’s take a look at this sample sentimental counterfeit:
Medieval kingdoms did not become constitutional republics overnight; on the contrary, the change was ________.
(A) ostracizing
(B) unexpected
(C) advantageous
(D) sufficient
(E) gradual
If you zipped through this one, you might have instinctively gone for C, figuring that, within the context of the sentence, constitutional republics are preferable to medieval kingdoms. And the word advantageous has positive associations that fit with the sentence’s sense of historical progression. You would have been wrong, though: C is a “sentimental counterfeit.”
Take another look at this question. The phrase on the contrary should tip you off that the correct answer must somehow contradict, or be in contrast to, the first clause. Advantageous doesn’t work, because it doesn’t contradict anything in the first clause.
Likewise, you might also have been tempted by B, unexpected, or D, sufficient, since both words also seem to fit with the gist of the sentence. Or you might have gone for A, ostracizing, because that seems just weird enough to fit the GRE. And, as you’ll see in the list of the top 400 GRE words, the test makers do like esoteric, polysyllabic words.
The correct answer, E, is the only word that makes logical sense: Gradual contrasts with overnight. You can eliminate distractors by always double-checking that your answer makes logical sense and coherently fills in the blank.
Although memorizing roots, suffixes, and prefixes can help increase your vocabulary, be careful about assuming that all words that look alike have similar meanings. For instance, ingenue, a noun, means “a naïve young woman,” but disingenuous, an adjective, means “insincere.” Likewise, be careful about confusing words that sound the same but mean something totally different, like discrete (“separate”) and discreet (“exhibiting good judgment or modest”).
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