Learn GRE Vocabulary: Movie Night Inspiration

February 20, 2014
Craig Harman

Photo Credit: jovike via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jovike via Compfight cc

In the 1989 movie Say Anything, John Cusack plays an eccentric teenager who is pursuing a brilliant and beautiful classmate named Diane Court.  In one scene, Cusack’s character, Lloyd Dobler, waits for Diane to emerge from her bedroom before heading out on a date.  Pacing the hallway, he notices a dictionary resting on a table.  Curious, he begins flipping through the book and is surprised to see that nearly every page is full of marks, notations, and tiny scribbles.  A look of confusion and then awe falls over his face, and it’s not hard to imagine what he’s thinking – um, did she really go through this entire thing?

Daunting, isn’t it?  I mean, that is certainly one way to learn GRE vocabulary: just hop in a time machine, go back to when you were 16, grab the nearest dictionary, and open it up to the first page.  Mark all the words you don’t know, make notes in the margins to remind yourself of specific definitions, and don’t stop until you’ve turned to the last page.  In five to ten years, you’ll possess an amazing vocabulary.  Ready?  Ok, now – go!

Wait, what?  You don’t have a time machine?  You don’t want to devote all of your free time to flipping through the pages of a six-pound tome in search of definitions of archaic words?  You think there might be an easier way?  Well, good news: you’re right.

Now, for some of you, the above example might be feasible.  But for those of us who do not have access to a time machine, there are still a lot of really fantastic (and fun) ways to improve our vocabulary in a compressed amount of time.  One such method is organizing vocab flash cards into different “word groups.”  The idea here is that the GRE very rarely tests us on the exact definitions of words, so simply knowing the basic “gist” of a word is often sufficient to correctly identify the right answer on GRE Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions.

For example, let’s take the word sagacious, which means, “wise, discerning, perceptive.”  Here’s a word that, generally speaking, deals with knowledge, so we could put sagacious in a word group pile dealing with knowledge.  Other words that could fall under the umbrella of “knowledge” are perspicacious, erudite, and astute.  The more vocab study you do, the more words you can add to the “knowledge” pile.  By the time GRE Test Day rolls around, you may not be able to rattle off an exhaustive and detailed definition of each word in that pile, but you’ll at least know that each one deals with knowledge.  An understanding of the “word group” of hundreds of difficult words will better enable you to eliminate wrong answer choices and quickly identify the correct answer on Test Day.

Another great strategy is using the roots of words to strategically guess definitions on Test Day.  Let’s imagine a scenario where you have been studying for the test for a couple of months, learning lots of new words and, as outlined above, organizing those words into word groups.  But what happens when a word you did not encounter during your studies shows up on the test?  As an example, let’s again use sagacious.  Maybe you’re not sure what the word means, but you do see that it begins with sag-, and so you think back to all of the words you’ve recently learned, trying to find one that also starts with sag-.  Okay, well, you remember that the definition of sage is “someone who is very wise”, and you also know that that suffix –ious means “having or being like the word that precedes it.”  So you combine the two and get, hmm, being like a wise person?  Okay, so, sagacious must have something to do with being smart or knowledgeable!

Doing well on GRE Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions isn’t dependent simply on an exhaustive knowledge of the full definitions of hundreds of words.  More valuable are the skills of learning the gist of lots of different words, and being able to piece together definitions of difficult words from your understanding of word roots, prefixes, and suffixes.  A test-taker who focuses on learning the “fuzzy” definitions of hundreds of GRE words will often perform better than a test-taker who focuses exclusively on retaining the precise definitions of a few.

Craig Harman Craig Harman has been teaching and tutoring GRE and GMAT students in Central Pennsylvania for over three years. A graduate of Denison University in Ohio, Craig spent a couple years working in film production before discovering his inner test-prep geek. In addition to having helped hundreds of students achieve their academic goals, Craig also enjoys concocting elaborate plans for his garden, playing basketball, and working on documentary film projects.

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