How to solve a text-completion question on the GRE: 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.

Alright, let’s get to it. We’ve done a few of these episodes before where we’ve done live walkthroughs of how to solve questions. It’s still an experimental format, so please let us know via email or in the comment section if you find these useful. Today, we’ll tackle a verbal question. I’ll go ahead and hand it over to Orion. After reading the question, he’ll walk us through how he would approach it.

Orion: Absolutely. So we’ve already done a live walkthrough of a sentence equivalence question. Now, we’ll tackle a text completion question, the other vocab-based problem. The workflow is very similar. The only major difference pertains to the elimination strategy associated with examining the answer choices. For this episode, we’ll focus on a single-blank text completion question from my product.

As usual, when a vocab-based question appears on the screen—which is evident at a quick glance at the answer choices, due to the vocabulary words—we’ll address it during our first pass through any verbal section and save the reading comprehension questions for our second pass. The moment this question appears, it takes me less than a second to recognize that I’m dealing with a vocab-based question. Additionally, the design of the buttons helps me discern whether I’m faced with a text completion, where you choose one answer per blank, or a sentence equivalence, where you select two answers for one blank.

Within a second, I should recognize that I’m dealing with a vocab-based question, specifically a text completion question. In this case, it’s identifiable as a text completion due to the shape of the buttons. On the product, they appear as circles, but on the actual mock tests and the GRE itself, they’re not circles. Instead, the words are inside rectangular buttons, and you would click the entire rectangle containing the words to indicate your selection. By contrast, sentence sequences have small square radio buttons next to the vocab words.

For this text completion question, we’re going to look at the answer choices first. We go straight to the answer choices because we’re choosing one word for one blank. We can eliminate any words that are synonymous with each other. We’re doing this not only to ensure that we understand most of the words (which justifies the time we’re spending), but also to possibly eliminate some answers before even reading the question. In this case, there are five options, as there always are for a single-blank text completion. The choices are speculative, enigmatic, adamant, hypothetical, and inane. Right off the bat, I can eliminate 40% of those answer choices because speculative and hypothetical are sufficiently synonymous that I can discard them. Remember, we don’t need perfect synonyms; we need synonyms that are roughly 70% similar, meaning they convey a similar idea with roughly the same intensity.

So, great! I got rid of two out of the five answer choices. Now, I have a forced choice between “dogmatic,” “adamant,” and “inane.” Let’s assume that we know what those words mean. Now we go up and read the actual question. We’re going to read this intentionally; we’re going to read this with purpose. The purpose is to employ the word search technique. Just like in sentence completions, we’re going to be looking for keywords, and we’re going to be looking for trigger words. Keywords are the words that directly relate to the word that goes in the blank, and the trigger word is the word, phrase, or punctuation that indicates the direction of that relationship.
So here we go. Most people who claim to have seen UFOs recant their stories once presented with compelling evidence to the contrary. However, Jerome wouldn’t even consider an alternative explanation, remaining blank in his position. As is often the case, it’s usually easier to see triggers than keys. Here, a very clear trigger that stands out to us is “however.” This word, beginning the second sentence, indicates a change in direction.

Davis: So, we can then use that trigger to reverse engineer the key. So, what do we want to change from?

Orion: Well, the answer to that question is going to be our key word. If most people recant, which means to take back their stories, and Jerome is doing the opposite of that – he’s sticking to his guns, he’s staying with it. Come hell or high water. Go for it, Jerome!

Davis: Maybe he’s in on those… like, are they the Mexican aliens that were recently “discovered”?

Orion: Right, maybe Jerome was behind that. We want the opposite of someone who takes back their stories: someone who sticks with their stories. We have a forced choice which is “enigmatic.” That doesn’t mean “to stick with.” It’s a psychological association trap answer associated with UFOs, conspiracy theories, and the like. It’s mysterious but has nothing to do with “sticking with.” “Inane” means silly; that could be a judgment about UFO believers.

Again, that’s a trap answer. The third option is “adamant,” which means strong and unyielding. That’s a great fit for the word that we’re looking for: someone who sticks with their stories, even when there’s compelling evidence to the contrary. We’re going to choose “adamant” and move on with our lives. So, that was me talking through the entire thought process with full sentences, explaining other contextual parts of the strategy that you should just have ingrained in you. And that was, you know, three minutes. With practice, without speaking to yourself in full sentences, and knowing exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it in the workflow, you can easily answer this question in less than 60 seconds, which is really what our goal is for all vocab-based questions.

Davis: Thanks, Orion, for that clear walkthrough. A couple of interesting points to tease out—maybe interesting points to point out—you can give us some facts on these. You mentioned a “pat response,” like a psychological “trap association.” And you also mentioned “trigger words.” So, for example, there were, you know, “UFOs,” and then there was “enigmatic,” and there was, you know, “someone who believes in UFOs.” And there was “inane” as “silly.” But the real trigger words were relating to the verb, either “recounting their positions after evidence.” And then, however, Jerome does the opposite: he changes his position. Can you talk just briefly about those?

Orion: Yeah, so most of the trap answers on a vocab-based question relate to the surface narrative of the story and don’t address the deeper structure of the problem. This question, in fact, has nothing to do with UFOs. We could eliminate that language entirely or replace it with something unrelated, like “most people who claim to be serious about politics” or those who are “interested in becoming surgeons.” These topics are not trivial. However, if “recant their stories” remains a part of the text, then the opposite of “recant” will remain the same, regardless of Jerome’s beliefs or the topic under consideration. That’s why we use the word search technique: to cut through unnecessary verbiage.

Davis: I really appreciate that. I hope everyone found this beneficial. Hopefully you could follow along in this audio format.

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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