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Are Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence All About Vocabulary?

The majority of the people who contact me for GRE tutoring are vehement in their need for help in the Quantitative section. In many ways, this makes sense. If you haven’t taken a math course since high school or freshmen year of college, your math skills will undoubtedly be rusty, and you’ll need to spend at least a good month brushing up on your skills before you’re ready to dive into test-like questions. But another reason people tend to focus so much on Quantitative section is the misguided belief that improvement in the Verbal section is largely a byproduct of how much vocabulary a person can memorize. After all, the logic goes, the choices all have vocabulary words, so if I memorize 1,000 words, I’ll be in good shape on these questions.

Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. Imagine the scenario from the perspective of the test-makers. Yes, they’re concerned with vocabulary knowledge, but if that’s all they cared about, they would simply give you antonyms and synonyms or even ask you to choose the appropriate definition for a word. Instead, they put these words in the context of a sentence or paragraph because they want to know whether you’re able to use logical and contextual clues within a sentence to infer the word that best fits. Oftentimes, I will work with clients who have taken the class, memorized the words, but still struggle on Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions in which they know all the words! What’s the issue? Context!

To do well on GRE vocabulary-based questions, you have to approach the sentence or sentences with laser-focus. This means paying attention to all the words and phrases that establish relationships between parts of the sentence. When there’s a word that indicates contrast (such as “but,” “yet,” “however,” etc.), are you identifying how this word impacts the meaning of the sentence? Are you identifying the type of relationship it creates between the word in the blank and the other parts of the sentence? Or are you just using intuition and what seems to make sense to arrive at your answer? If you answered ‘yes’ to the last question, then you need to revise your approach. Focusing on vocabulary is useful, but memorizing the entire dictionary won’t make a difference if you’re not using concrete, textual evidence to identify the correct answer in these questions.

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