How to solve a sentence equivalence problem: a real-time demonstration

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.

So, Orion, today I have a special request. We’ve talked a lot about individual strategies in past episodes, such as diagnostics, offensive versus defensive problems, skipping, going straight to answer choices, and the process of elimination, among others. I want to know: can we go over a single verbal question orally here as an experiment? I’m curious to see how we can integrate all these strategies to tackle a single question from the GRE in this episode.

Orion: Yeah, let’s give it a shot. We’ll see how it goes. I think it’s easier if you can see the question, but we’ll do this as an experiment.

Davis: I think one of the easiest verbal problems to start with in this oral format would be a sentence equivalence. This is a question that I’m taking from my program on So, let’s assume that we’ve just been presented with a sentence equivalence question.

Orion: The first place we’re going to look is the answer choices. We’ll examine the answer choices for several reasons. First, we’ll glance at them to ensure that we understand the meaning of most of the words. If we don’t recognize the majority of the words, we should guess and move on swiftly because our chances of answering the question correctly are quite low. In this instance, the answer choices are “erudite,” “complex,” “clear,” “lucid,” “involuted,” and “brilliant.” Most of these words, with the possible exception of “involuted,” are fairly common. Let’s assume we know the meaning of all these words, so we’re set to proceed.

Upon examining the answer choices, we want to start pairing them together. Since this is a sentence equivalence question where we select two words to fit into a single blank, these words must logically be synonyms. We can immediately eliminate any word that doesn’t have a synonym among the choices. For instance, “clear” and “lucid” are synonyms, as are “complex” and “involuted.” However, “erudite” and “brilliant” do not form synonym pairs, so we can discard them right away. Without even delving into the question, we’ve already eliminated two of the six answer choices, streamlining our decision-making process.

So, rather than read the question and then try to figure out the best word that we know from our vocabulary, out of the entirety of the English language, that will fit in the blank, we now know that the answer is something like “clear” or something like “complex.” That’s what I mean by a forced choice. Those two options are actually fairly different from each other. So, it shouldn’t be too hard to determine whether we’re looking for a word that means “clear” or a word that means “complex.” However, since we have these centered pairs, we do need to read the question. When we read the question, we should do so actively, using the word search technique. The word search technique is how we answer all vocab-based questions. We’re basically looking for two kinds of words: keywords and trigger words. Keywords are the words that directly relate to the blank. Trigger words reveal the direction of that relationship. That is, the blank and the keyword can either move in the same direction and be synonyms, or they can move in opposite directions and be antonyms.

Davis: So, let’s actually read this sentence and see what happens. Here it is: “Given the professor’s often obfuscating methodology of instruction, it came as some surprise when his lecture on quantum mechanics was acknowledged as blank by some of his students.”

Orion: Alright, in this sentence, as in most sentences, it’s often easier to identify the trigger word or words. In this case, that would be “it came as some surprise.” Things are surprising when our expectations are betrayed, so this must be a change-of-direction trigger. Thus, the way this professor’s lecture was acknowledged by students must differ from how he is usually expected to behave.

The sentence tells us that the professor often uses an “obfuscating methodology,” so “obfuscating” must be the keyword. This aligns well because “obfuscating” in this context is a gerund being used as an adjective. All the words in the answer choices are also adjectives. A trick for identifying key words is that the vast majority of the time, the keywords in a question will be the same part of speech as the words in the answer choice.

This holds true here: adjectives in the answer choices and an adjective as the keyword. “Obfuscating” means to darken or make difficult to understand. Therefore, if he’s usually difficult to understand, it would come as a surprise if his lecture was easy to understand. This would align better with “clear” and “lucid” as opposed to “complex” and “involute.”

So, once we understand that, we would choose C and D and move on with our lives. I’ll pause for a moment here to explain why so many of these other options exist. We’re discussing a professor of quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics is complex. People who master this study are often erudite or brilliant. About half of the answer choices here are what I call “Psychological Association Trap” answers, or “PAT” answers. These vocabulary words are psychologically associated with some aspects of the problem but have nothing to do with the deep structure of the question, which is what students are asked to respond to.

You should be able to solve this question in real-time in less than a minute at a very casual pace if you don’t hesitate and if you understand the sequence of the strategy. And, of course, if you know most of the words.

Davis: Thank you, Orion. That was very illuminating.

Orion: I hope it wasn’t too complex for anybody. However, one thing I wanted to clarify is that to apply these strategies, you have to recognize the type of problem immediately. For instance, when there’s one blank in the sentence, it indicates a specific type of problem, but not necessarily, because there are single-blank text completion questions. The way to differentiate is by examining the format of the buttons next to the words in the answer choices. Vocab-based questions will always have vocabulary as answer choices, which is easy to spot. Text completion questions will have a “choose one” option, whereas sentence equivalence will have a “choose many” option. For sentence equivalence, there will be small checkboxes next to the answer choices, whereas for text completion, the words themselves will be boxed. The design of the answer choice buttons is the quickest way to distinguish between a single-blank text completion and a sentence equivalence question.

Davis: Awesome. That completed the puzzle for me. Just a walk-through of the little tips and tricks, once you practice them and string them all together, as was just demonstrated at a much more leisurely and explanatory pace, every question can be very easy to solve.

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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