Tips to Improve Your GRE Verbal Score

Tips to Improve Your GRE Verbal Score main image

The GRE verbal reasoning section tests high-level reading and language skills. It assesses your ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information obtained from it, analyze relationships among component parts of sentences and recognize relationships among words and concepts.

About half of the section requires test-takers to read passages and answer questions on said passages. The other half requires participants to read, interpret and complete existing sentences, groups of sentences, or paragraphs.

The types of questions students will tackle include:

Text completion: Although these questions sound simple enough in theory – selecting the correct word to best complete a sentence – in fact, the GRE often asks participants to fill in multiple blanks, sometimes over an entire paragraph, making it a tad more difficult. 

Sentence equivalence: These questions offer a unique challenge. Even though they’re a variation of text completion questions, the pack a punch. Instead of just identifying synonyms, the GRE also checks whether participants are able to correctly select the two most closely related sentences.

Reading comprehension: Here you’ll be tested on your ability to read passages of various lengths (between 100 and 450 words), and then be asked questions based on the text. This section will examine your close reading and critical reasoning skills. A whole host of material could come up from varying fields, so be prepared to tackle science, technology, literary critiques and social science.

What you’re up against

Similar to the GRE quantitative section, the verbal section is a 40-question test split into two 20-question subsections, which last 30 minutes per section. The verbal section is scored on a scale from 130-170, in one-point increments.

Remember, as the GRE is a section-adaptive test, test-takers will need to perform highly in the first 20-question subsection in order to obtain the more challenging second 20-question subsection.

Text completion questions

Text completion questions include a passage composed of one to five sentences with one to three blanks. There are three answer choices per blank, or five answer choices if there is a single blank. There is a single correct answer, consisting of one choice for each blank. You receive no credit for partially correct answers.

Sample text completion questions

Directions: For each blank select one entry from the corresponding column of choices. Fill all blanks in the way that best completes the text.

1. It is refreshing to read a book about our planet by an author who does not allow facts to be (1)__________ by politics: well aware of the political disputes about the effects of human activities on climate and biodiversity, this author does not permit them to (2)__________ his comprehensive description of what we know about our biosphere. He emphasizes the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations, and the (3)__________, calling attention to the many aspects of planetary evolution that must be better understood before we can accurately diagnose the condition of our planet.

Answer choices for question 1.

Blank (1)

Blank (2)

Blank (3)

overshadowed

enhance

plausibility of our hypotheses

invalidated

obscure

certainty of our entitlement

illuminated

underscore

superficiality of our theories

Correct Answer: overshadowed, obscure, and superficiality of our theories

2. Vain and prone to violence, Caravaggio could not handle success: the more his (1)__________ as an artist increased, the more (2)__________ his life became.

Answer choices for question 2.

Blank (1)

Blank (2)

temperance

tumultuous

notoriety

providential

eminence

dispassionate

Correct Answer: eminence and tumultuous

3. The author's (1)__________ style renders a fascinating subject, the role played by luck in everyday life, extraordinarily (2)__________.

Answer choices for question 3.

Blank (1)

Blank (2)

soporific

pedantic

lucid

tedious

colloquial

opaque

Correct Answer: soporific and tedious

4. From the outset, the concept of freedom of the seas from the proprietary claims of nations was challenged by a contrary notion — that of the _______ of the oceans for reasons of national security and profit.

Answer choices for question 4.

promotion

exploration

surveying

conservation

appropriation

Correct Answer: appropriation

Tips to nail the text completion section

It will take up too much of your time if you try to consider all possible answer combinations, and this could also increase the chance of making an error. Analyzing the passage in the following way, however, could be beneficial:

  • To get an overall sense of the passage, be sure to read it through carefully
  • Take note of words or phrases that seem particularly significant. They may emphasize passage structure (e.g. moreover, however, although) or they may be central to understanding the context of the passage
  • By attempting to fill in the blanks with relevant words or phrases that could complete the sentence, it will be easier to see if similar options are available in the answer choices
  • You don’t have to fill in the blanks in order. Read over the passage to see which is easiest to fill, and continue to follow this pattern
  • Once you’ve completed the section, check the passage is coherent and stylistically and grammatically correct.  

Sample Sentence Equivalence Questions

Directions: Select the 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.

1. Although it does contain some pioneering ideas, one would hardly characterize the work as __________.

A. orthodox

B. eccentric

C. original

D. trifling

E. conventional

F. innovative

Correct Answer: C and F

2. The corporation expects only _______ increases in sales next year despite a yearlong effort to revive its retailing business.

A. dynamic

B. predictable

C. expanding

D. modest

E. slight

F. volatile

Correct Answer: D and E

Tips to nail the sentence equivalence section

  • Read the sentence to get an overall sense of it
  • Use context clues and insert your own word. Not too dissimilar from a text completion question, sentence equivalence questions offer a number of context clues – information in the sentence that provides insight into the word’s meaning – that point you towards the correct answer. Take your time to identify context clues, not just to find the correct answer choices, but to rule out choices that clearly won’t fit. 
  • Avoid getting fixated with answer choices that are perfect synonyms. Some students may begin by trying to identify the two words that are most similar to each other. If asked to identify the two words that have identical meanings, this would be correct, however, it’s important to remember what’s being asked of you. You’re being asked to determine the two words that create sentences that are similar to each other, meaning the correct answers often don’t include perfect synonyms.
  • Try to fill in the blank with a word that seems appropriate. See if two similar words are offered among the answer choices. If one word is similar to what you have envisaged but you can’t find a second one, don’t keep fixed on your interpretation, instead, see if other answer choices can be used to fill the blank.

Reading comprehension questions

There are three types of Reading Comprehension questions:

  1. Multiple-choice questions: select one answer choice
  2. Multiple-choice questions: select one or more answer choices
  3. Select-in-passage: select the sentence in the passage that meets a certain description

There is a balance of passages from across three different subject areas: humanities, social sciences (including business) and natural sciences. The passages range in length from one paragraph to four or five paragraphs.

Sample questions 1 to 3 below are based on this passage:

Policymakers must confront the dilemma that fossil fuels continue to be an indispensable source of energy even though burning them produces atmospheric accumulations of carbon dioxide that increase the likelihood of potentially disastrous global climate change. Currently, technology that would capture carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and sequester it harmlessly underground or undersea instead of releasing it into the atmosphere might double the cost of generating electricity. But because sequestration does not affect the cost of electricity transmission and distribution, delivered prices will rise less, by no more than 50 percent. Research into better technologies for capturing carbon dioxide will undoubtedly lead to lowered costs.

Sample multiple-choice question — select one answer choice

1. The passage implies which of the following about the current cost of generating electricity?

A. It is higher than it would be if better technologies for capturing carbon dioxide were available.

B. It is somewhat less than the cost of electricity transmission and distribution.

C. It constitutes at most half of the delivered price of electricity.

D. It is dwelt on by policymakers to the exclusion of other costs associated with electricity delivery.

E. It is not fully recovered by the prices charged directly to electricity consumers.

Correct Answer: C

Sample multiple-choice question — select one or more answer choices

Consider each of the three choices separately and select all that apply.

2. The passage suggests that extensive use of sequestration would, over time, have which of the following consequences?

A. The burning of fossil fuels would eventually cease to produce atmospheric accumulations of carbon dioxide.

B. The proportion of the delivered price of electricity due to generation would rise and then decline.

C. Power plants would consume progressively lower quantities of fossil fuels.

Correct Answer: B

Sample select-in-passage question

3. Select the sentence that explains why an outcome of sequestration that might have been expected would not occur.

Correct Answer: "But because sequestration does not affect the cost of electricity transmission and distribution, delivered prices will rise less, by no more than 50 percent."

Tips to nail the reading comprehension section

It’s possible you’ll face material you’re not familiar with, as reading passages are drawn from different disciplines and sources, so try to pay attention to relevant clues to assist your understanding of less obvious aspects in the passage. Don’t worry, all questions can be answered from the information provided in the passage.

  • Be sure to read and analyze passages carefully before attempting to answer the questions
  • Try to distinguish main ideas from supporting ideas or evidence
  • Try to identify main transitions from one idea to another
  • Identify the relationship between different ideas: whether one supports the other; if one applies to the other in a particular circumstance; do they contrast or are they consistent?
  • Ensure you understand exactly what is being asked of you by reading the questions carefully.
  • The question should be answered based solely on the information provided within the passage. No outside knowledge is necessary. It’s possible your opinions may conflict with the information in the passage, if so, ensure you work within the context of the passage. Many GRE takers also find scientific texts the most difficult. No matter the topic, don’t attempt to understand the whole passage and all details. This will create unnecessary work for yourself, which will only slow you down throughout the test.
  • Pay attention to the linking words used, as they may help you establish a structure within the texts. Words introducing a contrast, like, ‘however’, are important in a passage – they inform you of the direction, ideas and possibly opinions will change. Examples of linking words include:
    • Yet
    • But
    • However
    • On the other hand
    • In contrast
    • In addition
    • Firstly/secondly
    • In conclusion 
Written by Niamh Ollerton

Niamh is Assistant Editor of TopMBA.com, creating and editing content for an international MBA student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of the business world.  

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