Sentence Equivalence in the GRE

Aspirants studying vocabulary for the GRE rarely crack (or click) open a dictionary.  We can’t just go cramming Webster’s or the OED, right?  That would be ridiculous!  We often think of these lexicons as outmoded or overly simple.  And, with all the GRE test-prep material available, who needs it?  You do, and this is why…


You’re Confused, But That’s Okay.

As you prepare for the verbal portion of the GRE, you will most likely complete one GRE practice exam after another.  You’ll record your answers and check them for accuracy in order to gauge your comprehension.  But, what if the answers don’t make sense?  What if, after all that, you still don’t understand?  If that’s the case, you’re missing something. 

Fine, What Am I Missing? 

Well, here’s the deal…  Esteemed applicants, altruistic candidates, and benevolent seekers typically place their trust in one prep-provider or another—perhaps several.  We look at their books, we practice taking their GRE tests online, we use their flashcards, and we check our answers and preliminary scores diligently--thinking that we’ve tapped all of the appropriate resources.   With the assignment of trust in one provider or another, we come to expect that the information presented is thorough and all-encompassing.  After all, this is what these people do for a living, right?  They have big, familiar, corporate names, and most of our peers are using the same approach, right? These sources have the correct answers and the inside track, do they not? Their prep material must be comprehensive (it must!).  Well, for the most part, it really is… except for when it’s not.   


Let’s Take A Closer Look.

When these providers are gathering their material, there are a host of important decisions to be made.  Which words are believed to appear most frequently in the GRE? How should we categorize them?  Are our lists too overwhelming?  If so, which words make the cut?  And, how do we define them? Do we get permission from every available resource and gather their definitions together in a massive reference?  Or do we assess several definitions and cobble together one of our own?  Maybe we should just use the simplest definitions.  Maybe we should use the most common definitions.  Decisions, decisions, decisions…


So, GRE test-prep providers need the content of their study guides to be detailed and sufficient for test-taking purposes; however, they also need the content to be easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to remember.  That means, they make sacrifices.  To streamline the content—we’re talking about definitions here—they must fit and trim it to meet the aforementioned criteria.  And, that means we see only what’s left behind—the barest of bones, so to speak, for any given definition.  That doesn’t sound too good; it’s not necessarily bad, though, either.  In fact, it can be quite helpful.  We’re going to absorb the simplest and most succinct information more easily, right?  Well, yes… But, as with all things English-language, there are (so many) exceptions to the rule.


Exempli Gratia!

Recently, while browsing through some GRE test-prep posts on a popular forum, I stumbled across a fantastic example.  As we know, the GRE’s instructions for sentence equivalence ask us to select two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.  The question I encountered focuses on a daughter’s memories, as triggered by the scent of her father’s pipe tobacco.  It was written as follows.

Although, she did not approve of her father's smoking, she was forced to admit that the smell of his pipe tobacco was __________ her youth.

A. reminiscent of
B. redolent of
C. salubrious for
D. pungent with
E. odorous with
F. evocative of

The correct answer is A and F.

That Makes Sense, Doesn’t It? 

Sure it does!  Reminiscent means “awakening memories of something similar” or “suggestive [of].”  Evocative means “tending to evoke” (and evoke means “to call up or produce memories, feelings, etc.”).  So, reminiscent and evocative have very similar meanings.  However, the author of this particular post posed a very interesting query: What about answer choice B—redolent of?  Redolent means “suggestive” or “reminiscent.”  That should work, too, right? 


Well, Sort Of…

The commentary on that post included some conflicting opinions on the word’s definition.  In addition to suggestive or reminiscent, redolent also means “having a pleasant odor; fragrant” or “odorous or smelling [of].”  To better understand these distinctions and the question at hand, I looked redolent up in four separate dictionaries (Cambridge, Merriam-Webster, OED, and Macmillan).  Of seven definitions, five were associated specifically with smell, and only two were synonymous with reminiscent.  Two of the dictionaries—Cambridge and Merriam-Webster—only list scent-related definitions. 


That’s Confusing.


Indeed, it is.  Although redolent could be construed as the best possible answer because it is associated both with reminiscence and aroma, our answer choices (above) do not contain an option that is wholly synonymous or equivalent.  Remember those instructions:  Select two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.  Those instructions are what makes these distinctions important, and therefore, dictate which answer choices are either correct or incorrect.

Is It Worth It?

Without making an effort to compare the various definitions and their inevitable idiosyncrasies, we have no idea why the word in question was overlooked.  And, as an extension of this misunderstanding, we’ve missed an opportunity to better comprehend the vocabulary itself, to improve our capacity for the GRE’s sentence equivalence format, and therefore, to accurately identify the designated relationship between questions and correct answers.  That’s quite a bit to miss out on, folks.  In fact, it’s pretty much the whole of our reason for studying.


Can You Get by Without It?


Well, maybe, but you’d be better off if you decided to take the time—especially when there is a sentence equivalence practice question that you’ve attempted to answer, checked your work, found was incorrect, and still don’t understand why.  Sure, you could move on to the next question and see if that one makes more sense without the extra work, but if you do, you choose to forfeit the time you initially committed to that question to begin with, and you haven’t really learned anything.  Practice should lead to improved comprehension, not just an emboldened capacity for guessing. 

Yes, You Have Time.


In the example laid out above, it took about ten minutes (if that) to double-check the necessary definitions and discover the not-so-hidden explanation behind the question’s correct answer.  If you use the various online dictionaries linked thereafter (or those of your choosing) and keep those tabs open while studying, the process is just that much more streamlined and will take even less time and effort.  We’re all on tight schedules, right?  And, we’d prefer the clarification came a bit more easily (Wouldn’t that be nice?), but alas, this is not the case.  It’s not so bad, though, considering the fact that without the extra effort put forth to understand the justification for correct and incorrect answers, the time spent responding to the practice questions and interpreting their solutions is essentially a complete and utter waste.  Seriously.

Relax, You Can Do It!


When you find yourself contemplating the vocabulary-based Q&A, remember that all GRE test-prep sources are not created equally, and dictionaries—plural—are a tried and true friend.  When you’re confused, take a deep breath, and spend just a few minutes investigating multiple definitions to establish detailed and sincere comprehension.  Compare and contrast the content of those definitions, as well as the order in which they are given, and you are bound to gain—one way or another—a better understanding.  It is an efficient and effective use of your valuable and limited GRE vocabulary study time.


No, Seriously…


The more thorough you are in the process by which you approach studying for the GRE, the better your results will be.  That means increased accuracy and speed, more correct answers, and achieving the ultimate goal—a higher score and improved chances of acceptance at your chosen university.  As you use the resources available to you—your academic seniors, study guides, GRE sample tests online, discussion forums, and the like—remember to add dictionaries to this list.  Do you need to look up every vocabulary word in three or four of them?  No…absolutely not.  But when something presented to you doesn’t make sense (especially within the sentence equivalence questions, but elsewhere, as well) the time and effort you put forth to piece together that puzzle and crack the code will pay off exponentially in the long run.  It may sound like a tedious or flat effort, but you get out what you put in, and we’re really talking about the trajectory of your future here.  A few extra minutes here and there could make all the difference in your qualitative GRE score, and extra points translate directly to increased opportunities(!).