How to quickly eliminate vocab-based answer choices on the GRE: verbal section strategies

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Okay, so, Orion, today I want to pick your brain a little bit about the verbal section, specifically, how to eliminate vocab-based, or what you’ve explained as vocab-based, answer choices on the GRE. What are the strategies for this particular type of question?

Orion: Great question, Davis. So I’m super stoked about this. Because the vocab-based questions are half of the verbal section; you’re going to get 10 per 20-question verbal set. And these questions are generally much more efficient than the reading comprehension questions. We want to do those first when we’re attacking any given verbal set, and the faster we can get through these questions, the more time we can bank for reading the actual passages associated with the reading comprehension passages. That’s going to be better for our overall score.

So we want to really kind of burn through these questions as quickly as possible. And I have a strategy for dealing with vocab-based questions. It’s a little counterintuitive and probably runs against anything you’ve possibly heard about how to answer these questions, but I’m just going to jump right in.

Basically, my recommendation is when you attack the vocab-based question, the very first place you should look, the very first place your attention should go, are the answer choices. You should go straight to the answers; don’t even read the question, just go straight to the answer choices.

Davis: Okay, why is that?

Orion: There’s a number of reasons. One is that if you look at the answer choices and you don’t know half of those words, you’re not going to get that question right. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your odds of guessing correctly on a sentence equivalence question when you don’t know three or four of the words is just too low to justify spending the time on that question. So it’s better for you to figure that out immediately, immediately.

Davis: Because would you skip if you’re at that place?

Orion: I mean, hopefully, you’ve prepared vocabulary, which we’ll have a future episode on. But if you’re at that place where you realize three questions aren’t working, or three of the answers.

Davis: You just skip that?

Orion: That’s totally right. Because there’s no point in reading the question trying to use the indicator technique. And then only after 45-60 seconds realize, I don’t know most of these words. That’s a waste of your time. So if you’re in that situation, I’m sorry, but you should guess as quickly as possible and move on; cut your losses as early as you can. But there are other good reasons.

First of all, we can begin to eliminate answer choices without even reading the question, especially if we know what all of the words mean, right? Just by using some common sense. So there are these two types of vocab-based questions or sets equivalences, where we’re choosing two words to fit into one blank. And there are text completions where we’re choosing one word to fit into one blank. Those can be single, double, or triple blank questions. Let’s focus on the sentence equivalence.

First. We’re trying to find two words to fit in one blank. So logically, these two words must be, of course, synonyms of the same thing.

Davis: Yes, that’s one of the things in the fine print in the instructions for these questions. You not only have to choose words that make sense when they’re in the blank, but they have to make sense in the same way. So ETS actually explicitly acknowledges the synonym basis of these answer choices in the instructions of this question type. And this is when we get rewarded for having a decent vocabulary. Because if we know what all these words mean, we can begin to sort words into synonym pairs. Any word that doesn’t have a synonym pair, regardless of how well it fits into the blank individually, cannot be one of the correct answers. So it’s like boom.

Orion: And what’s really cool about this, Davis, is about 1/3 of all sentence equivalences only have one synonym pair in the answer choices. Okay, so you can look at these answer choices. And usually within like, 15-20 seconds, realize that there’s only one synonym pair among the six words, without even reading the question, you can answer the question. Don’t even have to read the question. And you’re probably going to get two of those per section, which means you can answer a 10th of the verbal section in about a minute. Which, if you could, you know, do that for all the questions means you could potentially get a perfect score in 10 minutes, which is pretty cool. So that’s how you get ahead of the clock on the verbal section by taking advantage of the sort of like Easter eggs in the verbal section.

Davis: Yeah, yeah, that’s great. So and then what about the case when there are more than one synonym pair?

Orion: Yeah, in that case. So that’s usually the case. Usually, there are two synonym pairs. Sometimes there are three; that’s rare, but usually, there are two synonym pairs. So you’re able to eliminate a couple of words, but then you got these two synonym pairs. It’s still a really good idea to get to the answer choices first, because if you identify these two synonym pairs, now you have a forced choice for the blank, rather than reading the question and trying to understand the content and to recall the perfect word out of the thousands and thousands of words that you know in English. By going to answer choices first and sorting them into pairs, you now know it’s either this or that; you’ve collapsed all of English down to two options. And usually, those options actually mean very different things from each other. It’s like the two options are either very good or very bad, very big or very small. So the consideration between those two answer choices is generally, it’s usually fairly straightforward.

They’re not going to be close enough, the two answer choices are not going to be close enough where ETS could, you could argue that one answer could have worked. Well, I mean, that does happen every once in a while, it’s not a perfect test. But ETS does want to avoid that because it doesn’t want to get into semantic arguments with irate students when they didn’t score as well as they had hoped. So that most often happens when you have two synonym pairs that have the same meanings, but like different intensities, like for example, vexed and chagrined is mild irritation versus like hostility and condemnation means I want to murder you right now. So they kind of are pointing in the same direction, but at very different intensities.

Davis: And so is that a red herring, that’s probably not the synonym pair?

Orion: Which part?

Davis: So if like, if you have different differences in intensities, that’s where the context clue from the question you go up, and then that’ll tell you which one is the synonym pair. Which one is the one that we’re looking for?

Orion: Yeah, because they’re both synonym pairs in this case, right? But the one that we’re looking for is going to match important components in the question itself, which we’ll probably have to get into in another episode. But it’s sometimes tricky to figure out how to group words together. So my rule of thumb is that we’re not looking for perfect Roget’s Thesaurus synonym pairs here; we’re looking for like 70% synonyms. And my definition of a 70% synonym is that the words move in the same general direction at the same general intensity.

Davis: So that’s what I was driving at, okay, is that the intensity level of the synonyms has to be?

Orion: Yes, you don’t want to match condemnation with chagrined. Those are in the same direction, but they’re not at the same intensity. So that’s not a good match. Okay, so those are my good reasons for going to the answer choices first. Now, we’ll move over very quickly to the second type of vocab-based question, one answer for one blank, yes, the right word for one blank. Those are called Text Completion questions. They come in single, double, or triple blank. When it’s a single blank, there are five options for the one blank. And when it’s double, or triple, there are three options for each blank. In this case, we’re choosing one word to fit into one blank.

So in this case, if there are synonym pairs in the answer bank, they can’t both be right; rule them out because ETS is not going to get into the semantic argument to force you to split hairs between two very similar meaning words. So this doesn’t happen as often as on the sentence equivalence, where we can eliminate non-synonym pairs. But if you do see a synonym pair, usually in a double or triple blank text completion question, you kind of get a freebie for that blank. They can’t both be right; they have to both be wrong. We’re going to sort for difference on text completion questions and sort for similarity on sentence equivalence questions. And in this way, we can kind of move through these vocab-based questions even faster than we otherwise would.

We definitely don’t want to come up with our own word for reading the question. We don’t want to plug the words in the answer banks into the question and read the question over and over again, to see what it sounds like, see what it looks like. Those are huge time sinks. And they actually leave students vulnerable to what I call Psychological Association trap answers, which are choosing words that sound reasonable when they’re in the context of the surface story of the problem. And the test is created by psychologists. So, I’m trapping a few students with those.

Davis: Oh, yeah.

Orion: Because maybe the story of the problem has to do with professors and students in universities. And so they’ll throw in words like “erudition” or “academic,” but it has nothing to do with that. It’s just the surface story of the problem, right? They’re filtering out people who just want to sound smart or who don’t actually understand the deep logical structure of the question and just think, “Oh, this is a school-related word, so I don’t really have to understand the deep structure of the sentence. I just have to associate this context with these vocabulary words.”

And that’s a trap for sure. It’s still just to cycle back around to the main principle and your strategy here. It’s still interesting that you’re talking about the deep logical structure of the question itself, but your best bet, as you have told students, is to jump to the answers first and make sure you understand. You’re either looking for similarities in the equivalence section or differences in the fill-in-the-blank sentence completion section. And then you can eliminate answers, then you can have a context, then go back to look at the question.

Davis: Yeah, because sometimes you don’t even have to look at the question.

Orion: Yeah. That’s a good summary.

Davis: No, that’s great; valuable episode.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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