I'm going to start preparing for GRE. I have great enthusiasm for reading novels rather than memorizing words. Will words learnt from novels be helpful for GRE vocabulary? Which novels/writers books should be read for GRE vocabulary?


No doubt you can encounter useful words in novels, but you will encounter them at a much slower rate than with targeted study. If your goal is to learn GRE words quickly, a simple GRE study book would be more efficient. At the least, you should take a practice GRE test and see how you do on the vocab sections. If your vocab needs major improvement, reading novels is probably too slow to be of use for passing the GRE.

In the long term, I think reading novels and other texts is a better (and more fun) way of learning how to actually understand and use a wide range of vocabulary, but for the short-term goal of improving your GRE score it may not deliver as much benefit.

  • 2
    @alu you also have no guarantee that the novel writer is using the vocabulary correctly! – mkennedy May 1 '14 at 17:44
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    @mkennedy: on the flip side, materials from standardised texts often are too pedantic, using words in ways that doesn't actually reflect how people would actually use it in the real world. – Lie Ryan Aug 12 '14 at 9:45

In general - no. The GRE is similar to the SAT2 (is that still around). Studying for the GRE isn't fun, but the best way to do it is either to

1) purchase several study programs, books and set aside time each day to study them


2) pay (usually a few grand) for a GRE prep class

Studying for the GRE was one of the low points of my life. Just focus on getting into the school you want

  • For how long did you study for GRE totally? – alu May 10 '17 at 15:43

It's worth considering semantics.

If in the sense that if you spend 5 hours every day reading novels, you will do better on the GRE than if you spent those 5 hours staring at a wall, then I suppose that is true.

But compared to actual methods of study, I don't think so. Hour for hour, just getting cracking with a deck of flashcards will improve your score much more. It is obviously hard to spend as much time on flashcards because it is boring - but even if you spend much less time than on reading, I would predict that the benefit to your score will still be higher with flashcards (and you can still read in all the time you aren't practicing with flashcards).

For learning words, the problems with the "reading novels" technique are:

  • There's a question of what novels you actually read - if all you read is Twilight and Harry Potter, I doubt it would help much.
  • Most of the words in a novel won't be new, so most of your time is not spent learning or practicing words. It is very inefficient.
  • There is no guarantee that the novels you read will focus on common GRE words.
  • In my opinion, GRE words tend to be deliberately obscure: Besides a core set of "basic" words, ETS includes many words which are hardly ever used and have probably went out of style, for the sake of having words that most people will be unlikely to know (unless they practice specifically for the GRE).
  • Unlike flashcards or similar methods, it is difficult to gauge your progress (eg. how many common GRE words you have learned) with novels.
  • It is easy to infer the meaning of a word in context (and also easy to end up with an incorrect belief about what a word means). GRE often gives words with absolutely no context, and probably sometimes in misleading context. Recalling the "official" definition of an isolated word, and having a feel for how its usually used in prose, are quite different skills - novels will train one, but the exam depends on the other.

For improving reading comprehension, books are possibly more helpful. Still, there is again a set of caveats:

  • Books are often long, while GRE tests comprehension of relatively short articles.
  • Books usually do not ask you explicit multiple-choice questions, where the incorrect choices are subtly different from the correct ones, and deliberately designed to be confusing.
  • It is hard to gauge your progress - for instance, how fast you are able to read a given GRE-level paragraph, what sort of questions are you able to answer correctly often, etc.

For training reading comprehension, there isn't as clear cut a method as "flashcards" (flashcards are very, very effective for memorizing words). However, I would argue that simply doing hundreds of practice questions over and over is a far more productive use of your time, if the primary goal is to have a high GRE score.

If you really wanted to read something, I would say it's better to read a high-brow "culture" magazine like the Atlantic or the New York Times. Even with books, it is probably much more effective to read collected essays rather than novels - since all you will ever have to read on the GRE will be essays. Although still, the crucial feedback element is missing - it's hard to tell if you've "really" understood an essay (in the way that the GRE wants you to) when there is no set of questions with correct answers.

The last bit you could ask about is the writing prompts. Here, "just reading" (although again I would suggest essays versus novels) would probably be more helpful, at least relative to the alternatives - unfortunately, it's hard to train GRE writing skills because one cannot mass produce question banks as with other sections. Moreover, what constitutes a good essay to GRE is arguably very different from more generally accepted criteria. Ultimately, the best option is to somehow obtain a personal essay coach who is familiar with the GRE grading rubric, and write dozens of practice essays for him to grade, rather than reading novels.


If you read a lot of adult fiction then you will have a broader base vocabulary of useful words. With that in mind this is more of a 'long game' strategy than a 'I'm taking the GRE in 6 months and need words!!!' strategy.

That being said if you want something a bit less onerous than flash cards and contextless memorization I would suggest looking for novels that specifically use GRE words. When I was studying for the GRE I found several short story collections and novels that focused on telling a story using the top 350 or 500 GRE words. They weren't great stories but learning the words in a context really helped me.

That being said I'm pretty sure you could just guess 'frustrated' or 'stubborn' for every word on the GRE and get rough 75% of them right. /s

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