Learning GRE words can be a daunting aspect of your study program. It’s about practicing questions andlearning material, which is a process that can takes weeks, months, or even years. This is the exact opposite of the quantitative section, where most of the material you already learned in high school. Figuring out how to deal with all the tricks they throw at you however, that takes a lot of practice.
Most people prefer one to the other, but in the end you have to take both. So getting back to the original question:
How Many GRE Words Should I Learn?
The truthful and unsatisfying answer is: it depends.
It depends on your initial vocabulary, if you’re a native english speaker, how often you read, what types of material you read, etc.
That isn’t very useful information though, so we’ll try to be more specific.
First, take a practice test.
Nothing is going to help you figure out how many GRE words to learn faster than taking a test for diagnostic purposes. If your verbal score is 150, you’ll probably need to learn more words than if you pulled a 164 without practice.
There is a much more subtle aspect to this though–how did you feel about the verbal section? Was it like reading a foreign language? Had you seen most of the words before, but couldn’t quite remember what they meant specifically? Did you know 8/10 words but got the answer wrong because the questions themselves were tricky? Assessing where you need to focus should be a lot easier if you take a full length exam and review what you got wrong.
Check your context knowledge.
Besides just “knowing” the words, you also need to understand context and multiple definitions. The GRE likes to try “tricking” test takers by putting up words with more than one meaning. Often one of the definitions is very common while the other is less well known (example: row). Assessing how well you understand your core vocabulary in context is an important part of the diagnostic process. If you’re someone who reads a lot, you’ll have an easier time with this part.
Context is important. Make sure you can use the word in a sentence, not just regurgitate definitions. It’s a good idea to pick up some reading material and seeing how many words you come across that you can’t define. A lot of people suggestion the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. In our experience though, The New Yorker provides the best bang for your buck, for several reasons. First, it’s a magazine that comes once a week, so it’s more structured than newspapers you have to browse through arbitrary every day. We’ve found that applicants can read through the entire magazine in 1-2 settings. When you find a work you’ve never seen, jot it in a notebook and look it up on your phone. This is a great way to check how advanced your vocabulary is while simultaneously learning material.
The best part? You get 12 weeks of magazines for only $12 bucks, plus a free tote. Three months of The New Yorker is a perfect study timeline for most test takers. If you want to cancel at the 12 month mark, you can do it online instead of having to call and deal with obnoxious sales people.
So seriously what’s the minimum number?
All right, so you took a practice exam and subscribed to the New Yorker or daily NYT emails. But we still haven’t answered your question. So…
Keeping in mind all the standard “it depends” and “everyone is different” we suggest students get through, at a minimum, the Manhattan Prep 500 Essential and 500 Advanced flashcards.
Now back to qualifying statements: Truthfully there is no one answer for everybody. Some applicants may flip through both those decks and find they already know most of the words, and would be better off targeting specific groups of words (science, legal, etc) to polish a weak area. Likewise some students may study, and assimilate, all 1,000 flashcards–and still get a low GRE verbal score. Non-native english speakers have this problem quite frequently. They study hundreds if not thousands of words and still can’t seem to raise their score. Additional vocabulary might help a little, but the truth is that definitions alone don’t get you a high score.
The GRE verbal section is about using english to apply logic and reasoning. To that end, the definitions are only half the battle. A good analogy to keep in mind is that knowing words is like knowing equations and formulas for the quant section. It’s necessary to get a good score, but it’s not sufficient. You’re expected to know the definitions (or equations) and your ability to apply them correctly in various situations.
The take away here is that studying vocabulary helps, yes, but it takes a very long time to memorize thousands of words. Before you throw away too many hours perfecting rote memorization, make sure you practice answering questions. Learn all the tricks that will help you eliminate choices and know what ETS is looking for in each type of question. If you have time beyond that, use flashcards to quickly pick up common words. Beyond that, a truly great score will require a lot of reading experience. If you have time (even a few weeks of consistent reading can help), dedicate some time to reading appropriate material. Magoosh has a great list of fiction and non-fiction for GRE vocabulary.