Mastering GRE Sentence Equivalence & Text Completion

Takers of GRE practice tests must know that they are required to answer five multiple-choice sections of 20 questions each. They will be evaluated on their performance in only four of these sections, two each from verbal and quant. There will also be a fifth section that could be from either verbal or quant. This would be a dummy section that will not be scored. Students who do consistently well in all sections will do well in the dummy section as well. Thus, the dummy section can help the examiners to weed out less consistent performers in the GRE.

Of the forty GRE mock questions in the two verbal sections, test takers can expect to have to solve 14–15 questions from Reading Comprehension, 5–6 from the Critical Reasoning sub-category of Reading Comprehension, and the remaining 20 from sentence equivalence and text completion. Thus, sentence equivalence is the major portion of the GRE practice tests. If you master this, you will take a huge step towards getting a great score in the GRE.

Key Words Are as Useful as Vocabulary

Many prospective GRE test takers are wary of sentence equivalence because they assume it is all about vocabulary, and most people do not count vocabulary among their strengths.

We concede that vocabulary does play a role in any form of sentence construction. You must work on improving your vocabulary by mastering the GRE word lists you surely have access to.

However, Sentence Equivalence has a more important element than GRE vocabulary. It is called context. Typically, there are two or more parts to a sentence. These parts are related to each other through contextual terms. The most common contextual relations are similarity, contrast, and cause-effect. Once we recognize the keywords, we can apply the contextual relationships between the different parts of the questions to solve it.

What Key Words Should We Look for?

You can look for a certain set of keywords to help identify each type of context.

Key Words That Imply Similarity

Key Words That Imply Contrast

Key Words That Imply Cause-Effect

How Contrast Can Help Solve Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion

Consider the following question:

Although economic growth has conventionally been viewed as the — — — — — — — — for poverty in underdeveloped regions, this prescription’s negative environmental side effects are becoming a concern.

A. culprit B. recipe C. panacea D. explanation E. refuge

In this question, ‘although’ is the keyword, implying that the context is contrast. The portion after the comma contrasts the portion before the comma. As the blank appears in the first portion, we should look at the second portion for a clue. The phrase in the second portion, “this prescription’s negative environmental side effects are becoming a concern” tells us that the blank must be a positive word. That rules out option A. Options B, D, and E don’t make logical sense, leaving option C as the answer, even if you don’t know the meaning of panacea. In fact, panacea means “cure-all.”

Here’s another:

The media once portrayed the governor as anything but ineffective; they now, however, make her out to be the epitome of — — — — .

A. fecklessness B. brilliance C. dynamism D. egoism E. punctiliousness

The keyword in this sentence is “however.” We can recognize that the two parts contrast each other. We can infer that the media now views the governor differently from the way they viewed her once. In the past, they viewed her as “anything but ineffective.” Neutralizing the double negative, we can see that the media had a positive opinion of the governor in the past. That means they view her negatively now. The only negative option which contrasts “effective” is “fecklessness,” which must be the answer.

Using Cause-Effect

Consider the following:

Congress is having great difficulty developing a consensus on energy policy, primarily because the policy objectives of various members of congress rest on such — — — — assumptions.

A. commonplace B. divergent C. fundamental D. trite E. trivial

In this question, the contextual keyword is “because.” This tells us that the portion before the word “because” is the effect of the portion after the word “because.” The blank is in the second portion (the cause). The effect is described as “difficulty developing a consensus (agreement)”. What would make agreement difficult among members of congress? We can easily infer that such disagreement would result if their policy objectives rested on assumptions that did not agree. Option C (divergent) suggests itself as the right answer.

Here’s another one:

The unexplained digressions into the finer points of quantum electrodynamics are so — — — that even readers with a physics degree would be wise to keep a textbook handy to make sense of them.

A. uninteresting B. controversial C. unsophisticated D. frustrating E. humorless

The context that relates the two parts in this question is cause-effect, as implied by the use of “so” and “that.” Considering the second part of the sentence, we can infer that if a physics degree holder needs to keep a textbook handy, it clearly means he has difficulty understanding the subject being taught. This implication is also supported by the phrase “unexplained digressions.”

One more from our list of GRE mock questions:

For most of the first half of the nineteenth century, science at the university was in — — — — state, despite the presence of numerous luminaries.

A. a scintillating B. a pathetic C. a controversial D. an incendiary E. a veracious

In this question, we can identify “despite” as the keyword that indicates contrast. Thus, we can surmise that “the state of the university” and “the presence of numerous luminaries” are in contrast to each other. Luminaries are shining or brilliant people. So, we can infer that the university must be in a negative state. That helps to eliminate options A and E which are positive. Of the remaining, option B is the best fit as it clearly indicates that the university did not perform well.

How Similarity Can Help Solve GRE Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion

Consider the following:

The reception given to Kimura’s radical theory of molecular evolution shows that when — — — — fights orthodoxy to a draw, then novelty has seized a good chunk of space from convention.

A. imitation B. reaction C. dogmatism D. invention E. caution

In this question, the terms “when” and “then” suggest a similarity between the two parts of the sentence. When we look closer, we see the words “novelty” and “convention” in the second part. Clearly there is a contest between novelty and convention, which are the opposite of each other. Our attention is drawn to the word “orthodoxy” in the first part. Once we realize that “orthodoxy” and “convention” are synonyms, it does not take much time before we realize that the answer option must a synonym of “novelty.” Option D (invention) is clearly the answer.

One more:

The point we might still take from the First World War is the old one that wars are always, as one historian aptly put it, — — — -: they produce unforeseeable results.

A. unsurprising B. conventional C. ruinous D. stunning E. devastating

In this question, the use of the colon tells us that there is a similarity between the portions before and after the colon. The second part tells us that wars produce “unforeseen results.” Using this information and applying the contextual relation of similarity, we can surmise that wars can be described as “stunning,” which is synonymous with “unforeseeable.” Hence, option D is the right answer.


Identify the keywords/phrases and the context of such keywords in the given sentence. Relate the two parts using the context and look for a clue in the part without the blank. Apply the logic of the context and arrive at the answer option.

These GRE Practice tips are meant to help you crack the Sentence Completion questions in quick time. But the best tip we can give you is to ask you solve as many GRE practice tests as you can. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.