How to study GRE Vocabulary – 5 proven strategies for maximizing your time spent studying

Tyler York
How to study GRE Vocabulary

If you want to get a good GRE Verbal score, you’ll need to brush up on your vocabulary. GRE vocabulary can be tricky, even for people who grew up speaking English. You cannot possibly memorize every word that the GRE might throw at you, so instead, you need to use context clues and other strategies to figure out what they mean.

We compiled a list of strategies to help you memorize GRE vocabulary words as efficiently and effectively as possible, prepare yourself for the different GRE Verbal question types, and maximize your GRE Verbal score on test day. Read on to master your GRE vocab!

How vocabulary is tested on the GRE Verbal

How to study GRE Vocabulary
Dziana Hasanbekava / Pexels / “Thoughtful man writing in notebook and studying in home office” / Pexels license

The GRE Verbal section tests your vocabulary knowledge on all of its question types, but how it’s tested differs between them:

Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension questions have you read a passage and answer multiple questions about that passage. These passages are typically graduate school-level paragraphs pulled from research papers, literature, and similar sources. Vocabulary isn’t the focus of Reading Comprehension questions, but it can be important if you don’t know a key word that will determine the meaning of a sentence. The best way to study vocabulary for Reading Comprehension questions is to practice reading and familiarizing yourself with advanced passages. We suggest ways to do that later in this post in the section Learn GRE Vocabulary in context by reading the New York Times and more.

Sentence Equivalence

Sentence Equivalence questions have you read a single sentence that has a blank in it, and then choose two answer choices that give the sentence the same meaning. Sentence Equivalence is one of the most vocabulary-dependent question types on the GRE Verbal section. In order to answer these correctly, you will need to choose not one but two vocab words that have similar meanings and correctly complete the sentence. You have to pay attention to the vocab that best fits the sentence, and you need to pay attention to which vocab words have similar meanings. We share a strategy for studying for Sentence Equivalence questions below in Use word clusters to learn GRE Vocabulary efficiently.

Text Completion

Text Completion questions have you read a sentence with one, two, or three blanks and fill in the blanks with the best answer choices. You only get credit for answering the question correctly if you answer all of the choices correctly – there is no partial credit. Text Completion questions are also very vocabulary focused, as you will not be able to properly answer the question without knowing what the words mean. However, the good news is that you have the sentence itself to provide context, and you can use the Latin roots to help determine the meaning of the words you don’t know. We walk you through how to do this below in Learn Word Roots to help you deconstruct tough words.

The two most vocabulary-dependent sections of the GRE Verbal – Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion – comprise over half of the questions. This shows how important it is to have a plan to attack vocab on the GRE.

How to memorize GRE vocabulary

Kyle Gregory Devaras / Unsplash / “woman writing in book” / Unsplash license

When deciding how to memorize GRE vocab, it’s important not to just find a big word list and run through it. You will forget most of the words on it before you even finish the list. Instead, you need to make sure your brain actively engages with the words you’re learning.

The first and most straightforward way to do this is with flashcards. By asking your brain to correctly identify words, you are prompting what is called “active recall” in the psychology community. There are many flashcard sites like Quizlet that already have GRE word lists contributed by other members. While these lists were not compiled by experts, this is a great (and free) place to start. You can also use paper flashcards if that is more convenient for you.

If you want to level up your memorization game, you should look into a learning method called spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition diagram by Achievable

Spaced repetition is a centuries-old technique for the efficient memorization and practice of skills. In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus published a study that demonstrated that memory loss is exponential unless memory is reinforced. Ebbinghaus also found that the ‘forgetting curve’ could be reset with active recall, which we mentioned earlier. With active recall, being asked to remember the other side of a flashcard will do, but answering a question reliant upon the information you need to remember is even more effective. When you successfully recall the information, your ‘forgetting curve’ resets and – this is key – degrades more slowly over time. Each time you reinforce your memory of an item, you reset your forgetting curve and improve your long term memory retention for that item.

So the way this works in practice, is that as you study, the things you’re strongest in and remembering accurately are given longer intervals until your next review, while the things you’re weakest in are given shorter intervals, meaning that you’re reviewing them more frequently. Over time, this focuses your attention on what you’re weakest in until you improve it, and gets the stuff you are good at out of the way. This leads to an overall time savings compared to traditional studying, with better results.

Ready to start studying? Read on for the top 25 GRE vocabulary words and multiple GRE vocabulary study strategies.

Achievable’s GRE course leverages spaced repetition in our AI algorithm to optimize your study schedule for the best results. Check out our GRE prep course to learn more.

The top 25 most common GRE vocabulary words

Echo Pratama / Unsplash / “a close up of a cell phone on a table” / Unsplash license

First, you need to start with the obvious: what are the most common GRE vocab words you need to know? We asked our expert author and put together a list of the most common GRE vocabulary words below, with Oxford Languages definitions and example sentences:

Ambivalent (adjective) – Having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.

Paul hates the new furniture, but I am ambivalent about them and feel like we have more important things to focus on.

Anomaly (noun) – Something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.

This embarrassing loss was an anomaly in a season where the team set a record for number of wins and points scored.

Auspicious (adjective) – Conducive to success; favorable; characterized by success.

It was an auspicious turn of events that the client decided to take the meeting after all.

Belligerent (adjective) – Hostile and aggressive.

She was acting belligerent towards her little brother and even brandished a fork at him.

Capricious (adjective) – Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior. 

My capricious boss just chastised me for something that he was happy with yesterday.

Corroborate (verb) – To confirm or give support to (a statement, theory, or finding).

The evidence corroborated the witness’ story that she saw the larger man throw the first punch.

Enervate (verb) – To cause (someone) to feel drained of energy or vitality; weaken.

The hot sun enervated us as we struggled through the second half of the hike.

Ephemeral (adjective) – Lasting for a very short time.

His approval was ephemeral once he saw that his son’s toys were actually all shoved under the bed.

Erudite (adjective) – Having or showing great knowledge or learning.

The professor could turn any conversation into an erudite discussion.

Esoteric (adjective) – Intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.

The source material was esoteric enough that even my mother couldn’t help me with the paper.

Extant (adjective) – Still in existence; surviving. (especially of a document)

The original version of The Old Testament is no longer extant.

Fastidious (adjective) – Very attentive to and concerned about accuracy and detail.

The report was fastidious in its analysis of the underlying data.

Fervid (adjective) – Intensely enthusiastic or passionate, especially to an excessive degree.

She was fervid about biology, sometimes to the annoyance of her classmates.

Inculpate (verb) – To accuse or blame. To incriminate.

He inculpated his father in the prank to try and get back in his aunt’s good graces.

Loquacious (adjective) – Tending to talk a great deal; talkative.

Brad, one of the most loquacious members of the group, often shared off-topic anecdotes that distracted us from our studying.

Lucid (adjective) – Expressed clearly; easy to understand.

Alex gave a lucid account of what went wrong on Saturday.

Magnanimous (adjective) – Generous or forgiving, especially towards a rival or less powerful person.

The elves were magnanimous in their victory over the humans, allowing them to keep their land and wealth.

Mercurial (adjective) – (Of a person) subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind.

His mercurial temperament made it so that everyone was afraid to bring him bad news.

Ornery (adjective) – Bad tempered and combative. Stubborn.

That ornery cat keeps trying to scratch me even though I have given it treats multiple times.

Pedant (noun) – A person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules, or with displaying academic learning.

Debate club got a lot less fun once that pedant joined.

Pragmatic (adjective) – Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.

A pragmatic approach to business ethics is necessary when working in the technology industry.

Prolific (adjective) – Present in large numbers or quantities. Plentiful.

Eucalyptus trees, an invasive species, are prolific on the California coast.

Reticent (adjective) – Not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily.

The intern was reticent to reveal what she overheard at the company party.

Sanguine (adjective) – Optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation.

His sanguine takes on the school football team were welcome among the despair felt by fans.

Vacillate (verb) – To alternate or waver between different opinions or actions. To be indecisive.

For a time, I vacillated between liking and disliking my grandmother.

These are just a few of some of the vocabulary words you’ll need to master for your GRE Verbal section. As we said before, there’s no way you can memorize the entire English language, so it’s about learning as many “GRE type words” as possible. That’s where these tactics below can help.

Learn GRE Vocabulary in context by reading the New York Times and more

Jon Tyson / Unsplash / “white and black labeled pack” / Unsplash license

Studying flashcards and GRE vocabulary words out of context is a good first step, but it can only take you so far. The GRE doesn’t present you words and ask for definitions – it asks you to use them in context to solve problems. That’s why it’s so important that you learn how to find GRE vocabulary in context and read these types of high level passages as part of your study practice. Not only is it a nice change of pace from studying flashcards, it will actually help you and you might learn a bit along the way from these articles.

To study GRE Vocabulary in context, read from publications that use advanced vocabulary as part of their repertoire. There are hundreds of such publications, but some of our favorites are:

  1. The New York Times (also has a Word of the Day)
  2. The Economist
  3. The New Yorker
  4. The Wall Street Journal
  5. Scientific American

These are great places to test your GRE vocabulary while reading something interesting. Let’s pick an example passage to show you how you can use these passages to help study:

GRE Vocabulary in context example: Scientific American

In this Scientific American article “The Chemistry behind Bourbon”, let’s take a look at the first passage with the vocab words bolded:

Few beverages have as rich a heritage and as complicated a chemistry as bourbon whiskey, often called “America’s spirit.” Known for its deep amber hue and robust flavors, bourbon has captured the hearts of enthusiasts across the country.

But for a whiskey to be called a bourbon, it has to adhere to very specific rules. For one, it needs to be made in the U.S. or a U.S. territory – although almost all is made in Kentucky. The other rules have more to do with the steps to make it – how much corn is in the grain mixture, the aging process and the alcohol proof.

OK, we read this passage and understood it – great. But how do we turn this into a useful study tool? Let’s start by looking at the vocabulary:

  • Heritage – “Property that is or may be inherited; a special or individual possession”. In this case, the heritage of the bourbon whiskey is described as rich, implying that it has a long and storied history.
  • Hue – “A color or shade.” In this case, you should have inferred this word by the preceding words ‘deep amber’, which indicate color. This is a good example of how you can identify the meaning of GRE words without knowing them in a passage.
  • Adhere – “To stick fast to (a surface or substance); to believe in and follow the practices of.” In this example, you can see by the context that we’re looking at the second definition here rather than the first. Many GRE vocabulary words have multiple meanings, which can throw you off if you only know one and rule it out because it doesn’t match.

Now, not only have we learned 3 new words – we’ve also learned how these words are used in context, how their meanings can slightly change depending on that context, and how advanced passages can use the second or third definition of a word and trip you up. This is very important to learn and hard to reproduce with just flashcards. Now, let’s look at another example:

GRE Vocabulary in context example: The New Yorker

It’s important to mix up the types of passages you’re reading as well as you prepare for the GRE. Let’s switch gears and try a passage from The New Yorker article “Is an all-meat diet what nature intended?” with vocab words bolded:

The notion of the meat-loving ancestor has a history. In the nineteen-fifties, the anatomist Raymond Dart, famous for discovering the first authentic fossil of an early African hominin, advanced what became known as the “killer ape” theory. Hunting, Dart thought, made us human. Our furry forebears climbed down from the trees to gorge on “the more attractive fleshy food that lay in the vast savannahs of the southern plains,” he wrote in the book “Adventures with the Missing Link” (1959). Elsewhere, he described the earliest hominins as “confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized their quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.”

The New Yorker, as you can see, is very generous with its use of advanced words. Content aside, this is a ton of great vocabulary that you might see on the GRE Verbal section. As before, the next step of the exercise is to pick out the GRE Vocabulary words in context and understand how they fit into the passage:

  • Notion – “A conception of or belief about something”
  • Ancestor – “A personal, typically one more remote than a grandparent, from whom one is descended; an early type of animal or plant from which others have evolved.” As you can see, both definitions fit here as it refers to ancestral humans. 
  • Anatomist – “An expert in anatomy, the branch of science concerned with the bodily structure of humans, animals, and other living organisms.” You need to know the definition of the root word, anatomy, to determine what this means.
  • Forebears – “An ancestor”. This is a good example of how the GRE can trip you up by using different words that mean the same thing in a passage. The passage said “ancestors” in the first sentence but used “forebears” later.
  • Gorge – “(noun) A narrow valley between hills or mountains, typically with steep rocky walls; (verb) to eat a large amount greedily; to fill oneself with food.” The word has two definitions that differ dramatically. You can tell by the context that it should be a verb, which helps you determine which definition to use.
  • Carnivorous – “Feeding on animals or insects”. You could infer this from the context here, since the ‘quarries’ (a later vocab word) are referred to as living things.
  • Seized – This is the past tense of seize, which means “to take hold of suddenly and forcibly.” This is a great example of a trap answer. On the GRE, if the passage is implying a polite or peaceful acquisition of something, seized would be incorrect because the word includes suddenly and forcibly in its definition, even if the general meaning ‘to acquire’ is still applicable.
  • Quarries – “A place, typically a large, deep pit from which stones and other materials are or have been extracted; an animal pursued by a hunter or predator.” Again, two hugely different definitions here. Using the context to determine which one is which is key.
  • Battered – “Injured by repeated blows or punishment”
  • Dismembered – “(of a body) having the limbs cut off; (of a territory or organization) partitioned or divided up”
  • Slaking – “To quench or satisfy (one’s thirst)”
  • Ravenous – “Extremely hungry”. The GRE loves to throw vocabulary words for you when simple ones would do.
  • Devouring – “Eating food or prey hungrily or quickly”. As with “seized”, the context here is key to determining whether this word will be a good GRE answer choice for your question.
  • Livid – “Furiously angry; dark bluish gray in color.” This is another great example of a GRE vocabulary word that could trick you. Livid, in it’s typical meaning, is angry and that’s what most will associate it with. But in this context, that doesn’t make sense. Instead, it’s the more obscure definition ‘dark bluish gray in color’ that is the correct meaning.

As vivid as this example passage was, it was also an excellent demonstration of the different ways that vocabulary can be used in more advanced writing and how the GRE can leverage vocabulary to make questions harder. We learned so much about context clues and discerning different definitions from these two passages. 

Do this on your own with your own reading. Pick topics that are interesting to you from high vocabulary magazines and other sources that will help you learn how to determine the meaning of the words in context. To take it a step further, you can even write down your best guess of what unfamiliar words mean in order to test yourself before looking up the definition. However you do it, going through this exercise is very helpful and provides different training than you get when you study flashcards.

Use word clusters to learn GRE Vocabulary efficiently

Kier in Sight Archives / Unsplash / “white round ornament on gray surface” / Unsplash license

There is a lot of English vocabulary that could end up on your GRE exam. Some lists have 900 words, some have 3,500 words – it’s tough to keep up. One of the best ways to study GRE vocabulary quickly is through word clusters. These are clusters of words with similar meanings that help you memorize three or more words at a time instead of one at a time. Some report that this method helps them remember what words are even when they don’t remember the meaning of the specific word. 

You can make your own word clusters rather easily with a little homework. To get you started, here are five examples using some of our top 25 GRE vocabulary words from above and synonyms from the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus:

Capricious (adjective) – Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior. 

  • Fickle
  • Temperamental
  • Erratic
  • Mercurial
  • Mutable

Erudite (adjective) – Having or showing great knowledge or learning.

  • Scholarly
  • Cerebral
  • Didactic
  • Pedantic

Inculpate (verb) – To accuse or blame. To incriminate.

  • Implicate
  • Prosecute
  • Recriminate
  • Impugn
  • Arraign

Reticent (adjective) – Not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily.

  • Discreet
  • Taciturn
  • Clandestine
  • Surreptitious
  • Furtive
  • Covert

Vacillate (verb) – To alternate or waver between different opinions or actions. To be indecisive.

  • Dither
  • Scruple
  • Waver
  • Haw

Word clusters organized by meaning

You can also create word clusters based on commonly used word meanings that you want to have handy, like “different”, “stopped”, or “to become less”. Here are a few examples:


  • Abeyance
  • Suspension
  • Moratorium
  • Quiescence
  • Dormancy
  • Inert
  • Dormant

To become less or lessen

  • Abate
  • Subside
  • Ebb
  • Relent
  • Wane
  • Denigrate
  • Deprecate
  • Discount


  • Aberrant
  • Anomalous
  • Unwonted
  • Unaccustomed
  • Extraordinary

As you can see, there are a lot of different word clusters you can create. You can also opt to include some easier words that you do know to help with studying, like I did here with dormant, discount, and extraordinary. You can also find word cluster lists online on blogs and commonly used flashcard websites. Take a look and be sure to use word clusters as a part of your studying repertoire.

Learn word roots to help you deconstruct tough words

Gabriella Clare Marino / Unsplash / “assorted books on brown wooden shelf” / Unsplash license

Knowing word roots is a great way to expand your vocabulary and be able to gather clues when looking at a word based on its parts. A word root is a part of an English word that comes from an ancestral root word, and many of them are helpful for understanding what a word means directionally. Below, we will share the most common English root words and their meaning:

Latin roots

Latin RootDefinitionExamples
ambibothambiguous, ambidextrous
aquawateraquarium, aquamarine
audto hearaudience, audition
benegoodbenefactor, benevolent
centone hundredcentury, percent
circumaroundcircumference, circumstance
contra/counteragainstcontradict, encounter
dictto saydictation, dictator
duc/ductto leadconduct, induce
facto do; to makefactory, manufacture
formshapeconform, reform
fortstrengthfortitude, fortress
fractto breakfracture, fraction
jectthrowprojection, rejection
judjudgejudicial, prejudice
malbadmalevolent, malefactor
matermothermaterial, maternity
mitto sendtransmit, admit
mortdeathmortal, mortician
multimanymultimedia, multiple
paterfatherpaternal, paternity
portto carryportable, transportation
ruptto breakbankrupt, disruption
scrib/scribeto writeinscription, prescribe
sect/secto cutbisect, section
sentto feel; to sendconsent, resent
spectto lookinspection, spectator
structto builddestruction, restructure
vid/visto seevideo, televise
vocvoice; to callvocalize, advocate

Greek roots

Greek RootDefinitionExamples
anthropoman; human; humanityanthropologist, philanthropy
autoselfautobiography, automobile
biolifebiology, biography
chrontimechronological, chronic
dynapowerdynamic, dynamite
dysbad; hard; unluckydysfunctional, dyslexic
gramthing writtenepigram, telegram
graphwritinggraphic, phonograph
heterodifferentheteronym, heterogeneous
homosamehomonym, homogenous
hydrwaterhydration, dehydrate
hypobelow; beneathhypothermia, hypothetical
logystudy ofbiology, psychology
meter/metrmeasurethermometer, perimeter
microsmallmicrobe, microscope
mis/misohatemisanthrope, misogyny
monoonemonologue, monotonous
morphform; shapemorphology, morphing
nymnameantonym, synonym
phillovephilanthropist, philosophy
phobiafearclaustrophobia, phobic
phonsoundphone, symphony
photo/phoslightphotograph, phosphorous
pseudofalsepseudonym, pseudoscience
psychosoul; spiritpsychology, psychic
scopeviewing instrumentmicroscope, telescope
technoart; science; skilltechnique, technological
telefar offtelevision, telephone
thermheatthermal, thermometer


Now that you’ve gotten some understanding of root words, let’s talk about how those root words can be modified. This generally comes in the form of prefixes and suffixes, which are appended to the beginning and end of words respectively. Below are the most common prefixes:

dis-not; opposite ofdiscover
en-, em-cause toenact, empower
fore-before; front offoreshadow, forearm
in-, im-inincome, impulse
in-, im-, il-, ir-notindirect, immoral, illiterate, irreverent
inter-between; amonginterrupt
over-over; too muchovereat
semi-half; partly; not fullysemifinal
super-above; beyondsuperhuman
un-not; opposite ofunusual
under-under; too littleunderestimate

Prefix tips and exceptions

These word roots are very helpful, but there are some important exceptions that can steer you wrong with this strategy if you’re not careful. Below, we want to go over a couple exceptions to these definitions above:

A common mistake with prefixes is to confuse Pre- (which means “before”), and “Per-” which typically means “through”. Make sure you’re paying attention to what the word is when using this tactic. 

Another exception is Re-. Re- does not always mean “again” (like in “rewind”) – it can also be used in other words that do not follow the rule, like remiss, which means to be negligent. Re- can also mean “back” instead of “again”, like in “revert”. These exceptions are frustrating, but they are unfortunately part of the English language and will be tested.

Mis-, In-/Im-, and Un- words typically mean the negative of the rest of the word. So worthy becomes unworthy, and the definition flips. Simple, right? However, in some cases, these rules no longer apply. For instance, incense is not the opposite of ‘cense’, it is a standalone word. Be careful when using this trick to watch out for these special cases.


And here are the most common suffixes, which go at the end of the word:

-able, -ibleis; can beaffordable, sensible
-al, -ialhaving characteristics ofuniversal, facial
-edpast tense verbs; adjectivesthe dog walked,
the walked dog
-enmade ofgolden
-er, -orone who;
person connected withteacher, professor
-estthe mosttallest
-fulfull ofhelpful
-ichaving characteristics ofpoetic
-ingverb forms;
present participlessleeping
-ion, -tion, -ation,
-tionact; processsubmission, motion,
relation, edition
-ity, -tystate ofactivity, society
-ive, -ative,
-itiveadjective form of nounactive, comparative,
-lyhow something islovely
-mentstate of being; act ofcontentment
-nessstate of; condition ofopenness
-ous, -eous, -ioushaving qualities ofriotous, courageous,
-s, -esmore than onetrains, trenches
-ycharacterized bygloomy

Using word roots

Word roots can be complex to study, but learning and memorizing them will help you understand the meaning of the other words that you’re studying. And most importantly, knowing word roots gives you a way to piece together the meaning of an unknown word if you happen across something you’ve never seen before on the test. 

Take a simple example, thermometer: thermo means related to temperature, and meter means measurement – measurement of temperature. This is an easy one, but it gives you an idea of how you can use this to at least determine some of a word’s meaning, which can be invaluable on test day. 


Well there you have it – everything you need to get you up to speed on your GRE Vocabulary. Remember to use not just one, but all of the strategies we shared here: use flashcards and spaced repetition, study words commonly shown on the GRE, look for vocabulary words in context in advanced publications, create and use word clusters, and learn the word roots. You will be a GRE vocabulary expert in no time and ready to ace your GRE Verbal section. Good luck!

Achievable GRE - $199
Achievable's GRE course includes endless quantitative quizzes, 10 verbal reasoning practice exams, 1,500 vocabulary flashcards, and our easy-to-understand online textbook with proven strategies to hit your target score.
View GRE prep course
Desktop and mobile screenshots of Achievable GRE
All rights reserved ©2016 - 2023 Achievable, Inc.