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Taming the Beast Part 1: Building GRE Vocabulary

Taming the Beast: Building GRE Vocabulary

We often compare vocabulary building with making new friends.
It involves “meeting” new words, getting to know them better, clumping them up into groups (to make life simpler) that they best fit into and finally, when you do become “friends”, spending some time with them – periodically – to ensure that neither of you forgets each other!
That said, let’s take a look at where and how we can “meet” new words.

Meeting new words newspaper-2

You can find new words in 2 ways:
1. Indirectly through context
2. Through word lists

Indirectly through context:

You could chance upon new words indirectly through your everyday routine: a new word that pops up on your favourite newspaper column or magazine, or the talk show that you religiously watch every week.
Pros: All the words acquired this way come with their own context; the meaning is essentially embedded in the context, and vocabulary learning becomes so much more meaningful because you don’t just understand what the words mean but also know how they should be used in a sentence. In fact – context based learning is the best way to learn words (or pretty much anything else, for that matter!)
For instance:
The definition of the word “transcend” when looked up in Wordweb is :

“Be greater in scope or size than some standard”

I don’t know about you, but I’m completely baffled by what that definition meant!
Let’s now look at the word in context:
Dante embodied all the learning and thought of his age and transcended them : he went far ahead of all his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.
See how obvious the meaning of the word becomes!
This is what’s great about learning words in context. Context based learning supplemented with a good dictionary will ensure a complete understanding of the words you come across.
Cons: To build a substantial vocabulary repertoire through this method, though, takes a long time. Considering the time frame that most GRE hopefuls have, learning vocabulary indirectly through a context based approach alone will not be feasible.
Also, let’s be realistic; how many of you actually come home, after a typical long day at college/ work , and watch or read things that stimulate the brain cells?

Word lists:words


Word-lists, specifically created for GRE are quite nifty because they get you acquainted with all the right words, all at once!


Pros: The high-frequency word lists specific to GRE vocabulary building are quite handy to anyone who wants to have a quick and focused session of “getting to meet new words”. Think of it as a networking event or even a session of speed dating, if you must!

Word-lists help you meet new words and a lot of them at that, but that’s pretty much all that they are good for!
Cons: The biggest problem with word-lists is their inherent lack of depth. The information provided about the words is generally too less, and most times the words are almost completely devoid of context!
A typical word list has the word, a definition (which is often quite inadequate and sometimes even cryptic!), a sample sentence with the word used (again most of these sentences do very little to truly represent the contextual meaning of the word) and perhaps even some antonyms and synonyms.
While word lists seem very tempting to a GRE aspirant, one must understand that without context or a deep enough knowledge of each word – all that “cramming” you do with the word-list will be of no use! I’ve seen too many students cram 3000+ words from their word-lists, but have very little knowledge of what any of those words actually mean! Consequently, these students don’t fare very well in the GRE vocabulary segments, which test one’s contextual understanding of words.

What’s the Fix?

The key is to find the right balance.
1.Use word-lists as to-do lists: the words in the list are going to be the words you intend to get to know real well!
2.Get to know your word: pick up a good dictionary and thesaurus, find out what the complete definition of the word is, what part of speech it is, and whether it has other words that are closely related to it.
3.Know how these words are used: your best bet at understanding a word’s context is to look at examples of these words used in sentences.
4.Maintain a record: yes, jot down all this information in a separate vocabulary note!
5.Revise: make sure you keep going back to your record (or create a flash card if that suits you!) to make sure that you don’t lose touch.
And that’s it! You’re on your way to building a solid vocabulary for the GRE!


We recommend investing in a good dictionary and thesaurus; the advanced learner’s dictionaries published by either Oxford, Cambridge or Macmillan publications would do! You also need to maintain a vocabulary notebook that you religiously put down all your words into.

Maintaining a good relationship with the words that you’ve gotten to know, can become quite an arduous task; read our other blogs in this series – on using word roots and inclines to know more!

Got a query regarding GRE? Leave a comment in the comment section below!
Here’s a video course, specially designed for the Indian test-taker, that will help you build your vocabulary for the GRE!
Check out the vocabulary video course!


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