Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Improve your vocabulary: A Step By Step Guide That Works for the SAT/GRE

What follows is my plan for learning 1,000 new words in one month in 30 minutes a day.

Around this time of year college seniors start growing anxious about their impending GRE tests. The Graduate Record Exam is a roughly 3-hour long exam that tests a student's language, math, and analytical skills. Most graduate schools require the exam and admission depends on it.

One of the easiest portions of the exam to study for is also the most immediately beneficial: Vocabulary.

Now, when I took the exam for the first time I foolishly scheduled it on the same day I also took the other 3-hour long exam for admission specifically to psychology graduate programs. When my scores arrived in the mail I was relieved to see that I had aced the psychology exam but shocked to see that my verbal score was utterly abysmal. I'm not kidding. My score was at least 200 points lower than what it needed to be for graduate school. Sure, I could write well and express myself – at times eloquently according to one prof. However, the breadth of my vocabulary limited me.

I resolved right then to improve my vocabulary.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to doing what I did to expand my vocabulary. If you follow it, I am confident it will work for you too.


First, get your hands on a copy (or two!) of the Word Smart books published by the Princeton Review. They publish a "hit list" of the words that appear most frequently on the GRE and SAT exams.

Prepare some blank note cards – make them 1.5 inches square. As you go through the Word Smart book, write down every word you don't know the definition of. Put each word IN ALL CAPS on one side and the definition in your own words on the other side. Be liberal. If you only sort of know a word, make a card. Don't assume you'll understand it later when you take the test and are short on time.

Writing the definitions in your own words is crucial. Learning is less effective if you copy definitions from the dictionary and word smart books. Keep your definitions short and simple. A word or phrase is enough.

The Word Smart books are organized so the the most frequently appearing words are noted. I put a star on the upper right corner of the flash card to distinguish the high priority words. Learn them first.

I ended up making about 1,000 flash cards, but the number you make will depend on how many words you don't immediately know when going through the Word Smart books. You will need 4 containers to keep the cards. One holds the starred cards, another the un-starred cards. Another is for words you learn along the way that you keep 'in rotation.' The final container is reserved for 'retired' cards. Miniature gift bags about 3x3x2 inches work well; so do the ubiquitous large plastic dixie cups endemic to college campuses.

From your high priority pile, select about 25-30 cards at random. This is your short stack. You can go up to 30 but I wouldn't advise any more unless you can devote more than a half hour each day to this. Read each word and attempt to define it in your head. If you can't after thinking about it for 2 seconds, flip it over and check the definition. Use it in a sentence. Do this with all of the cards in your short stack and repeat as many times as you can in one sitting. Always shuffle before repeating. You should spend about 30 minutes going through your cards. When you're done, set them aside in your 'in rotation' container.

The next day, or better yet, later that day – go through your short stack from the previous study session. Each word you 'get right' – make a little hash mark in the lower corner of the card in pencil. Put them in your 'in rotation' container. Your learned container will be nearly empty for awhile. Your goal is to fill it with all of your flash cards.

With each new study session, add new cards from the starred pile to equal the number of cards you put in your rotation cup the previous day. Always choose them at random. Go through the cards and hash mark the ones you know. You'll recall a few from the previous session. Remember to put the hash marked cards in your 'learned' pile. Eventually you'll run out of the starred cards and you can replace with the un-starred ones.

When you have about 25-30 cards in your learned pile – go through them. If you don't get a definition right, put the card back in your short stack. It goes back into rotation. If you get it right, put another hash mark on the card. You'll need to do this refresher step every couple of days to make sure you retain the words. When a card has 5 hash marks, consider it learned and retire it. Put it in the 'retired' container for as long as you want.


Use the words you learn in conversations. Insert them in place of more mundane adjectives. Play the alphabet game, vocabulary word category. I play the alphabet game frequently with Mr. Field Notes to stay alert on long car trips or whenever we're bored and trapped with nothing better to do. Someone starts with A and says an oddball vocab word that starts with A - but only if they know the definition. If the other person doesn't know it, you have to define it. The next person takes B and so on until you reach Z.

Amity Bombastic Canard Diffident Effluvium Fetid ... and so on.

I bumped up my GRE verbal score 200 points by doing this and am happy to report I recall many of those words I learned some twelve years ago.

Kudos to those who can define the words in the cards pictured above or know the words given the definition. You are a step ahead already.


Psychgrad said...

I did a terrible job of studying for the general GRE. Thankfully, it didn't matter in the end (the program I am in didn't require GREs).

Those are some great suggestions you have there. I also find that the tips regarding learning about common prefixes/suffixes/etc. in the Princeton/Barron books are good too. It helps with POE (process of eliminiation).

I did terribly on the on the quantitative and very well on the analytical (the newer, essay version).

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Great suggestions! Shows how much I remember about the GRE: I didn't even remember vocab being on there. Luckily, I'm one of those freaks that test well. I think standardized tests are bogus, but the PSAT did get me a free ride for college.

Anonymous said...

great ideas and full of usefull infos,and also that can be a great suggestion for every foreign lunguage learners.