Cracking the GRE: Verbal Reasoning

Graduate school students need to be able to understand and analyze advanced-level prose. This includes knowing the definition of individual words and grasping the meaning of sentences, paragraphs, and larger bodies of text. The purpose of the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE is to assess your comprehension of written material and your ability to evaluate it. The GRE Verbal Reasoning test also measures your skill in analyzing sentence structure and your understanding of relationships between words and concepts.

Question Types

The Verbal Reasoning portion of the GRE consists of two 30-minute sections. Each section includes these three types of multiple-choice questions:

  • Reading Comprehension. GRE reading comprehension questions measure your mastery of written material, including how well you can analyze the major and minor points of a piece of writing and what you can deduce about the author’s point of view. You will be provided with approximately ten non-fiction text passages taken from the biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Each passage is followed by one to six questions that may refer to the meaning of a single word or sentence or may require you to analyze the meaning of the passage. Some questions require you to choose one correct answer, some require you to choose more than one correct answer, and some ask to answer by selecting a sentence in the passage.
  • Text Completion. Skilled readers are continually evaluating text as they read. The GRE Verbal Reasoning section tests this skill by providing short text passages that omit crucial words. You will be asked to select words and phrases that can be used to fill in the blanks and create a coherent passage. This is more than a simple fill-in-the-blanks challenge since the correct missing word or phrase for one sentence in the passage may depend on the missing word or phrase used in another sentence.
  • Sentence Equivalence. This type of question uses the same skills as Text Completion questions. In this case, the questions measure your ability to understand the meaning of an incomplete sentence and to decide how it should be completed. You will be asked to choose two different chosen words or phrases that complete a partial sentence such that it produces two complete sentences that are equivalent in meaning. The first part of the sentence provides clues about the best way to complete the sentence.

Samples of each type of GRE Verbal Reasoning question are available on the Educational Testing Service (ETS) Introduction to Verbal Reasoning website.

Study Strategies

Experts recommend setting aside 4 to 12 weeks for GRE study and preparation. Besides brushing up on the skills measured by the Verbal Reasoning section, one of the most important preparation activities is taking sample tests. ETS helps prospective test takers by providing Powerprep II software as a free download. The software provides a sample test that simulates the GRE test environment. You will have a definite advantage when you take the exam if you’re already familiar with the design and operation of the computer-based test.

ETS also offers free and low-cost GRE preparation resources, including tips and strategies in video format. The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test, another ETS resource, is the best source for sample test questions and full-length paper-based practice tests. The guide is available as a paperback or eBook. You will also find a multitude of GRE study guides and courses offered by third parties in a wide variety of price ranges. Do your homework and research these resources before spending money on them.

Tips for Vocabulary

Many people who are preparing for the GRE Verbal Reasoning have a preconception that they must memorize definitions for long vocabulary lists. This is based on the pre-2011 format of the exam. The changes introduced in 2011 decrease the emphasis on word definitions and place more emphasis on being able to identify a word’s meaning based on the context in which it’s being used.

Having an extensive vocabulary is definitely an asset, but working from lists of words may not be the best study approach. Focus on reading advanced texts as often as possible during the time that you’re preparing for the GRE. Take time to look up the definitions and origins of unfamiliar words. ETS also recommends that you sharpen your verbal skills by working your way through sample question sets in the Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test and going over the answers and explanations.

Taking the Exam

Since the GRE Verbal Reasoning test consists of questions in a variety of formats, it’s important to carefully read the instructions for each question to make sure you understand what type of answer is expected. If you’re taking the computer-based GRE, you are free to skip questions that seem too difficult and to mark questions within a section that you want to revisit later in the test period. You can review a complete list of test questions in the current section at any time to verify which questions you’ve answered and which you’ve marked for review. The test also allows you to change the answers on questions that you’ve already completed.

Your Verbal Reasoning score is calculated from the number of questions you answer correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers, but you won’t receive credit for that question. Therefore, it makes sense to answer all the questions, even if you have to make an educated guess. ETS suggests a strategy of first going through the Verbal Reasoning section quickly and answering all the questions you can with certainty, then going back and working on the more difficult questions that require greater thought.

Quick Tips for GRE Verbal Reasoning Prep

Become familiar with the question format. The GRE Verbal Reasoning test includes three types of questions: Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence. Visit the Education Testing Service (ETS) website at to see examples of each type.

Read a wide variety of text to exercise your reading comprehension. Instead of focusing on word lists, experts recommend reading widely and deeply to expand your understanding of vocabulary and language usage.

Seek help if you need it. If reading and language are challenging areas for you, check out GRE prep courses and tutoring services that can be found online.

Get plenty of practice with sample test questions. ETS provides sample tests that include different types of Verbal Reasoning questions with its Powerprep II Software. Download a free copy at

Pace yourself. Learn how to pace yourself during the GRE by completing practice tests within the allotted time. You will only be scored for correct answers, so don’t waste time on the most difficult questions.


For more information on the GRE please see our post on GRE preparation, GRE Quantitative Reasoning and GRE Analytical Writing.

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