Cracking the GRE Premium (2015)

Part II How to Crack the Verbal Section

3    The Geography of the Verbal Section

4    Text Completions

5    Sentence Equivalence

6    Reading Comprehension

7    Critical Reasoning

8    Vocabulary for the GRE

Chapter 3 The Geography of the Verbal Section

The Verbal section of the GRE is designed to test your verbal reasoning abilities. This chapter will explain what types of questions ETS uses to accomplish that. You’ll also see how the concepts of Personal Order of Difficulty and Process of Elimination apply to the Verbal section. Finally, you’ll learn what role vocabulary plays in achieving a good score on the Verbal section.


A few years ago, ETS redesigned the GRE and claimed that the new Verbal section would accomplish the following:

·        Place a greater emphasis on analytical skills and on understanding vocabulary in context rather than in isolation.

·        Use more text-based materials.

·        Contain a broader range of reading selections.

·        Test skills that are more closely aligned with those used in graduate school.

·        Expand the range of computer-enabled tasks.

What does this mean for you?

·        There won’t be questions that involve analogies or antonyms on this test, as there had been on the old version of the GRE.

·        You’ll see some wacky-looking question formats that you’ve probably never seen before.

·        Though they say the new version of the test de-emphasizes vocabulary, there’s no getting around the fact that the more vocabulary you know when you sit down to take the test, the better off you’ll be. So vocabulary remains as important as it ever was. If you’re especially eager to build your vocabulary, check out Chapter 8: Vocabulary for the GRE.

There are three types of questions on the Verbal section of the test:

·        Text Completions

·        Sentence Equivalence

·        Reading Comprehension

Text Completions

Text Completion questions consist of a short section of text, between one and five sentences, with one to three blanks. A one-blank Text Completion will have five answer choices while a two-blank or three-blank Text Completion will have three choices per blank. Your job is to find the best word for each blank.

They look like this:

Fables often endure due to their (i) ___________, often telling one simple narrative, based around one character. This is both by design, because direct statements are more easily remembered than florid ones, and by accident: As fables are passed from teller to teller, (ii) ___________ details fall away, leaving only the essential story.

Sentence Equivalence

Sentence Equivalence questions are similar to Text Completion questions. You will be given a single sentence with one blank and six answer choices. Your job is to select two words from the answer choices that could fit in the blank. Here’s what they look like:

He was a man of few words, _______ around all but his closest friends.







Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension questions make up the lion’s share of the verbal portion of the test. In fact, Reading Comprehension questions make up about half of each verbal section. You will be given a passage that may vary in length from one to five paragraphs with one to five questions per passage. Reading Comprehension questions might ask you for the main idea of the passage; they might ask about specific pieces of information in the passage; they might ask you about the structure or tone of a passage; they might ask you about vocabulary in the passage, the point of view of the author, or about the argument being made in the passage. The good news about Reading Comprehension questions is that they rarely depend upon vocabulary, and the answers are always in the passage.

Within Reading Comprehension, there are three question formats:

Multiple Choice

Select All That Apply

Select in Passage


The GRE has two scored multiple-choice verbal sections. Each will be 30 minutes long with 20 questions per section. The way you perform on one verbal section will affect the difficulty of the next verbal section you are given. Verbal sections tend to follow the same order. Roughly your first six questions will be Text Completion, your next five or six will be Reading Comprehension, followed by about four Sentence Equivalence, and then another four or five Reading Comprehension questions. In profile, your two verbal sections will look something like this:


Here are some strategies that will help you on the Verbal section. We’ll show you how to use them as we go through specific question types in the chapters ahead, but for now read through the strategies and get a sense of what they are before moving on.

Personal Order of Difficulty

One very important thing to keep in mind as you go through the Verbal section is that you can control which questions you do and when you do them. Once again, you’re able to skip around the test, so do the questions in any order you like. If you come to a question that stumps you, skip it and move on to the next one. Go back to the hard ones at the end of the section if you have time—remember that all questions are worth the same number of points, so you won’t get any more credit for answering a hard question than answering an easy one—use your time wisely.

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We call this method the Two-Pass system. In the Two-Pass system, you do the following:

1.    First Pass: Go through the test, doing all the questions you feel confident on. Skip any questions that are confusing or seem to be taking you a while to work out.

2.    Second Pass: Return to the questions you skipped and give them a shot; you’ll feel more relaxed because you’ll have completed most of the section and done well on it, and you can settle in and give them your full attention.

Process of Elimination (POE)

One important point to keep in mind here is that on verbal questions, your goal is to find the “best” answer. Note that this doesn’t mean the same thing as finding the “right” answer or the “correct” answer. On this section, it’s essential that you get into the habit of considering every answer choice, even if you’re pretty sure you’ve already found the answer. After all, there’s no way of saying one answer is the “best” unless you’ve compared it to all the others.

Sometimes it’s far easier to find the wrong answer to a verbal question than the right one; after all, statistically there are far more wrong answers on the test than correct ones. This is where the Process of Elimination comes into play. If you can recognize a bad answer and eliminate it, you will greatly increase your odds of choosing the right answer if you must guess on a question.

Intelligent guessing—guessing after eliminating at least one answer choice—is a good way to get the best GRE verbal score you can get. Consider the following question:

When studying human history, one must be aware that the ____________ between historical periods are arbitrary; certainly none of the people alive at the time were aware of a shift from one era to another.

Here’s How to Crack It

If you encountered this question on the GRE, you might not know what the best answer is (you’ll learn how to approach questions like this in Chapter 4). However, you might see that some of the answers simply don’t make sense. Choices (A), (B), and (C) don’t seem to fit the sentence at all. By eliminating these wrong answers, you’ve suddenly given yourself a great chance of choosing the correct answer just by guessing, since only answer choices (D) and (E) are left. And if you realize that choice (E) doesn’t make sense either, then you know the correct answer is (D), even if you’re not sure what “demarcations” means. Sometimes it’s easier to find the wrong answer than the right answer.


Although ETS says that vocabulary is de-emphasized on this test, having a wide vocabulary will still help you on the GRE. Text Completion questions and Sentence Equivalence questions rely heavily on vocabulary, and reading passages can and will contain some tough words in both the passages and in the answer choices.

To that end, working on improving your vocabulary can translate into higher scores on the GRE. We’ve provided you with the Hit Parade in Chapter 8; it’s a list of words commonly used on the GRE, but that’s only the beginning. As you read books and newspapers, watch movies or television, or talk to your sesquipedalian friends, keep track of any and all new vocabulary words you read or hear, write them down, look them up, and remember them. There’s a good chance they’ll come in handy on test day.


Scratch Paper—Say No to Multitasking

Scratch paper is every bit as important on the verbal side of the test as it is on the math. When you answer a verbal question in your head, you are really doing two things at once. The first is evaluating each answer choice; the second is keeping track of which answer choices are still in and which ones you don’t like. This is multitasking, and the problem with multitasking, studies have shown, is that you end up doing both tasks worse! Multitasking leads to inefficient use of time as you end up revisiting answer choices that you’ve already evaluated, and it leads to errors as you distract your brain with other tasks while making crucial choices.

Three Kinds of Words

As you encounter difficult words throughout this book, put them in one of these three categories:

·        Words you know—These are words you can define accurately. If you can give a definition of a word that’s pretty close to the dictionary definition, then it is a word you know.

·        Words you sort of know—These are words you’ve seen or heard before, or maybe even have used yourself, but can’t define accurately. You may have a sense of how these words are used, but beware! Day-to-day usage is often different from the dictionary meaning of words, and the only meanings that count on the GRE are those given in the dictionary. ETS likes using words that have secondary meanings, and some of the words in this category may have secondary definitions that you’re not aware of. You have to treat these words very differently from the words you can define easily and for which you know all the meanings. Every time you encounter a word you sort of know in this book, be sure to look it up in the dictionary and make it a word you know from then on.

·        Words you’ve never seen—You can expect to see some words in this book you’ve never seen before. After you encounter a word like this, look it up! If it’s been on the GRE one year, there’s a good chance it will show up again.

The better approach is to engage your hand and take a load off your brain by parking your thinking on the page. The answer choices represent ETS’s suggested answers. They are carefully designed to mislead the tired test taker. Because of this, you should always have a clear sense of what you’re looking for before you get to the answer choices. When you do get to the answer choices, it’s a simple assessment: Does it match your answer or not? This is an easy call to make. If the answer is a vocabulary word, either you know the word and it works, you know the word and it doesn’t work, or you don’t know the word. If it is a Reading Comprehension question, either the answer matches your answer, it does not match, or you’re not sure. As you evaluate each answer choice, mark your assessment on your scratch paper. Verbal scratch paper looks like this:

We will discuss different strategies for setting up scratch paper for specific question types later on, but there are four basic symbols you will use for all questions:

   Eliminate—When an answer choice is clearly wrong, get rid of it. Having it there as an option is nothing but a distraction, so make it go away.

   Maybe—Don’t be afraid of the Maybe. GRE students often get hung up considering a particular answer choice. On the first pass through the answer choices, this is time wasted. It is entirely possible that the other four answer choices are wrong, or that you find one that is clearly better. Before you invest too much time (too much time means more than 5 seconds) on any one answer choice, give it the Maybe and move on. You can always come back to it and give it more time if you have to, but you never want to give it more time than you have to. If you’re not sure or you don’t love it, just give it the Maybe and move on.

  Yes, Works—When you have one that works, give it the check mark.

    Question Mark—If you don’t know the meaning of a word, mark it with a question mark. You must be honest with yourself here. You do yourself no favors by acting like you know a word more than you actually do. You cannot eliminate a word just because it looks bad. You don’t have to pick it, but if you don’t know it, you can’t eliminate it.

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You are taking a two-pass approach through the answer choices. On the first pass, it’s a simple question of Maybe or Eliminate? Park your thinking on the page and nine out of ten times your scratch paper will be able to answer the question for you. If you have two question marks and a check, you’re done. The check is your answer. If you have two maybes and a check, you’re done; the check is your answer. If you have four eliminates and a question mark, the question mark is your answer.

Using scratch paper on the Verbal section is a habit. It’s something you do every time. Over time, it should just become automatic. When you’re working on a verbal question, your hand should be moving. This will save you time and mental effort. Remember that it is a four-hour exam, and over four hours, your brain will get tired. Saving mental effort makes a difference and helps to avoid mistakes. The job of the techniques is to help you with the hard problems, but it is also to ensure that the questions you should be getting right, you are getting right. Both jobs are equally important. Start using scratch paper now and force yourself to keep doing it until it becomes habit.

Take the Easy Test First

The GRE is all about accuracy. It’s not the number of questions you answer that determines your score; it’s the number of questions you answer correctly. It is more important to get questions correct than to get to answer all questions. Since all questions within a given section count equally toward your score, you might as well do the easy ones first. If you love Text Completion, but hate Reading Comprehension, then do the Text Completion first.

Work slowly. Work for accuracy. Skip often. When a question pops up that you don’t like, click to the next one. You can always come back and answer it later, time provided, but take the easy test first. Invest your time in those questions you like. That way, when you run short on time, you have nothing left but the questions you don’t like doing anyway. Another way to think about it is to play to your strengths. As you work through this book and learn new techniques, the types of questions you decide to skip might change. Just because they give you questions in a specific order doesn’t mean you have to answer them in that order.

You are in control of question order. Take the easy test first!

Bend—Don’t Push

Over a period of four hours, your brain will get tired. When that happens, you will misread a question, a sentence, or an answer choice. It is inevitable. When you go back and look at these questions later, you will smack your forehead and think, “That was so stupid! Why did I do that? That’s not what it says at all. I thought …” Everyone has these moments. It happens because most of us no longer read things word for word. We read in chunks. We don’t read words anymore; we recognize words. Sometimes, especially when our brains get tired, we get these chunks wrong or we recognize a different word. The problem is that once you have seen a question or a word wrong, it is all but impossible to see it correctly.

The solution is to walk away. Distract your brain by working on a few other questions, and then come back to the question that gave you trouble and see it with fresh eyes. The minute you run into any resistance, walk away. When you are left with two answer choices and you would swear that both are correct, walk away. When you have eliminated all of the answer choices, walk away. When a sentence isn’t quite coming into focus, walk away. Do not continue to push on a question that is giving you problems. Walk away, distract your brain, and then go back.

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Got it? Now you’re ready to move on and learn more about the types of questions you’ll see on the Verbal section. Let’s get cracking!


·        The GRE Verbal section consists of two 30-minute sections, each containing 20 questions.

·        The Verbal section is made up of Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence, and Reading Comprehension questions.

·        Use the Two-Pass system along with your own Personal Order of Difficulty to focus your time on the questions you feel more comfortable working on.

·        Success on the Verbal section of the exam involves using Process of Elimination to eliminate “worse” answer choices.

·        Vocabulary is an important aspect of success on the GRE Verbal section. Classify words on the GRE in three categories: words you know, words you kind of know, and words you’ve never seen before. Work on your vocabulary.