Sorting and Grouping Vocabulary for the GRE

The sheer volume of GRE vocabulary lists available is astounding.  Their contents can be a little mind-boggling, too.  Whether it’s Barron’s 1100 You Need to Know, Manhattan’s 500 Advanced, or Power Vocab from Princeton Review, most of us could use a little help tackling them, and blasting through one GRE practice exam after the next isn’t going to cut it.  But, how?  


Upon discussing his cunning cohort’s modus operandi, physicist and Einstein collaborator, John Archibald Wheeler, said this:

“[His] work revolved around three rules…
1. Out of clutter, find simplicity;
2. From discord, make harmony; a nd finally,
3. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”


Nice Quote, but How Does It Apply to Me? 


Wheeler said that those three rules apply “to all science, our problems, and times.”  In studying vocabulary for the GRE, the clutter and discord we face comes in the form of those overwhelming lists.  Always in alphabetical order and sometimes divided by difficulty or frequency, they can be (to say the least) challenging to embrace.  But (but!), we can manipulate our lists with an eye toward simplicity (and for symbolic purposes, harmony).  And, we will find that the manipulation itself (in addition to the more manageable sub-lists and categories it produces) yields increased familiarity and better accretion.  Aha—opportunity!


What Do You Mean, “Manipulate?”  (The How)

First, gather your materials.  If you’re using multiple lists, consider consolidating.  Whether you choose one list over another or cross-reference several to create your own, the words we’re working with need to be all together in one place.  And, acknowledge the fact that not all GRE vocabulary lists are created equally.  So, if you’ve got multiple sources at your fingertips, taking the time to cross-reference these will prove beneficial.  You’ll find some words that are present in all of your sources and other words that appear in only one.  Furthermore, you’ll soon discover that what one GRE study source considers “high-frequency,” the others have opted to lump in with the rest.  Needless to say, as with so many efforts in life and academia, what you glean from this process will be directly affected by your willingness to perform due diligence and go the extra mile.


If your list is printed, sort with highlighters and/or notes in the margin.  Then, group those words according to their new classification.  You can type up the new sub-lists (recommended), or you can sit down with scissors and tape.  Use glue if you have to—whatever you can get your hands on.  If you have a digital list, do the same thing electronically.  Use the highlight function and copy or cut and paste as needed.  If that option isn’t available, you could take a screenshot and use an image editor.  Some methods may be a little clumsier than others, but the point is to interact with your master list; it doesn’t have to be graceful.


Next, decide how you will sort your words.  There are many ways to organize your master list.  Any and all of the following methods will contribute to better overall retention.  1 and 2, if together, are best completed first and second, respectively.  Otherwise, each of these techniques can function as a group or independently and in any given order.


1.     The most obvious groupings are parts of speech.  If you’re disheartened by the vastness of your master list, this is a good place to start.  It doesn’t require much thought and makes quick work of sorting the words into smaller and more specific categories.  So, put the adjectives, nouns, and verbs (etc.) each in their own category.  If you find that your master list contains vocabulary words that have multiple uses (concerning parts of speech), make separate categories for those that function as such.  Filibuster, pique, and prattle, for example, can all be used as either a noun or a verb.  So, in this case, you would designate a category to accommodate this (i.e., Noun/Verb, Verbs and/or Nouns, or something similar).  Although this method is the least time consuming, it is (as a result) also the least rewarding.  Useful, all the same, it requires less cognitive interaction with the words and their definitions, and therefore, yields less familiarity and absorption.


2.     Parts of speech is closely followed by synonyms and antonyms.  There are going to be a lot of words on your list that mean pretty much the same thing—and many that mean just the opposite.  When we pore over a vocabulary list, and we see one or the other, it usually just clicks.  We remember reading something very similar (or very different), and we can look back to find the word we’ve recalled.  This approach requires the most cognitive interaction with the words and their definitions—which is good—but, there are other ways to ferret out synonyms and antonyms if necessary.  You could enter any vocabulary word in an online thesaurus, check the results and compare them against your list.  If you have the luxury of using a list that can be searched by way of software or an application, look for keywords, and hunt them down that way.  The method you choose here depends largely on the resources available to you.  But, where there’s a will there’s a way.


3.     Synonyms and antonyms share space with suffixes, prefixes, and roots.  These words are always related but rarely synonymous.  Keep a reference handy and look them up as you go.  As you become familiar with the various suffixes, prefixes, and roots (and they are many), you will begin to learn their meanings, which is especially helpful should you encounter new and unexpected words within the GRE.  The knowledge of such things acts as a tool for interpretation upon your initial encounter with words that are otherwise unknown to you.  And, in many cases, this tool will give you a serious edge when forced to make an educated guess—or even when employing process of elimination.  For example, learning that the prefixes dis- and dif- mean not, opposite of, reverse, separate, deprive of, or away gives the test-taker insight as to the definitions of many common GRE words, such as diffident, disabuse, discomfit, and the like.

4.     We can also create vocabulary groups based on personal word associations.  There are some words that just go together—definitions that are connected in a way that makes sense to you.  Are they all adjectives?  All nouns?  All verbs?  No.  Synonyms or antonyms?  Also, a No.  Do they all share a particular suffix or prefix?  Huh-uh.  But, is there a logical relationship that makes sense to the reader?  Yes.  Yes, there is.

Some examples:























And finally (finally!), get to sorting.  It’s time to get your hands dirty—whether literally or figuratively—and get to know your master list by way of procuring your sub-lists.  Sit down with your words, and make it happen.  This is going to take some time.  So, split the task at hand into manageable, bite-sized pieces.  You could work for, say, an hour at a time.  Or, you could work one category at a time.  Regardless of exactly how you decide to organize your approach, the point is to mitigate the potential for being overwhelmed by it.  This is no small job, but it is a GRE vocabulary study method that is vastly rewarding. 


What’s More Important Than the How?  (The Why)

Just the act of grouping our words in meaningful ways creates connections through interaction, and those connections facilitate memory and enhance absorption.  The lists themselves are important—both, at the start (as your initial sources) and at the finish (as your customized study material).  But, the act of procuring them is just as worthy—if not more.  It’s important to understand the differences from one word to the next (noting their peculiarities), and sorting vocabulary in meaningful ways forces us to fully engage.  Acquiring these sub-lists ready-made would be convenient but not nearly as useful as procuring them for yourself.  Pick and choose your methods a la carte; it’s not necessary to use them all.  Maybe personal associations make the most sense to you.  Maybe you’re a by-the-book parts of speech type.  Perhaps you can’t help but use all of the methods outlined above because you’re just that kind of overachiever.  Regardless of the option(s) that suit you best, one thing remains true: the more you manipulate your list, the better you’ll know its contents.  And, the better you know its contents, the higher your score on the GRE practice tests and, eventually, when it’s time for the real deal.


“Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities.  Seize common occasions and make them great.”  - Orison Swett Marden

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