A lot has been made of how the GRE has a difficult Verbal section, and how it can be difficult for anyone to master all the vocabulary tools needed to do well in Verbal. We do not agree: time and time again (over a period of two decades!), we have been able to coach students who thought that they were not sufficiently strong in the words department, and have seen them come out with flying colours. The key to all this was just studying smart.
But even we will agree that some words are just harder than others. They can still be mastered with clever preparation, but more students find them difficult than any other.
In this special Jamboree in-depth feature, we look at different ways to determine which GRE words are ‘most difficult’. Always remember that, with the correct preparation, all of these will cease to be difficult at all.
Some words are difficult because they are not in common use any more, even in the most erudite literature.
A lot of our vocabulary is built by pop culture – the things we read, watch and analyze. For example, the word ‘stymie’ is something that might have been common for someone with a good knowledge of English a few decades ago, but it is not used very commonly in ‘good’ English today. Because of this, many words fall into the category of being non-commonly used, and we have to memorize them separately, or as part of a word group.
One good way to improve your knowledge of such words is to browse through the top classics of all time, in case you have a sufficiently large window before your GRE, you might want to hunt down a few esoteric books, and get good at their commonly used vocabulary.
Some words are difficult because they are part of a difficult set of confusable words
English is a funny language, in that there is a very large number of permutations and combinations of letters, but only a very small set of these is used for common words. Hence, you have at least three GRE words ending with ‘duce’, and unless you deduce what the meaning of your particular word is, you could be in deep trouble.
Another way that GRE words can play with your memory is by having common prefixes. For example, there are multiple words in any list that start with ‘per’, and a perfunctory scan of the word of interest to you might not reveal the right meaning; you’ll need to spend some more time to become perfect.
To ensure that you are never confused, it might make sense to look up similar word endings and beginnings with a tool like morewords.com, so that you can nip any problems in the bud.
Some words are difficult because of the sheer weight of opinion in GRE aspirant surveys
Despite all our knowledge that words are difficult only because of unfamiliarity and imperfect preparation, some of them are the usual suspects, and come back again and again in surveys of GRE aspirants, when they are asked what words they get wrong most often in practice tests. For example, ‘declivity’, ‘simulacrum’, ‘tergiversate’ and ‘empyreal’ have stumped generations of students who did not use the word group method – and we have seen the same pattern in SAT word lists as well.
However, since having a good Verbal preparation system will help you master any word quickly, these survey results only mean that these ‘difficult’ words are the ones that are most difficult for the average candidate to remember; these words are not inherently tough.
Some words are difficult because you cannot logically arrive at what they mean through etymology
To help you remember what a word group means, you can often use word roots and knowledge of etymology to guess the approximate meaning (which is all you need, given that the GRE never requires you to know the 100% exact meaning). However, there are some words and phrases – for example, ‘run amok’, which derive from non-standard sources (this particular word is from Malay), and need you to remember them by rote memory alone.
This difficulty can further be compounded if the word of ambiguous etymology is also confusable with another word of known etymology, in which case you might jump at the wrong meaning.
Some words are intrinsically difficult because people do not study smart
After exploring many reasons for the difficulty of GRE words, we end where we started: no word is more difficult than other, unless you study in a sub-optimal way. For us at Jamboree GRE coaching, all words are equal; they go into one group or another. For us, ‘insouciant’ and ‘breezy’ are equally easy to remember, once you know that they occur together as synonyms. We convert the problem of learning a large number of words to the much easier one, of remembering linkages between words and a much smaller number of word groups.
This is only one of the many things we do; words are not difficult. There are only words that you have seen before, and words that you have not. You need to see words once, and fix them in your mind efficiently – we can help.
We hope that you now have several metrics to determine the word which has caused more GRE aspirants sleepless nights than any other.
If you want to make sure that you’re not one of the unfortunate millions who struggled with these ‘tough’ words, you might want to enrol with someone who helps you study smart.
For example, at Jamboree, we reduce the amount of work you have to do, and focus your thinking power, by reducing the effective number of words you have to remember – by almost 90%. If you want to know more about the best way to prepare for, and crack, the Verbal section of the GRE, just book an appointment at one of our centres, where you can meet one of our career experts or subject coaches. All the best!