@adamrab720: #GRE Vocabulary does pay off



@adamrab702, this is a great piece of news that really needs to be shared with more people studying for the GRE. And other tests for that matter.

So often students complain about the words on the GRE and SAT: “They are useless outside of the tests.” Many grumble, “They are only important to a small group of ‘nerdy’ people.” “The words are strange,” they say. “I’ll never use them again,” or “I never see these words.”

But these students miss the point.

For one, by taking these tests, students desire a higher level of learning and understanding. Receiving a masters degree is a big deal—students become the masters of a subject. Stop and think about that—a master. And I think that part of this advancement in learning and knowledge is also an advancement in consciousness, an advancement in perception. And one very important way to do this is by learning new words.

A rich vocabulary is like having a more precise ruler for measuring length. It’s an optical sensor that reveals all the wave lengths of light, not just the narrow band of color that human eyes perceive. With a breadth of words to use at different times, the subtleties of life, of human experience, of relationships shine brightly on our minds. What once was “interesting” becomes something more precise: “absorbing, engrossing, fascinating, riveting, gripping, compelling, compulsive, captivating, engaging, enthralling, attractive, amusing, entertaining, stimulating, thought-provoking, diverting, intriguing.” So when students complain about words being too esoteric and only for a small group of people, they forget that getting a master’s degree is about joining that elite club.

Lastly, students don’t see these words because they don’t know them. Humans are really good at ignoring things that don’t fit into our beliefs and perceptions of the world. Most likely, these students have seen these words, but have ignored them, glazed past them, and blocked them from their consciousness. Unless a student is dedicated to looking up words they do not know when reading, they won’t remember these words. They are actually non-existent. And let’s back up, if students aren’t dedicated to challenging themselves by reading outside of their comfort zone and above their reading level, then they won’t be learning anything new.

The greatest moment as a teacher is to have a student carp about the vocabulary words, and then later in the semester they come to class with a grin on their face, radiating because they used one of the words correctly in a situation that stumped people. My international students especially love this moment because they get to turn to a native speaker and tell them to look the word up. Or they beam accomplishment because they just read an article in The Economist and a couple of the vocabulary words popped up.

I find it hard to convince students that these words are useful, edifying, and even fun to use. They have to figure that out on their own. So, it was great to hear that you have reached that moment, @adamrab720. I hope that your story can help others to keep studying those vocabulary words, not just because they have a high frequency on the tests, but because they will get to use them in the future, get to expand their minds by knowing them, and enter into a small elite group of linguistic acrobats.


 Words I Love (and You Should Love Them Too)



assiduous (adjective)

Definition: showing great care and perseverance.

Synonyms: diligent, careful, meticulous, thorough, sedulous, attentive, conscientious, punctilious, painstaking, rigorous, particular; persevering.

Example: “The assiduous carpenter sat at his bench with his chisel, shaving micrometers of wood from the table legs, ignoring the world and all its chaos.”

Why I Love You: This word reminds me of how I should approach all tasks—from writing an article for you to sweeping the kitchen floor. Distractions abound in our daily lives, and I like having a word that reminds me to be present with every task regardless of how menial and meaningless it may appear. If I cannot focus on the small, how would I manage the greater tasks of life.

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cacophony (noun)

Definition: a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds.

Synonyms: din, racket, noise, clamor, discord, dissonance, discordance, uproar.

Example: “As I lay in my hammock, night in the jungle wrapped me in darkness. No sky and no stars. Claustrophobic. Lost in a cacophony of life. Life of the night. Life I’ve never known. Life I don’t want to know. Sleep did not visit me that night.”

Why I Love You: For one, this word is is just fun to say: ke-ka-pho-knee. Try it out. Ke. Ka. Pho. Knee. I think that is part of the reason I love it—for its irony. A euphonic word with such a non-euphonic meaning. I think this irony, too, allows for some interesting phrasing, like “cacophony of silence.” Second, when you say the word, you almost add to the noise and discordance. The word forces you to participate in the clamor.

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curmudgeon (noun)

Definition: a bad-tempered or surly person.

Synonyms: grouch, scrooge.

Example: “I’ve never met a person who was proud to be a curmudgeon, but what other conclusion could I draw. He brashly stomps over people’s emotions with a smile on his face.”

Why I Love You: This word has no known origin, which may seem almost ridiculous. “Don’t we know everything about everything,” in the words of one my high school students I used to tutor. But not knowing is the only thing we do know for sure, and I think it is important to be reminded of this fact as much as possible.

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ephemeral (adjective)

Definition: lasting for a very short time.

Synonyms: transitory, transient, fleeting, passing, short-lived, momentary, brief, short; temporary, impermanent, short-term; fly-by-night.

Example: “If life weren’t ephemeral, if life had no end and continued indefinitely, people would probably waste it even more, appreciate it even less. Death is the reason we have to embrace this journey.”

Why I Love You: I think the example gets to the heart of why I like this word. I need to be reminded of the impermanence of life. My suffering will end. My happiness will end. The things I cherish will rot and decay. And the same with all the things I dislike. On the one hand sad; on the other, refreshing. Ultimately, this word reminds me of this balance and struggle.

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harbinger (noun)

Definition: a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another; a forerunner of something.

Synonyms: herald, sign, indication, signal, portent, omen, augury, forewarning, presage; forerunner, precursor, messenger.

Example: “The birds will sing when they see the Acony Bell because they know this little brave flower is a harbinger of spring.”

Why I Love You: I really think this word should be pronounced differently. Instead of “har-bin-jure,” why not “hair-bing-er.”  I think it would get the meaning of the word across, and it would be used more because it would be so much more fun to say. No matter. I still love this word for its strangeness. It seems like such an unlikely word. Unlikely in it meaning. Doesn’t it seem more like the name of a place or even the name of a bird? Or some insect in the Amazonian rainforest? Or perhaps some long forgotten profession from the middle ages?

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nebulous (adjective)

Definition: in the form of a cloud or haze; hazy. (Of a concept or idea) unclear, vague, or ill-defined.

Synonyms: indistinct, indefinite, unclear, vague, hazy, cloudy, fuzzy, misty, blurred, blurry, foggy; faint, shadowy, obscure, formless, amorphous; ill-defined, uncertain, indefinite, indeterminate, imprecise, unformed, muddled, confused, ambiguous.

Example: “The Higgs-Boson is nebulous as a concept and as a phenomenon. But after watching this video from TEDed, I think I have a better idea of what it is.”

Why I Love You: With most of the words I love, they remind me about the full range of human experiences. And this is another. So many times in life, our ideas are unclear or vague. Our futures are blurry when we squint forward in time. We have to make decisions with ill-defined or with partially defined information. Yet this doesn’t stop humanity from marching forward. And often, the most interesting place to look or the most interesting concept to study or the most interesting idea to ponder is the one that is faint and obscure. Humans have always been good at taking the hazy and making it tangible.

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penumbra (noun)

Definition: the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object. Astronomy the shadow cast by the earth or moon over an area experiencing a partial eclipse. Astronomy the less dark outer part of a sunspot, surrounding the dark core.

Synonyms: No synonyms (making this word especially unique)

Example: “He lived in the penumbra of society—not quite rejected and forgotten yet certainly not a full member of the culture he was born into.”

Why I Love You: This word is just too unique and specific to not love. There are no good synonyms for this word making it the only word to turn to in very specific situations. The image below illustrates the typical use of the word in astronomy. But with such a strange meaning–not completely in the shadow, not completely in the light–there are plenty of situations where this word can be used figuratively.

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prevaricate (verb)

Definition: speak or act in an evasive way.

Synonyms: be evasive, beat around the bush, hedge, fence, shilly-shally, dodge (the issue), sidestep (the issue), equivocate, waffle; temporize, stall (for time); hem and haw; rare tergiversate.

Example: “Never have I seen a person prevaricate with such ease and confidence, but I suppose that’s why Bill Clinton is one of the great politicians of our time.”

Why I Love You: This word is a warning. Something that we should be on guard for in ourselves and in others. The better we can identify it in others, the more we can make informed decisions. I don’t know if I am noticing it more now, or if there is actually more of it, but prevaricating seems to be standard operating procedure for a range of bankers, politicians, athletes, and CEOs. Without this word, would we be able to identify this phenomenon?

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quixotic (adjective)

Definition: exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.

Synonyms: idealistic, romantic, visionary, utopian, extravagant, starry-eyed, unrealistic, unworldly; impractical, impracticable, unworkable, impossible.

Example: “Although quixotic, he deserves respect. Rarely do we see a person so dedicated to something so small. Usually this type of commitment turns into zealous, fanatical rampages, but for him, I think he has taken up this cause so fully only to make people laugh, to bring a little humor into the world.”

Why I Love You: Every time I see this word or use it, I can’t help but think of the spry old gentlemen who took an idea to its extreme. Don Quixote is a marvelous novel, portentious in its form and story (he broke down the “fourth wall” even before that term existed), deceptively complex in its approach to human experience, and wonderfully entertaining and funny. This word reminds me of the ultimate power of ideas, the true force in the universe greater than any man, greater than any nation—the only power that really matters when it comes to humanity.

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verdant (adjective)

Definition: (of countryside) green with grass or other rich vegetation; of the bright green color of lush grass.

Synonyms: green, leafy, grassy; lush, rich

Example: “Verdant meadows burst forth in a moment. Winter ended in a day. Life returned to the small basin I call home.”

Why I Love You: I love this word because of what it represents. It connotes an entire world in a mere two syllables. I remember the first time I heard it used. I was driving with a friend into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Spring was bursting out of the earth. Meadows smiled in the sun and when he said “verdant,” electrons fired across synapses in my mind. That is what this is, I thought, never having the word to express the emotion—a verdant spring in the Sierras.

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All definitions and synonyms come from New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.

 How to Study with Flashcards



There is a right way to do something and a wrong way.

The wrong way to study flashcards you probably already know—pick up flashcards, read front and back a couple times, and put flashcards down; eat a popsicle, watch re-runs of Jersey Shore; sleep, wake up, and look at pile of flashcards; glance at three or four cards, pretend you remember them, and then put them back down; knock your desk while installing an electronic alarm system in your drawers so your little brother won’t steal your cookies, which you shouldn’t have there in the first place, according to your mom; the flashcards fall behind the desk where you can’t see them; since you didn’t really study, you forget they exist, and you move on with your Life.

Today we learn the right way to study flashcards, which is based on a method called the Leitner System. The system was developed by German scientist Sebastian Leitner as a simple, time-efficient way to use flashcards. His system is demonstrated in the GIF image below. You can see that cards are moving from one box to the next as they are learned.


The Leitner System for studying flashcards. My system is very similar with a slight twist. By Zirguezi (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons


The system that I advocate is similar. The only difference is that I separate practice and assessment. The Leitner system is based on the idea that each time you pick up the flashcards, you are assessing your knowledge. I think it is important to separate assessment from practice since the purpose of each is a little different.

The beauty of this system is that you will work with a word at least four times and that you will have gaps of time between seeing the word, which is known to increase retention of information.



I. Three Phases of Study

  1. Practice and Learning: Just as it sounds—learn and practice with new flashcards.
  2. Assessment: Test your knowledge of the new cards.
  3. Re-assessment: After a space of a week or two, re-test for to see how well you retain the knowledge.

II. Organization

You will need to organize your cards with binder clips or some boxes. As you learn cards, you will move them from one box to the next. If you forget a word, move the card back to the beginning.

  1. Unknown
  2. Learned
  3. Know
  4. Definitely Know

You will also have a set of cards that you will carry around with you. These are cards that you are in the process of Learning.

Use boxes to help organize your cards.


III. How To

Phase One

Start with a stack of 10-20 cards for the day from your stack of Unknown cards. In the beginning, you might want to start slow and begin with 10 a day, but as you progress and improve, you can add more and more cards to the Learning pile. This is the beginning of your Practicing and Learning phase. Study these words throughout the day–while waiting for the bus, when nature calls, or instead of watching re-runs of Jersey Shore. Make a point of reviewing each of these cards during the day.

Don’t worry about testing yourself. Instead, read the word, read the back of the card, and ruminate on the information. Even if you think you know the word, still read the back of the card and all the information there. Then move to the next word.

Phase Two

The next day, preferably at the beginning of the day, begin your first Assessment phase. Test yourself with the flashcards from yesterday. At this point, you want to aim for accuracy and speed. Try to move through the cards as quickly as possible, stating as much information as you can. This is great time to ask your friend or Mom to test you on these words.

During the Assessment, you will be putting words in two piles. The words that you know go in the Learned pile. The words you don’t know remain in your Learning pile that you carry around during the day.

Grab some cards from your Unknown pile so that you always have 10-20 cards in your Learning pile.

Spend the day Practicing and Learning these words. And the next day, do another round of Assessment. Words that you remember, place in the pile of words Learned. Words you don’t know stay in your Learning pile. Follow this system for an entire week.


Phase Three

At the end of the week, conduct your first Re-assessment. Grab the pile of cards in your Learned pile. Go through all the words in the pile testing yourself. Words that you remember advance to the Known pile. Words you didn’t remember should move back to the Learning pile.

So now you should have cards in your Know pile and Learning pile with no cards in your Learned pile. If there were a lot of words you didn’t know, and your Learning pile gets too big, move the cards to the Unknown pile.

At the end of the second week, start with the words in the Known pile. Any words you remember completely move onto to the ‘sacred and joyous’ Definitely Know pile. Words that you forgot return to the Unknown pile.

Then move to the pile of words in the Learned pile. I think you probably know what will happen here—words you know advance to the next pile and the words you forget move back to the beginning.

Every couple of weeks, grab some words from the Definitely Know pile to make sure you actually ‘definitely’ know them. If not, move the card back to the beginning.

Continue ad infinitum until test day.


A note on Software vs. Paper-based options

There is a lot of software out there for flashcards. Some of them even use this technique for learning cards. Smart phones and tablets are becoming ubiquitous making it easier to grab software with preloaded words. This technology allows you to ‘save’ time and get straight to studying.

But, I would encourage you to make your own flashcards (No, I am not a Luddite. I love technology and its benefits). But in this case, you really should spend the time looking up the definitions and writing down the information on a card.

The act of sitting, looking up a word, and then copying down the information to a card will help you learn the word. Also, writing your own card means you have complete control of what you put there. I recommend putting the following information on your flashcard (you can find all this information in one place at wordnik.com):

  1. Definitions, especially some of the lesson common definitions.
  2. Part of Speech
  3. Variations
  4. Example Sentence
  5. Synonyms and Antonyms
  6. Any picture or drawing that would help you to remember the word’s meaning.


 Best Online Resources for Learning Vocabulary


The time has come to expand your vocabulary–a tortuous yet joyous endeavor full of set backs and just rewards, which will expand your consciousness and add precision to your thoughts and speech, like transitioning from finger painting to 3D printed sculptures. Your mental and spoken universe will expand in a multitude of directions creating deep webs of categories, imbued with your personal experience.

Like most students, you need to spend time learning new words and reading new material to prepare for the Test. One thing must be clear from the beginning, though, this task requires time and diligence. Learning new words should not only be something you do on flashcards during “study time,” but also a regular part of life, a habit like brushing your teeth or washing your clothes. We are blessed to have the ability to Know in seconds. Take advantage of those blessings and look up the unknown word.

What follows is a selection of the best online resources for learning, researching, and expanding vocabulary. The first two are resources for looking up words, and the rest are games, flashcards, and other online applications to learn new words.


Wordnik is a clean, simple, robust site that gives you a plethora of information about a word. The UI is clean. The breadth of resources and information is astonishing. The people at Wordnik put thought into improving the online dictionary.

Wordnik definition for "penumbra"

For each word you look up, Wordnik returns:

  1. definitions from multiple sources around the web,
  2. multiple examples of the word in passages,
  3. synonyms,
  4. antonyms,
  5. hypernyms (words that are more generic or abstract),
  6. hyponyms (words that are more specific),
  7. words found in similar contexts,
  8. other words that contain the word in their definition,
  9. pictures that contain the word in their description,
  10. a word map: a visual representation of synonyms, similar words, antonyms, word forms, and rhymes (great resource for us visual, spacial learners),
  11. pronunciation sound files,
  12. and even the word’s scrabble score.

Also, users can create lists of words, which can be useful if you are unsure what words to study. Here is an SAT word list and a GRE word list.

 Google Definitions

I wonder sometimes if there is anything that Google can’t do–a searchable index of the largest collection of information the world has ever known, glasses augmenting reality, open-source operating systems, indexing all printed texts, mapping the world, online documents, self-driving cars, cell phones, translation tablets–and now, definitions!

To look up the meaning of a word, merely type “define” before the word, and Google will return a small card with the word, pronunciation information, a sound file, and definitions. Click on the “More Info” link (follow the red arrow in the image above) for more definitions, example sentences, synonyms, antonyms, and images.


Freerice has a special place in my heart. It has been around longer than any of these other resources, and as such, it is the one I have used the longest. The UI is not as up-to-date as some of the other sites, but this is the only site that has a mission beyond expanding your vocabulary. While you learn new words, Freerice makes a donation to the World Food Programme. So when you answer correctly, you have the double satisfaction of knowing a word and helping fight hunger.

I recommend signing up for Freerice so you can track your progress and save your vocabulary level since words you don’t know will cycle back through until you answer them correctly. Students preparing for the SAT should aim for levels 20 – 30, and students preparing for the GRE or GMAT should aim for level 40 and up.


Quizlet is definitely the new, cool kid in online vocab resources. There is a lot of intelligence built into this site allowing users a high level of customization. With a plethora of tools and lists (from worm vocabulary to monsters of Greek myth), this is a hard resource not to use. Below you can see all the user-created word lists for Standardized Tests.

The site is built around lists of flashcards created by users. Users can print out the words in multiple formats, including flashcards of varying sizes, embed the list somewhere else on the web, and the best part, play two fun vocabulary games based on the list. One game, Scatter, separates words and their definitions, and the player has to drag the word to the definition, or vice versa. The other game, Space Race, requires the player to type the word as the definition floats by on the screen. There is also functionality to learn spelling, an often neglected part of learning new words.



Vocabulary is another hot, new resource. The UI is clean and new, and the site provides a similar functionality to Freerice, but with more functionality. Questions adapt to your level, formats change from “choose the closest synonym” to “determine a word’s meaning in a sentence.” When you answer incorrectly, you’ll be presented with a short definition and explanation of the word.