My question stems from this paper: An analysis on the validity of the lexicon required by GRE® test takers.

According to the paper, "the great majority of these words are too infrequent to be deemed as useful tools for graduate life". Only 15 out of 302 analyzed words (about 5%) found to be frequent in academic corpus.

So why do they exist in the Graduate Record Examination?

My experience is that those words are especially helpful when you read articles from reputed newspapers and magazines, where the demand of complex language is high. Sometimes I do meet a GRE word that I've learned in a scientific paper, and thanks for my studying in GRE I don't have to look up the dictionary. I do use those words to show off in my TOEFL test, and I have a high score in writing and reading skills. In short, I am wholeheartedly advocate to learn advanced vocabulary, for the sake of getting fluent in the language. However, I don't understand why the GRE requires the test-takers to learn words which are too infrequent for their academic jobs.

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    I don't know if I would say obfuscating so much as technical and precise, but yes, decent verbal scores are a minimal sign of sufficient linguistic competence to write in philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 2:17
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    Regarding the study, the study doesn't prove what you think it proves. It proves that 302 words used in Cracking the GRE's "Hit Parade I-IV" don't have a high incidence rate in the academic section of the corpus of contemporary english. The article mentions in passing that many recommend "memorizing a lengthy list of more than 3000 words."
    – virmaior
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 2:19
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    The article doesn't explain how the 302 words are representative of the 3000 words people think you should learn... ergo, it's not clear how we can draw conclusions about the GRE's word list from it. Instead, we could at most draw conclusions about the usefulness of the Cracking the GRE's list.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 22:17
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    If the 302 chosen words are, as you wrote, "the most frequent words among the 3000," they might have gained in frequency by their use in ordinary English rather than in academic English. Other words might have higher academic frequencies. (Or did you mean rather that they're the most frequent in academic use?) Commented May 24, 2016 at 18:34
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    but the book claims — Of course it does. Otherwise nobody would buy the book.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 16:30

4 Answers 4


I think it helps a lot here to understand the American cultural context, and in particular the liberal arts model of education that is quite common in the US.

The GRE, and the departments and universities that care most about them, thinks of graduate training as pointing towards a career as a professor, not as a researcher. In the US, the majority of jobs as professors have teaching (at the university level) as a valued component, and in the US, students at university are supposed to take a broad range of courses rather than courses focused on a single area of study. This means that professors are also teaching an audience that isn't solely focused on their subject but rather students with a wide range of interests (at least in the ideal case - in non-ideal cases, they may be teaching students with no interests).

Even though I'm a mathematician and teach only mathematics courses, I think I am a better teacher (and academic advisor) because I know a fair amount about philosophy, religion, history, literature, economics, sociology, computer science, and so on. I'm not an expert in any of these things, and I make this clear, but I can make analogies to a broad range of ideas and use them in conversation with students.

For an American, the vocabulary section of the GRE is meant to test, not whether you can memorize the meaning of a large number of words for the GRE, but rather whether you are a widely read person who has already encountered many of these words in the course of their life and studies.

Certainly the verbal GRE scores are generally taken into account much less seriously (or not at all) when making graduate admissions decisions for non-American students, particularly when the student has no plans to remain in the US after their studies.

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    I'm not sure the verbals parts of the GRE are really taken into account for many American graduate programs in the sciences. I was told I only needed to score well enough to prove I was a native English speaker.
    – Ric
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 19:51
  • @Ric likewise, many literature programs don't place a large emphasis on the math score, just expecting a basic level of competency. Commented May 23, 2016 at 14:17
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    It may surprise some people here that when I'm looking at applications for admission to my grad math program, I do pay considerable attention to the verbal, and not so much to the Math subject test (much less general math). For one thing, it is the hardest part to "fake" by just "training/drilling" prior... But, still, letters of recommendation and personal statement are far more important. Commented May 23, 2016 at 16:58
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    @paul garrett: FYI, back in 1976 or 1977 a senior faculty member of the math department at a branch campus of a certain state university (this one for those interested) told me that, for awarding special scholarships to the top one or two entering students planning to major in math, they used high verbal SAT scores to make the selection, as their experience was that this by far best correlated with success in the math program. The simple fact was that there was a huge variation in later success among those with a high math SAT score, so something additional was needed. Commented May 23, 2016 at 19:59
  • @DaveLRenfro, very interesting! Doesn't surprise me that someone caught on to that (apparent) pattern! Commented May 23, 2016 at 20:05

The point is not to "study for the GRE", but to have a good vocabulary, so that if/when other people use subtle words, subtle concepts, figurative phrases, and/or references to things outside the immediate textbook, it's intelligible. I say this as a mathematician, who often finds reason to make analogies to things more obviously part of the external world, and sometimes in terms that are not inside a small vocabulary. Thus, students, especially grad students doing more sophisticated mathematics than most undergrads, would benefit from acquaintance with a larger vocabulary (and with the referents of those words).

(Still, let me be clear, I am not a fan of the GRE itself, for a variety of reasons...)

  • Interesting point. Can you give me an example or an article that explains a complex idea in math that use an advance word?
    – Ooker
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 18:26
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    I can't gauge what might qualify as "advanced word" for you, but I think experienced writers deliberately use the simplest-possible language, exactly to reach the largest audience. But in spoken language, not only in my seminar but in my discussions with my research students, I find it useful to use whatever words come to mind. To some degree I do so in the graduate courses I teach, also, although less in my written-up notes (for the same reason) than might happen in my lectures. It's not so much "advanced" words as "useful". E.g., my use of "instantiate" was once greeted with surprise. Commented May 23, 2016 at 18:41
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    I have no evidence, but I'd be shocked if I don't use the word 'reify' (or 'reification') at least once or twice each semester in an upper level or graduate class. Commented May 23, 2016 at 20:46
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    @AlexanderWoo, indeed, that's a useful notion! Now that I think about it, also "epistemological" and "ontological" are useful... Commented May 23, 2016 at 21:09

The vocab in the GRE is a measurement of verbal reasoning. The GRE never makes any claims of being practical. It strictly wants to know how well you can do on a general test that measurements several factors related to graduate studies.

Naturally, there have been complaints about the GRE's ability to predict graduate school academic performance. However, as of now, this is a required test for admission to many graduate schools


I think there are a lot of issues in the methodology of the paper that you linked. Not in terms of what they did, but what it means to the GRE.

The GRE verbal section tests whether you can read academic writing. Like the math section, this varies a lot from discipline to discipline. For example, if you don't get just about perfect without studying in the math section and you're applying to math programs, then something is wrong. The verbal section is like that as well: if you've done undergraduate philosophy, creative writing, or English, this part of the test is a shoe-in where it's easy to expect close to perfect without studying. Because, with the proper background, these parts of the tests are truly pushovers, I don't see why they would lower the ceiling on the difficulty (if anything, they could raise it so it's not so truncated by 100%s).

However, it's not expected that someone in the sciences does well on the verbal section of the GRE because scientific writing, though containing a lot of jargon, does not contain as much "high vocab" as these liberal arts disciplines. That's why low verbal scores are accepted.

But the paper you linked didn't take into account how many journal articles are in different disciplines. If you look at publication volume, I am pretty sure that the broad biology/chemistry/medical field accounts for the vast majority of the literature output. There are reasons for this, including the fact that the departments are larger and generate more function, much of liberal arts research is published in the form of books instead of in academic journals, acadmeic articles in the liberal arts usually much longer with the first publication/book being published at the end of a PhD, etc.

Compare this to how often people in Bioinformatics/CS are publishing and it's pretty clear that the study favors "academic section" to mean the sciences (especially since it they did not include academic books), and then it's clear how it gets a conclusion that the tested words are not used very often in their sample. But again, I don't see why a broad mix of "spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic journals" should be used as the high end marker for GRE vocab instead of 19th/20th century continental philosophical writings.

  • I'm considering to accept this. +1. Why is more research in liberal arts published in the form of books? And I think that the words found in those books is also considered to be in academic corpus, right? And why are 19th/20th century continental philosophical writings more important then a broad mix of spoken, fiction, etc? They should be test in the philosophy GRE (if any), shouldn't they?
    – Ooker
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 16:16
  • Those philosophical writings are not "more important", but they are more important to academics. It's hard to read Sociology, Woman's Studies, Art History, etc. without having read Kant, Hagel, Sartre, and all of the other classical works. Because of this, most liberal arts grad programs have some form of a "methods" course where one has to read all of these. Thus for a broad category of graduate programs, the ability to read these kinds of works is a predictor for graduate success and many of these disciplines do not have a subject test (philosophy does, but it caters to philosophy programs). Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 16:23
  • I see. So what about the other questions? "Why is more research in liberal arts published in the form of books? And I think that the words found in those books is also considered to be in academic corpus, right?"
    – Ooker
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 9:06

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