You’ve started preparing for the GRE, the date is coming closer, and your vocabulary is still down in the dumps.
You are beginning to get desperate to make it better, so you look up GRE word lists and begin learning the words.
You are wasting your time.
Word lists are not going to help you get through GRE verbal.
They’re not. Seriously!
Let us explain.
Most Indian students find GRE vocabulary very hard, and for good reason. After all, you’re expected to learn somewhere around 3,000 complex words – words you’ve never even heard of before!
We totally get the temptation to use word lists and why you’d do it. Tell us if any of these reasons seem wrong to you!
Why Word Lists Are Used
- That’s Just How It’s Done
The general trend everywhere is that people don’t question the norm. When you’re told “This is how it’s done,” you would normally just go with it.
That’s the biggest reason why people still use word lists.
Simply because nobody thought to ask why we use them or whether they even work. Pretty lame reason to do something, don’t you think?
- Rote Learning FTW!
Most of us have been taught to rote-learn things since we were kids. We’ve grown up believing that mugging everything up is a good way to learn, so we never stop to wonder if we actually learn anything from it.
The logic is that as long as you score well, you’re doing great! Who cares if you understand any of it!?
It’s just a carried-over thought that rote-learning is the way to go because it works on most Indian exams.
- Hard Work = Success!
Indians value hard work. Smart work is good and everything but there is no alternative to hard work. Or at least that’s what most of us believe.
We’re so ready to do the hard work that we don’t even try to find out if it’s efficient.
It doesn’t compute for most of us that a smarter way to do something could actually be more effective. Mugging up a GRE word list is extremely inefficient and ineffective, but we do it because we think hard work brings success!
The fact is that GRE word lists do not work.
We repeat, GRE word lists do not work.
They don’t improve your vocabulary and may not change your score by much, either. Here’s why.
Why GRE Word Lists Don’t Work!
- There’s No Context
Think of the brain as a map. Every new word is a new destination on the map.
When you mug up a word from a GRE word list, you’re learning one way to get to a new destination in a new locality. So, when you need to remember what that word means, you have to navigate through an unknown area because you only know one route that can get you there.
When you encounter new words while reading or watching something, it becomes a new destination in a locality you’re already familiar with. It is like visiting a new restaurant near your house; you already know various routes to the place. This way, when you need to remember the word and its meaning, you get there quite easily!
You’ll find more about this in our Building GRE Vocabulary series, but people learn new information by linking it to what they already know. Word lists make you focus on definitions of words. The GRE wants to know if you understand the word, not whether you can recite its definition.
Let us consider an example.
Suppose you’re learning the definition of ‘compromise. Here’s the dictionary definition:
So you think you know this word now since you know the definition. Very good. Now take a look at this grammatically correct sentence:
The structural integrity of the building has been compromised.
This is a classic case where context completely changes the meaning of a word. In this sentence, ‘compromised’ means ‘unable to function optimally.’ You may or may not find this use of the word within its definitions, but it is a popular application of it nonetheless.
- There’s No Pattern
So here’s a fun fact about the human mind: it is not a computer!
Your mind is not built to purely store information, it’s built to process it. Word lists sort words in alphabetical order, leaving you with a boring, senseless monotony of data you’re expected to just transfer into your mind, verbatim.
As if you can create a spreadsheet and hit Ctrl + S in your mind!
Did you know that nature enthusiasts who go on treks into unexplored forests always carry paint or rope with them? This is to help them mark the route they take. They need the paint or rope because the forest is too monotonous, there is no obvious pattern that can help them remember the way without marking it.
Using GRE word lists for your prep is like walking into the forest without any paint or rope. There’s no way to navigate through that whole mass of information in your mind!
In short, if there’s no intelligent pattern to the data you’re feeding yourself, you most probably won’t be able to remember what you want to, when you need to.
- It’s Inefficient
Suppose you somehow manage to learn the definitions of 700-800 words by heart. By the way, it is insanely difficult to do even just that much. But even if you do, the amount of work you have to do for it is simply disproportionate.
What’s worse is that it’s still useless. Here’s why:
Your brain is literally not wired to remember things automatically unless your life depends on remembering. For example, you might need to keep practicing a speech in order to remember it, but you don’t have to meet a lion every morning to remember it can kill you.
If you need more evidence, try this: recite the National Pledge right now without looking it up on the internet.
How much do you remember?
Now think about it – if you went to an average Indian school, you repeated the same words every morning for ten years at least. You know the meaning of the pledge, too. And yet… Do you even remember how it ends?
To remember things better over the long term, you’ll need to revise it all every day. We all know it’s impossible to revise the entire word list every day unless you literally have nothing else to do. And even then, you will forget the words at the end.
In other words, word lists are just not worth your time!
GRE word lists function on a very flawed basic logic. If you think about it, these lists expect you to remember 10-20 more words for every word you actually want to remember.
How does that even make sense?
That’s the final nail in the coffin as far as we’re concerned – absolutely enough to convince us to avoid GRE word lists like the plague!
There is a variety of things you can do instead. You can learn GRE words with mnemonics, which is a technique you have actually used before. It worked out really well for you if you’re able to read this – you see, mnemonics were used to teach you the alphabet!
Incredibly, the same technique – associating GRE words with pictures and mnemonics – can help boost your memory to improve your vocabulary for the GRE quickly.
Another great technique to improve your vocabulary involves using GRE word roots. Many words in the English language often come from a single word in another language.
For example, the Greek word ‘tele’ means ‘distant’ – based on this, you can gauge the approximate meaning of English words like telephone, teleport, telegram, telepathy, etc.
Sometimes, a word in an amalgamation of two foreign words, like in ‘telepathy’ – ‘tele’ + ‘pathy’: ‘-pathy’ is a commonly used suffix in English and it comes from the Greek word ‘pathos’ meaning ‘suffering, experience, or emotion’.
However, it is risky to rely entirely on roots because they may lead you to completely misinterpret some words. Read our blog post on building GRE vocabulary with roots for more on how to use this technique correctly.
You can bolster your learning methods by also studying grouping as a technique. This will help you identify words that may not belong to the root you think they could belong to.
Grouping is similar to using roots: you make groups of words that are somehow related to each other. They could be synonyms, words used in the same context, or any other way in which you can relate them to each other.
You can go through our blog for more on effective methods to learn GRE words fast.