Vocabulary for GRE – A Detailed Approach

Last updated on February 25th, 2019

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What is the best way to study vocabulary for GRE?

This is probably the most frequently asked question among GRE test-takers, one that everyone wishes they had an answer to.

Fear not, for we are here to help! In this blog, we will discuss the most common mistakes and misconceptions about GRE vocabulary and then give you some highly effective resources and strategies to build vocabulary for the GRE.

So, first off, let’s address the elephant in the room!


Is GRE Vocabulary all about mugging up words?

A huge misconception that students have about preparing for GRE vocabulary is that it is all about mugging up words.

It must’ve taken some serious “creativity” for someone at the UP Ministry of Tourism to approve this ad on Twitter:

This is a classic example of why mugging up dictionary meanings of new words simply doesn’t work.

As part of a graduate program – a Master’s or an MBA – you are required to not only read a lot of journals and books but also to write lengthy theses and project reports. You need to be clear, crisp, and concise in the words you choose.

For this, you need to understand words in context. And that is what the GRE is meant to test.


How Context Matters

What is the difference between “John is firm” and “John is obstinate”?

“Firm” and “obstinate” have meanings that are very similar, yet, the first statement carries approval whereas the second is criticizing John. The meanings are similar but there is a huge difference in the tone.

Context almost always affects the meaning of the words themselves and this is the stuff that the GRE expects you to know and be able to judge while reading or writing in English.

Expertise in Verbal Reasoning becomes very important when you try to get your work published in a scientific journal – it has to be ready for scrutiny by Ph.D. holders who have spent more time reading books than you have spent binge-watching “Game of Thrones”!

This brings us to the next elephant (or wait, is it a hippo?) in the room.


What is wrong with preparing from GRE word lists?

We have had students who come to us and say “I’ve learned words until “P”!



There are two sections on the GRE that test you on words and their meanings: Sentence Equivalence (SE) and Text Completion (TC). Both these sections test you on the nuances in meaning, and simply knowing the meanings by heart will not help you with that.

Here’s what’s wrong with using word lists for GRE vocabulary building:

  • Lack of Context

    Yes, we’re stressing on this yet again. Word lists do not provide any context whatsoever, which seriously compromises your ability to answer the kind of questions the GRE will pose.

    Every vocabulary-intensive question on the GRE will require you to pick the correct words with reference to the context they’re in. If you’ve only learned from word lists for GRE vocabulary, this isn’t something you’ll be able to get through easily.
  • Isolated Definitions

    Some words have definitions that are of no help whatsoever. Here’s an example.

    This is the definition of Transcended according to WordWeb:
    “Be greater in scope or size than some standard”

    Does it make sense to you? Not to us!

    Now, let’s take a look at the same word in context:
    “Dante embodied all the learning and thought of his age and transcended them: he went far ahead of all his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.”

    Dante went over and beyond what his contemporaries were doing, so he was greater than the “standard”.

    Does that definition make sense now? In case we haven’t stressed it enough already: Context matters, even just to understand a definition!
  • Alphabetical Order and Retention Power

    Every word list presents words in alphabetical order, so by the time you’ve reached words beginning with “B”, you’ll begin forgetting what you’d learned under “A”. This is because alphabetical orders present no pattern at all.

    The human mind is wired to learn and remember new things by connecting them with the information it already has. By learning from a word list, you’re creating zero connections between what you already know and what you’re learning now.

    Not much of that will be retained!

It’s always safe to assume that you WILL come across words you don’t know when you’re taking the GRE. Even so, it is understandable that you’d want to learn as many new words as you can in a short span of time. If you still feel like GRE word lists will help you, read our post on why they won’t.


How To Build Your GRE Vocabulary Quickly

In an ideal world, you should be building your vocabulary through years of exposure to good quality reading such as The Economist and The New York Times. Vocabulary building needs to be deep and meaningful.

However, this is not an ideal world, and you are probably worried because your vocabulary isn’t exactly great. What do you do?

Here’s what.


3 GRE Vocabulary Building Strategies

There are no less than three super effective strategies you can employ to build your vocabulary quickly for the GRE.

#1 Learn New Words Through Grouping

As we’ve said before, people are wired to learn and remember new information by linking it to what we already know. Grouping is one way to form associations between words so that you can remember their meanings and connotations.

For example:

  1. “Juggernaut”, “guru”, “avatar”, “jungle”, “bungalow” – the list can go on. These are all words with Indian origins.
  2. “Procrustean”, “narcissism”, “mercurial”, “herculean”, “plutocracy” – English words with Greek origins.

This is grouping by origins. You can find your own ways to group words, in whatever manner suits you, like ‘words related to the Church’ or ‘words related to medicine’. One other interesting technique is to group words by “inclines.”

When you classify words by inclines, you place two words at two ends of the spectrum and study the words in between. This could be in increasing order of intensity, or it could be from one opposite to the other.

For example:

  1. Annoyance, irritation, anger, rage, fury – increasing order of intensity.
  2. Malevolent, truculent, irascible, imperturbable, equanimous – opposite to opposite

For more, read our post on using grouping for GRE vocabulary.


#2 Learn Words Using Roots

A lot of words in the English language are derived from other languages. Often, a variety of words come from the same root word.

Learning root words and their meanings does not only help you remember more words better, but it also allows you to make more accurate, educated guesses when the time comes.

Here are some examples:

  1. “Chronos” is the Greek god of time. So, “chronograph” means a device to measure time with (a clock or watch), “chronological” means arranged by the time of occurrence, “chronic” means something that persists for a long time or keeps recurring.
  2. “Anthropos” is also a Greek word; it means ‘man’ or ‘human being’. So, “anthropomorphic” means suggesting human-like characteristics for animals or inanimate objects, “anthropology” is the study of humans and their societal relations, “philanthropy” is the love of mankind and a “philanthropist” is one who makes charitable donations for the greater human good.

Another benefit of learning new words via roots is that some of the words you already know will suddenly make more sense.

Additionally, you can always branch out from one word root to another – for example, “philos” from “philanthropist” means “love”, which leads to “philosophy” which is “philos” (love) + “sofia” (knowledge).

Do you see how a Doctorate in Philosophy basically goes to say that the holder of a Ph.D. loves studying the subject they’ve done a Ph.D. in?

For more, read our post on using word roots for GRE vocabulary.


#3 Learn New Words Through Mnemonics

A simpler way to say this is, learn words by associating them with pictures.

You may have gathered that a mnemonic is a picture that acts as a cue for your memory, helping you remember words associated with it.

We remember the things we see better than the things we read.

Besides, the number of senses we use to understand an idea or a word determines how easily we will remember it.

For example, you’ll remember things better if you read things out aloud – does it suddenly make more sense that your school teachers made you read your multiplication tables out aloud?

Anyway, the idea is, the more information you associate with a given word, the likelier it is that you will remember the word.

Mnemonics for GRE, otherwise known as GRE flashcards, exploit this basic fact to help you trick your brain into learning and remembering a lot of new words very quickly.

CrackVerbal’s GRE Flashcards are specially designed to incorporate humor into the imagery they create because human brains will retain more information that is entertaining.

(Yeah, that’s why you remember so many completely random and fairly useless things but find it hard to recall what’s in your GRE word list.)

For more, read our post on using mnemonics for GRE vocabulary.


In spite of all this, as we’ve said before – no matter how many words you learn in preparation for the GRE vocabulary section, you WILL encounter words you’ve never seen before.

This is because, to be honest, the words you’ll find in the GRE will not exactly be the kind you may encounter in daily life or popular culture.

Chandler and Ross may use some unusual words on occasion in “F.R.I.E.N.D.S.” but watching the show is NOT going to be enough to help you with your GRE.

So how do you deal with it when you do come across completely new words?

The key is not to become too dependent on REMEMBERING words but to understand the ones you learn. That way, when you encounter new words during the exam, you can at least eliminate your way to the right answer.

Remember that guessing on the GRE is not only a good idea but it is also something we recommend for a variety of reasons.

However, we do not mean blind guessing. Here’s what you should do instead:

Make an educated guess from time to time – and employing these vocabulary building strategies for your GRE preparation will definitely start you off in the right direction for that.

We hope you found this article helpful.

Do let us know if you have any questions or doubts in the comments section below!

Feel free to follow any of the links in this article for more.