I live in Atlanta, GA, the home of Coca-Cola. Here, when we ask, “Do you want a Coke?”—and you reply in the affirmative—we usually follow the question with, “What kind? I have Diet, regular or Sprite” (or whatever happens to be stocked at the moment). We have our own special sentence equivalence going on here. We use the word “Coke” in the same way that other areas of the country use the word “pop” or “soda”. In the same way that “Coke” is not an exact synonym with “pop,” but manages to convey the same meaning, the correct answers to Sentence Equivalence questions on the GRE may not be synonyms…but will still complete the sentence in an equally satisfactory way.
When it comes to GRE Sentence Equivalence questions, the challenge for most of us is knowing how to use more obscure GRE vocabulary, such as words that are either more commonly used in British English or not encountered very often in modern-day communications. If a Sentence Equivalence question on the GRE stated “Contrary to popular opinion, doctors have found that diet ______ does not trigger sugar cravings,” residents of the Midwest would have no trouble choosing “pop” and “soda” as the two best words to complete the sentence, while residents of the South would be looking for “Coke” and “soda,” because we simply do not use the word “pop” to refer to carbonated beverages.
Let’s consider a more GRE-like example:
When caught in the middle of a ______________ between friends, Dan typically agrees with whoever shouts the loudest.
Now, according to the Kaplan method for GRE Sentence Equivalence questions, we need to predict an answer before we look at the choices. Here, I would predict “fight” or “argument.” The prediction itself is pretty straightforward. However, when we look at the answer choices, we see:
Huh. Now what? Well, remember what we’re looking for…two words that are similar enough to give the sentence the same overall meaning. Let’s start by eliminating what doesn’t work. Since the sentence refers to people shouting, we know that it’s not a peaceful situation. So, even though “accord” and “truce” have similar meanings to one another, they do not contribute the correct meaning to the sentence. They’re gone. That leaves us with:
This is where our studies pay off. If we’ve been reading (classic literature is a great place to encounter GRE vocabulary in context), studying word groups and going through vocabulary flashcards, we should be able to identify the two words that we need—or to at least eliminate the two that do not work.
As you can see, knowing the vocabulary is incredibly important for GRE test day success. Now you ask, “Do I need to know what these words mean?” The answer is “yes, yes, you do!” Know the vocabulary, and know ways to deduce meaning (such as using prefixes, suffixes and roots) should a word show up on GRE test day that you have not seen before.
Back to the question. Which two words did you pick? Most of us know that a “row” is a fight…but when we see the word “row,” our first association is likely to be “row a boat.” By using the word “row” in place of the word “fight,” the test makers are evaluating our knowledge of a secondary, or less common, meaning of the word. (If you go to www.dictionary.com and look up the word “row,” this definition will be the last one listed…the tertiary definition, if you will.)
So, “row” is one word that we can use to complete the sentence. Hopefully, you were able to eliminate “chasm” and “torque,” leaving “fracas” as the second word that accurately completes the sentence.
Now, have you ever said to a friend, “I saw this major fracas last night. There were at least 30 people rowing in the lawn!”? Of course not (though it might be funny if you did)! GRE vocabulary is the vocabulary of scholarly pursuits, not casual conversations. Much of it will not be familiar. Some of it will seem awkward. But you gotta know it. In the same way that, if you’re ever in Atlanta and a friend asks if you’d like a Coke, you should know that there will likely be a follow-up question asking you which particular Coca-Cola product you’d prefer to imbibe.
This week, we are celebrating Independence Day! We will play in the sun, eat hotdogs and watermelon, watch fireworks light up the night sky, and give thanks for the freedom we have as citizens of the United States of America.
What you may not know is that you also have certain freedoms as a GRE test taker. Let’s use a couple of Quantitative Comparison questions to examine some of those freedoms.
- We are free to use the centered information and to manipulate it in order to better compare quantities A and B. For example, consider this problem:
Before we can compare x and y, we need to know more about them. We can learn everything we need from the centered information, which we are free to accept as a true statement that applies to both quantities.
Here, we are free to use either substitution or combination to solve for x and y in our system of equations. The nature of these two equations makes combination the more straightforward approach:
x + 3y = 14
+ 10x -6y = 12
With the two equations lined up, we are now free to multiply one of the equations by a value that will allow us to eliminate a variable upon addition of the equations. Let’s multiply the first equation by 2.
2(x + 3y = 14) = 2x + 6y = 28
Now, we are free to line the equations up again and add them together:
2x + 6y = 28
+ 10x -6y = 12
12x = 40
Since x is now our only variable, we are free to divide both sides by 12 in order to solve for x:
12x = 40
x = 40/12
x = 10/3 = 3 and 1/3
With a solution for x in hand, we are free to plug that value into the first equation in order to solve for y:
x + 3y = 14
10/3 + 3y = 14
3y = 14 – (10/3)
3y = (42/3) – (10/3)
3y = 32/3
y = (32/3)/3
y = (32/3) * (1/3) = 32/9 = 3 and 5/9
Since x= 3 and 1/3, and y = 3 and 5/9, our answer will be (B) Quantity B is greater.
Now, let’s consider another freedom.
- We are free to use the straightforward rules in order to better compare two values. Consider this problem:
If we simply Quantity A, we get n-1.
Then, we can simply even further using the exponent rule n-1 = 1/n.
So we know that Quantity A is 1/n. Now, we are free to consider the centered information as we determine how 1/n compares to 1. Because the centered information tells us that n is an integer, we are free to pick integer values for n and plug them into the fraction:
_ n _ 1/n_
1 1/1 = 1
Since n = 1 gives us a value of 1 for Quantity A and n = 2 gives us a value of ½ for Quantity A, and since these two values have a different relationship with Quantity B, our answer is (D) the relationship cannot be determined from the information given.
That’s a lot of GRE freedom from just two Quantitative Comparison questions!
- You should have a good vocabulary because it is important and will help you at work.
- A forward-thinking individual will set aside time to compile an expansive vocabulary because they are aware that doing so will prove advantageous to their professional pursuits.
Sure, they’re pretty extreme examples and the second is a bit pompous (an ability to “pull off” an attitude of pomposity is, of course, another benefit of an expansive vocabulary)…but you get the point, right? A few well-chosen words can lead you to a defining moment in life; they can also get you out of a difficult situation. When you know a selection of words that convey all of the nuances of “good”—from “acceptable” to “average” to “perfect”—you can express yourself with precision. An extensive mental lexicon allows you to both understand the erudite and communicate with confidence.
Let’s consider how having a strong vocabulary would help you answer this GRE Text Completion question:
Though the field of economics finds many diverse applications, the (i) __________ goal of economics is to develop tomorrow’s monetary policy. However, economists rely on oft-conflicting information from the past in (ii) ________________ their policy ideas for the future, thus causing critics to refer to economics as (iii) __________________ science.
Kaplan’s strategy for Text Completion questions is to read the sentence and look for clues, and then use those clues to predict what the missing words may be. Read the sentence again. How would you fill in the blanks?
Because the sentence begins with the word “though,” we know that a contrast is coming. Before the comma, we also have the word “diverse”—for that reason, we would expect whatever is after the comma to be unified or singular in some way…we expect the author to transition from “diverse applications” to “one goal.” A good prediction for the first blank (i) would be “primary” or even “most important.”
Now that we’ve made our prediction, we should look at the answer choices for that blank to see if any of them mean “primary” or “most important.” Those choices are:
If you know which of these means “most important,” that’s great! If you don’t, though, you need to be able to use your knowledge of word roots, prefixes and suffixes to eliminate as many as possible. A well-developed vocabulary will help you there. For example, if you know that “icon” refers to a sacred image, you should be able to eliminate “iconoclastic” (which means “a destroyer of sacred images”). Also, if you know that “circuit” indicates going or moving around, then you can eliminate “circuitous.” Finally, knowing that “eminent” means “noteworthy” allows you to choose “preeminent” (which means “superior or surpassing”) as the correct answer.
That’s one blank down! On the GRE, you have to choose the correct answer for ALL of the blanks in order for a Text Completion question to be counted correct. Take a moment and predict the words you would use to complete blanks (ii) and (iii).
My predictions would be “forming” for blank (ii) and “an imperfect” for blank (iii). Let’s see what the answer choices are:
Wow. So, these words are a bit harder. A quick glance does not readily reveal a word that means “forming” or one that means “an imperfect.” This question is an excellent illustration of why you need to build a formidable vocabulary as you prepare for Test Day. I’m going to give you a minute to look up these words at www.dictionary.com. Go ahead. I’ll be right here, singing the Jeopardy theme song in my head.
Oh, you’re back? Great! Based on the definitions you looked up, which words would you choose to complete the sentence?
If you chose “excogitating” for blank (ii) and “incongruous” for blank (iii), you are correct! Notice our predictions were not absolutely perfect matches. The cases in which you predict the exact word or definition will be rare. Instead, you’re looking for the answer choice that best captures the nuances of your prediction. In this case, policy ideas would be “formed” (our prediction) via “considering deeply and thoughtfully” (the meaning of “excogitating”). Likewise, “an imperfect” science could also be described as “inconsistent” (the meaning of “incongruous”).
As you prepare for Test Day, keep a vocabulary notebook. Look up new words that you come across while you read, as you watch TV, or even through conversation. Write down the word, its definition and a sentence that uses it in context (preferably the sentence that you first heard or read). Start today to build a powerful vocabulary. It will greatly enhance your GRE Verbal score and will help you to express yourself fluently on the GRE essays. Even better, the vocabulary skills that you are building now will be helpful throughout your graduate school and professional careers!
Almost every student I have, in every class that I teach, asks, “What is a good score on the GRE?”
Most students don’t understand just how complex that answer can be. Sure, I could tell everyone, “You know, you really want to aim for a 165 or higher on both sections of the GRE.” That would be a completely truthful answer—anything at 165 or higher is an excellent score—but it may not be an appropriate goal for every student. Quite simply, it’s just not that simple.
For starters, here is what you need to know:
The GRE is scored on, essentially, a 41-point scale. That means that small improvements in performance can increase your score quite a bit. It also means that small improvements in your score can make a big difference in your percentile ranking (sometimes, a one point increase in your score can boost your percentile ranking by 5 points—check it out here).
The percentile ranking on the GRE forms a classic Bell curve. Here is a generic Bell curve, in case you’ve forgotten what one looks like:
Because it falls on a Bell curve, your percentile tells the friendly admissions folks how well you did on the GRE compared with the students who have taken it over the last three years. (You can find that information here – But–fair warning–it’s pretty dry reading.)
Also, your GRE score does not stand alone. Whether or not you are admitted into a graduate program (and whether or not you receive scholarship money) depends on several factors, not your GRE score alone. Do not put all of your eggs in the GRE basket. You can put 4-6 eggs there, but divide the remaining 6-8 between obtaining the best GPA possible, writing a spectacular personal statement, flattering professors and professionals into writing outstanding letters of recommendation, and rounding out your resume.
I imagine you’re a bit frustrated with me. Because you still want me to give you a number and say, “THIS is a good GRE score.” (I did that already, remember? 165….look back to the beginning of this blog entry if you’ve forgotten.)
The absolute best way I can help you is to provide some general guidelines on how to set a good GRE score goal for YOU:
- Do your research! This is important. What is the average GRE score of accepted students at the schools you’re interested in? What are the average scores for your specific programs? What do the admissions departments have to say about required minimum scores? Once you’ve done your research, use these numbers in your goal-setting process. Remember also the meaning of an average score—students are accepted with higher AND lower scores than the average. Your entire application is important. Don’t become so focused on one number that you fail to present yourself in the best manner possible.
- Know that a good GRE score for YOU is the highest score you can possibly achieve after a reasonable amount of prep time (about 100 hours). Take a diagnostic test as you begin your studies (http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/prepare/powerprep2). If that diagnostic test places you in the 80th percentile or higher, you may be good to continue studying on your own. If you’re below the 80th percentile on either the Quantitative or Verbal section, consider signing up for a prep course. Kaplan has some great ones!
- When you begin studying, set your goal score at 20 points above your diagnostic score. Try to break that 20 point barrier in your studies. Raise your goal again—depending on how easy the first 20-point improvement was, raise your next goal by 5-20 points. Continue to raise your goal until about 2 weeks before your GRE test date. For those last 2 weeks, focus on holding steady and not losing ground.
- You want to get a score that places you in the 50th-99th percentile range (higher is better, of course). That means that your goal score should be somewhere between 151 and 170 on both portions of the test. (Notice how you could bomb the diagnostic, raise your score by 20 points as you study, and still get into the 50th percentile? Pretty cool, huh?)
Above all, study hard. Learn the test strategies. And walk out of Test Day knowing that there was no way you could have done any better!
Do you remember your first day of college? Not the day you moved in, but the first day of classes?
I do. I was sitting in Biology 141 at 9:00 in the morning. My professor walked in and proceeded to tell us that if we hadn’t started reading our Biology textbook yet, then we were already behind. She went on to say that all of us were currently failing the course. We were all starting with the same score—a big, fat 0—and it was up to us to earn the score that we wanted.
Sick, huh? (I later learned that she got a secret kick out of this “welcome” speech. And I came to respect her greatly. Honest.)
Well, the GRE is like that professor. Everyone has the same exact score as they settle into their chair and click “start.” The score you leave with is up to you, and that score is determined in great part by your test-taking strategy.
According to www.gre.org, your score is based on the number of correct responses you make on the Verbal and Quantitative sections. What does that mean? Well, it means that you want to make as many correct responses as possible. In order to make as many correct responses as possible, you have to answer as many questions as possible. This, in turn, means that you must answer every question. Really.
“But, what if I don’t know the answer?” you ask. Pick one anyway! Take what you do know about the problem and eliminate as many answer choices as you can (even eliminating one will increase your odds of guessing correctly on a single-answer multiple choice question from 20% to 25%–or from 25% to 33% on Quantitative Comparison questions). Then, make a strategic guess among the answer choices that remain.
Leaving an answer blank is a guarantee that you will not be adding those points to your score. But choosing an answer—even an answer based on a strategic guess—increases your chances of earning as many points as possible on Test Day!
In order to answer every question, you need to have time to get to every question. On the Verbal section, you have an average of 1.5 minutes per question. On the Quantitative section, you have an average of 1.75 minutes per question. Time management is key.
I encourage my students to “teach” their brains what a minute and a half feels like. When you exercise, do run/walk intervals at 1.5 minutes each or spend 1.5 minutes at each stop in your “circuit.” Brush your teeth for 1.5 minutes. Find a song that lasts 1.5 minutes and sing it often. Train your dog for 1.5 minutes at a time. Push your kid on the swing for 1.5 minutes. Keep a timer with you and give yourself 1.5 minutes on each practice problem that you work.
The point is to have a good understanding of what that period of time feels like so that you do not invest 2 or 3 or 4 minutes on problem after problem. There will be some questions that require more time from you. But, on average, you should be spending 1.5 minutes on Verbal questions and 1.75 minutes on Quantitative questions.
So, the take away: Everyone—everyone—walks into the GRE testing center with the exact same score. Your job is to work as hard as you can while you’re there, and to make an educated guess when you have to, so that you can answer every single question and leave with as many points as possible!