The last time we looked at a short verbal problem, it was of the “ridiculously, stupidly difficult” variety. You might find it interesting to see how the GRE test makers use challenging vocabulary, but on a medium-difficulty problem. Here’s a two-blank sentence completion we cover in our GRE Bootcamp event:
The social reformer proposed locating juvenile detention facilities close to parks, playing fields, and greenbelts, theorizing that (i) _____ to such sites could have a favorable effect on the troubled youths, as opposed to the (ii) _____ influence associated with locations in the heart of high-crime slum areas.
In a multi-blank sentence completion, there are three choices for each blank. But I’m not even going to show the choices to you yet, because you shouldn’t look at them on Test Day until you figure out the meaning of the blanks yourself.
One nice trick on these problems is to start with the blank that’s easiest to figure out. I’ll start with the first blank here because, in my opinion anyway, it’s the clearest one. But never start with the first blank just because it’s first!
The reformer wants these parks and fields to be “close to” the detention facilities, so the first blank needs to mean “closeness” or something.
Now look at your options for that blank:
Uh oh, vocabulary! But contrary to the last problem, this one has a backdoor. “Diversity” is a word you know, and it definitely doesn’t mean “closeness,” so knock it out. And I’ve found that ubiquity is a pretty commonly studied word; you might very well know that it means “universality,” which also doesn’t make any sense. So even if you have no idea what propinquity is, you can click it confidently on Test Day: it’s gotta be the answer.
Let’s look at the second blank now. “As opposed to” is an excellent clue phrase; it signals that the second blank is the opposite of “favorable.” In addition, the phrase “high-crime slum areas” is a rather explosive clue that whatever “influence” the second blank describes is negative.
Quick tip: don’t get overly fancy with your predictions. If you happen to think of a word like “unfavorable” or “negative,” that’s great. But if not, don’t sweat it. Your prediction doesn’t even have to be a single word; it can be a descriptive phrase, like “not the greatest!” The point is that you make a prediction, not that it be exquisite. We’re making predictions to guard ourselves against the insidious influence of the wrong choices, not to guess the exact right choice.
Now look at your options for blank two:
More vocabulary! But, even if you didn’t know that malevolent means “evil” or “harmful,” you should recognize the prefix mal-, which means “bad.” (Think of every word you can that starts with “mal-”: malignant, malady, malice, malign … none of them mean happy things!) So malevolent has to be the word you seek. This is another case when, even if you aren’t sure of the vocabulary, you can be sure of the choice you’re clicking.
Don’t get frightened just because a GRE short verbal problem has vocabulary you don’t know. It’s true that a hard problem will force you to know some ridiculous words, or guess; but a medium-level problem like this one features several varieties of back entrances that let you bypass most of the words. Notice how, to get this problem right, you don’t even have to care what propinquity, timorous, and propitious are! This is the kind of point you should expect to score on Test Day.
Back in January, I wrote about a challenging quantitative problem from one of our free GRE events, the GRE Bootcamp. As we held another Bootcamp recently, let’s take a look at another hard problem from the event — a verbal one this time!
The _______ preconcert celebrations did not seem to suit what followed; the concert itself was low key, acoustic, and featured only one performer.
Since there are six choices, you know what kind of problem this is: a Sentence Equivalence. Your task is to pick two words that both fit the sentence and produce an equivalent effect. Don’t start with the choices, though: start with the sentence. Look for clues and try to figure out the meaning of the blank yourself.
The sentence is about a concert, and the blank describes the party that happened before the concert. Now, what clues have you got? Well, the celebrations “did not seem to suit” the concert. And what was the concert like? “Low key, acoustic, and [featuring] only one performer.” So the missing word has to be the opposite of that.
Sometimes, on more challenging GRE verbal problems, you need to prioritize your clues. The opposite of acoustic is electrically enhanced, so unless a bunch of people at the party were sticking forks into sockets, this clue doesn’t help. The part about featuring “only one performer” isn’t terribly helpful, either; all this tells you is that more than one person was at the party, which is kind of already the definition of a “party.”
But low key – now that is a helpful clue! Imagine going to a “low key” gathering. Now imagine what would be the opposite of that: crazy, perhaps? Loud? Okay, there’s your prediction. The two words you select should indicate that the party prior to the concert was a crazy, loud, and all-around extravagant affair.
Like all challenging short verbal problems, this one features outrageously difficult vocabulary. Whenever this happens, gravitate to the words you know and see if you should pick them or cross them off. You should experience no hesitation whatsoever when you do this: if it’s a word you know, either it matches what you predicted or it doesn’t. If you haven’t yet reached this point of no-hesitation, that’s okay. That’s what practice is for!
Let’s suppose you only know the three easiest words in this list: corrosive, garish, and exquisite. Acids are corrosive — they eat things away — so that doesn’t make any sense. Cross it out.
Garish has several definitions, but as it would pertain to a party means “showy, excessively elaborate, and loud.” Just what you were looking for to describe this party. Select!
Finally, exquisite means “particularly excellent,” and that’s a distraction in this problem. The test makers are exquisitely good at loading up the choices with distracting words like this (which is why you shouldn’t look at the choices first!). Just because the party was (to borrow the dictionary for a moment) “extraordinarily fine or admirable” doesn’t mean that it was loud, extravagant, or any other opposite of “low key.” I consider fruit snacks exquisite, but they don’t call attention to themselves. They are both exquisite and low key. Cross this choice out.
Even if you had no clue about the other words, you’d know to pick garish and one of the remaining three choices. That’s 1 in 3 odds, which is five times better than the 1 in 15 odds you’d get by stone-cold guessing. In the long run, improving your odds like this will pay off in more right answers and more points, even if you have to guess.
Let’s suppose that you’ve been keeping a vocabulary notebook, though, and did a monster job beefing up your vocabulary before Test Day. The word ersatz means “synthetic” or “artificial,” so that makes no sense. Another word that makes no sense in this sentence is resplendent, which means “gleaming” or “splendid.” This word produces an equivalent effect in the sentence as exquisite, but it’s the wrong effect! Cross it out.
Boom. The only word left is robustious, so that must be your synonym. Pick it with garish and celebrate an added point to your GRE score.
Who else is waiting impatiently for Season 3 of the BBC’s Sherlock? Rumor has it that filming of the new season will begin on March 18. If you are Sherlocked like me and pacing the floors, desperate to find out how he survived, here’s something that can keep you occupied until our beloved Holmes and Watson return to us.
Find solace in what Sherlockians refer to as The Canon – the original works and writings by Arthur Conan Doyle. I recently read A Study in Scarlet (you can read it for free here) and not only was my Sherlockian soul sated, but I also discovered many gems of GRE vocabulary tucked into the text. Give it a read, and keep your vocabulary notebook nearby, as you’re sure to find plenty of words to add to your “To Be Looked Up” list.
Cases of mysterious vocab you will find within A Study in Scarlet include:
Next up: The Sign of Four. I’m eager to discover the lexicographic lovelies that await me there.
In closing, some words of wisdom for your prep:
“Study for the GRE if convenient. If inconvenient, study all the same.”
If you’re reading anything that has good GRE vocab in it, we’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments below.
When I say “GRE vocabulary,” you might think I mean words like panacea and moribund. But in the past year, I’ve discovered that (aherm) esoteric words aren’t the only ones to give my students headaches. Seemingly (cough) innocuous words like “some,” “many,” and “most” instigate no end of consternation on the new GRE‘s logic-based reading comp problems.
Have a look at what I’m talking about:
Most of Bob’s students are graduate students, and most graduate students at Bob’s university are in a PhD program. Bob owns a hamster, as do many of his students, and most of Bob’s students think he’s a great teacher.
If the statements above are true, which of the following must also be true? Select all that apply.
A) Most of Bob’s students are in a PhD program.
B) Some hamster-owning students think Bob is a great teacher.
C) Some graduate students think Bob is a great teacher.
Let’s examine these statements one by one. First, is it true that most of Bob’s students are in a PhD program? The relevant information is this:
- Most of Bob’s students are grad students
- Most grad students are PhD students
If your intuition is confused, you can pick numbers to make sense of the situation, even though this is a verbal problem!
Suppose that Bob has 5 students. On the GRE (and, for that matter, in real life), the word “most” means “more than half.” So, at minimum 3 of Bob’s students are grad students. Now suppose that there are 1,000 grad students. If “most” of them are getting a PhD, that means there are at least 501 PhD-chasers. This leaves up to 499 students who AREN’T getting a PhD — and Bob’s 3 grad students could easily be among them.
So, no: choice (A) doesn’t have to be true. It could be true, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. Avoid the GRE’s “could be true” answers on “must be true” questions!
Next, check out (B): Some hamster-owning students think Bob is a great teacher. The relevant information this time is this:
- Most of Bob’s students think he’s great
- Many of his students own a hamster
This is cake if you know what “many” means. For some reason, many (cough!) of you think it means “most,” perhaps because both words are four letters long and start with “m.” Not so! “Many” is actually a synonym for “some:” it means, for the precise purposes of the GRE, “at least one.”
(Side note: if you don’t think that’s true — if you think that “many” means “a lot more than one” or some such — consider that “many” is a subjective word that hangs on context. One hair on my head isn’t very many at all, but one cockroach in my soup, I think you’ll agree, is already too “many!”)
So all we’ve got from the stimulus is that at least one of Bob’s students owns a hamster. And that one hamster-owning student could easily be among the few who think Bob sucks. This is another choice that could be true but doesn’t have to be.
On Test Day, there will always be at least one right choice on an “all that apply” question, so if you ever cross out (A) and (B), you know that (C) is right without even checking it. For practice’s sake here, though, let’s give it a look: Some graduate students think Bob is a great teacher.
Well. You know that most of Bob’s students think he’s a great teacher, and you also know that most of Bob’s students are grad students. If Bob has 5 students, that means there has to be a minimum of 3 in each category. Here’s what that could look like:
Student 1: Grad Student
Student 2: Grad Student
Student 3: Grad Student, Thinks Bob is Great
Student 4: Thinks Bob is Great
Student 5: Thinks Bob is Great
Notice that despite my best effort to avoid overlap, some overlap was unavoidable: with 3 grad students, 3 fans of Bob, and only 5 total students, at least one student had to be both. So yes: “some” (i.e., at least one) students are both grad students AND think Bob is great.
These problems don’t just test your ability to make good deductions. They also test your ability to not make bad deductions. On Test Day, think everything through, picking numbers if you have to — and before Test Day, ask us in the comments if you’re confused about these or other examples you’ve encountered!
If you’ve been studying your GRE vocabulary for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the concept of word groups: A list of words that all have similar-enough meanings to be considered, for GRE purposes, interchangeable synonyms. I haven’t heard a single person argue against the benefits of learning word groups, but memorizing the lists themselves isn’t the easiest proposition. The trick to learning word lists efficiently is to work with your brain’s natural inclination to remember words that are associated with other things. For example, which of these two sentences is more likely to help you remember the definition of “perspicacious”?
- “Perspicacious” means “keen” or “intelligent”.
- The company’s perspicacious president solved many of the business’s problems by determining the issues underlying the flat-lining sales.
While the first sentence is just a recitation of the word’s definition, the second word gives you a context and some color that you can use to remember the word’s meaning. On Test Day, when you see “perspicacious” among the answer choices of a text completion, you’ll recall the company president’s accomplishments and remember that the word means “intelligent”.
Now comes the part in which you get to inject some creativity into your otherwise-straightforward GRE studies: Pick one of the word groups, and write a paragraph-long story in which you use as many of the words from the group as possible. Before you start writing, pick an overarching plotline that fits with the group you’re working with.
If you’re working with the “criticize” word group, for example, the story could be about a harangued child whose mother and teacher constantly deride him. He could even have an older brother, who also excoriates him. Or, if you’re in a lighter mood, you can tackle the “funny” word group and write about a comedy duo whose jocular performance was filled with droll raillery, and much riposte.
The act of writing a paragraph for each key word group will give you a clear association between the words and not just one sentence, but an entire paragraph with context that will allow you to recall the definition when you see any of the words on GRE Test Day. Now get your imaginative juices flowing – let us know in the comments what you end up writing about!