The Biggest Mistakes You Can Make in the GRE Verbal Section: Sentence Equivalence Questions

08fba0fLet’s talk some GRE Verbal. Now, if you’re studying for the GRE Verbal section, you’re thinking about Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence as two major question types that you need to be ready for. And as you’ll see, you can talk about them in terms of the word “vocabulary,” because the right answers tend to be an individual word or a short phrase that is some kind of “vocabulary” –  a word you need to know the meaning of and fit into the meaning of the sentence.

Here’s where students tend to study wrong, ineffectively, and inefficiently: they over-study their 500-word flash card decks (the most ridiculous and obscure words they can find). Yes, you do need to have a decent vocabulary to do well on these questions, but what these students don’t study enough as they’re chasing really strange words over and over again – which they may only see three or four of on test day – is knowing that, very often, these questions require you to work.

Continue reading or check out our video explanation of this concept below:

It’s not about knowing some memorized definition of a weird word – often, the test will use words you know, but you will need to work a little bit to figure out exactly what type of meaning you need in that sentence, and whether that word you’re looking at (a word you probably use in sentences every day, week, month, etc.) has the precise meaning you need in that particular space.

Now let’s take a look at this Sentence Equivalence example that will shed some light on what we’re talking about:

While the cost of migrating to more automated piloting and air traffic control systems is substantial, the eventual cost savings are large enough that the up-front expenditures are not as ______ as opponents claim.

Select the two choices that fit the meaning of the sentence and give the sentence the same meaning.

(A) fiscal
(B) imprudent
(C) reasonable
(D) excessive
(E) massive
(F) paltry

Now, if you look at what’s going on in this sentence, we have a contrast (and the word “while” sets this up). The sentence is saying that even though the cost is substantial – we’re agreeing this will cost a lot of money – what you’re going to save in the long run means that it’s not as *blank* (as big of a deal) as opponents claim.

What tends to happen with this problem is people look for synonyms. They say, “We think the cost is big, but maybe not as big as we once thought,” so they’ll look and see “excessive” and “massive” –two words that in some way mean “big”. Then they’ll pick those answer choices and get this question wrong. Why are these choices wrong? It’s about a little, subtle difference in meaning, and the Testmaker wants to reward those who pick up on it.

The word “massive” means “big,” while the word “excessive” means “too big.” If you look at what’s going on in the sentence, anytime there’s a comma (or two sentences in one prompt), the part that is not near the blank space really does matter. This is a classic “Think Like the Testmaker” moment – you should be thinking, “Why did they put that part there? To reward those who are thinking of the meaning of the whole sentence.”

Nobody is arguing that changing to automated piloting is not a big cost. Nobody is saying, “Hey, while it’s big, actually it’s not big.” What they really want to say is, “Hey, this is going to cost you a lot of money – it’s a big expenditure up front – but in the end, you’re going to save enough money that it’s not too big of an investment or an unwise decision.” So what you really want here is “too big”. We’re not debating whether the expense is big or not; we’re only debating whether it’s a wise investment, or too much to spend up front.

With this in mind, answer choice E, “massive” or “big,” is wrong, even though it’s really tempting. “Imprudent,” on the other hand, means “impractical” or “too big,” which is what we’re looking for. So the answers are B and D. Again, what this question really comes down to is that tiny, subtle difference between the meanings of words that you know. In this case, we want “too big,” so the test tries to hit you with a word that means “big.” That’s what we mean when we say you need to prepare to work on these questions. It’s about understanding the meaning of the sentence as a whole, finding those subtle differences, and holding up the words you’re putting in the blank and saying, “Is that really the exact word I need, or are they just overall related?”

As you study for the GRE Verbal section, you do want to have a good vocabulary, but don’t let that come at the expense of your willingness to really go to work on subtle differences in meaning with words that you know.

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By Brian Galvin.