A Wake-Up Call for Vocabulary Strategy on the New GRE
If a stranger stops you in the street and asks, “Is the new GRE harder than the old one?”, say yes. On the whole, the new GRE is more difficult, but it’s not more difficult in every individual respect. The most notable way in which its content has been simplified is that vocabulary is no longer a nightmare.
Vocabulary has always been a blessing and a bane to standardized test takers. There’s something irresistibly romantic about the notion that a higher score may be as close as one or two memorized definitions away, but the words you memorize never seem to come up on the test, do they? Back in high school, I memorized what felt like a billion words in preparation for the SAT; only one of them appeared. (Though I still remember it to this day: soporific. Sleep-inducing.)
Since the old GRE could just as easily spring up ten of the words you studied or none of them, the dread of tackling the English language’s prodigious vocabulary tended to outweigh the promise of easy points. In the new GRE, antonyms and analogies are gone, and with them goes the pressure to memorize a billion potentially useless words.
Now, to anyone studying for the new GRE, this may not appear to be the case. Antonyms and analogies are gone, yes, but haven’t sentence completions morphed into the admittedly scarier text completion and sentence equivalence problems? How is vocabulary less of a threat?
The key is that the bygone antonyms and analogies tested vocabulary knowledge in a much more isolated fashion than sentence-based problems do. Consider this antonym question:
If you don’t know what “soporific” is, you’re more or less out of luck, even if you know what some of the other words are. Now look at what happens when we use the same exact words in a sentence equivalence problem:
The professor’s lectures were so ________ that Geoffrey couldn’t stop from dozing through them despite his passion for the subject.
With practice, you can predict what kind of word should go in the blank on any sentence-completion problem, regardless of the choices. Here, since Geoffrey has a passion for the subject, you’d expect him to be wide awake during the lectures; instead he’s dozing, so the lectures must be very BORING. Even if you don’t know what soporific and enervating (the correct answers) mean, you might see that excruciating (painful) and truncating (cutting short) and generous certainly don’t mean “boring,” and eliminate them from contention.
What remains is to sift through what are arguably the toughest vocabulary words in the problem –galvanizing, enervating, and soporific – and guess which one is the rotten apple. Those are 33% odds, much better than what you had on the antonym problem. If you happen to know that galvanize and energize are synonyms, then you’re home free without knowing either of the correct words.
Critical thinking matters more on the new GRE than vocabulary does. Study some words, but don’t let them put you to sleep.