GRE Sentence Equivalence: Tips and Strategies

The GRE Verbal section is obsessed with having you fill in blanks. Overall, the text completion and the sentence equivalence questions, each heavily based in vocabulary, comprise a full 50% of your verbal score. 

The text completion offers a single sentence or a short paragraph that may have one, two, or three blanks, indicating a missing word. For each blank, you have to choose the most appropriate word from among five answer choices (for a 1-blank question) or three answer choices (for a 2 or 3-blank question).

GRE Sentence Equivalence: What Is It?

The sentence equivalence question (covered here) is a little different from the text completion. You’re given a sentence with just one blank, indicating a single missing word, followed by six answer choices. Your job is to pick not one, but two answer choices that fit the context of the sentence. In other words, the two chosen answers must be synonyms and thus create equivalent sentences if placed side by side.

GRE Sentence Equivalence: Here’s the Annoying Part

As with all questions on the GRE that involve multiple parts, you have to get each part correct in order to get credit for the question! There is no partial credit, and this is the feature that complicates things. What follows are some tips and strategies that can make this thorny question type be a whole lot more manageable.

GRE Sentence Equivalence — Tip 1: Vocab, Vocab, Vocab!

Yes, folks, it’s time to break out those flashcards and begin the vocabulary routine. Since both the text completion and sentence equivalence are heavily vocabulary-based and since the reading passages also involve challenging vocabulary, a formal review of challenging vocab should be an integral part of your GRE preparation, especially if you are on a long-term plan. Aside from deducing the meaning of the words, however, there are some meaningful strategies that should accompany your knowledge of words.

GRE Sentence Equivalence — Tip 2: Beware the False Pair of Synonyms!

As we said, your job is to pick a pair of answer choices that are synonyms, but remember they must be synonyms that fit the context of the sentence. Often there is a second pair of synonyms among the answers that do not quite (but may almost) fit the sentence.

GRE Sentence Equivalence: Example 1

Though Simmons was characterized as ______ for his readiness to adapt to unexpected changes in his routine, this week he seemed utterly resistant to the unforeseen circumstances that awaited him.

[ ] heterogeneous

[ ] pliant

[ ] variegated

[ ] didactic

[ ] obsequious

[ ] malleable

If Simmons is ever ready to adapt, then he is very flexible when it comes to change. Thus, the best pair of answers is pliant and malleable. Notice, however, how heterogeneous and variegated (both meaning “made up of various components”) are present among the answers to distract us. They are not too far from the meaning we’re looking for, and are themselves synonyms.

GRE Sentence Equivalence — Tip 3: Beware the Fake Cousin!

In addition to the correct pair of exact synonyms, there may be a third answer choice that is similar in meaning to the other two, but not quite the same.

GRE Sentence Equivalence: Example 2

Tom Shelby’s appraisal of the new senators as “the most feckless morons in the history of Congress” was too _____ even for his most sycophantic acolytes.

[ ] impressive

[ ] immoderate

[ ] forceful

[ ] resplendent

[ ] intemperate

[ ] abstruse

Clearly, Mr. Shelby’s appraisal is quite extreme and seems to go too far, even for his most brown-nosing followers. The correct pair of synonyms should be immoderate and intemperate, but notice that forceful is not way off the mark, and it remains there as a trap because it does not quite mean extreme, which is what the correct answer pair conveys. Forceful is a close cousin to extreme (not to mention that it’s an easier word too!) but not quite the same.

GRE Sentence Equivalence — Tip 4: Plug in Your Own Word and Use “+” , “-”

Since there will often be difficult vocabulary words in the sentence itself and among the answer choices, you should focus on plugging in your own word based on the context of the sentence. If an exact word eludes you, try using positive or negative, and then eliminate accordingly.

GRE Sentence Equivalence: Example 3

The moderator of the debate decried the _____ exhibited by both participants, rightly claiming that such hateful rhetoric had no place in civilized discourse.

[ ] myopia

[ ] virulence

[ ] resistance

[ ] clemency

[ ] acrimony

[ ] disharmony

If you don’t know all the words in the answer choices, focus on the question itself. There’s a reference to the “hateful rhetoric” of the debate, so let’s plug in a word like “nastiness” and also note that we’re looking for something negative. Resistance and disharmony are both negative but clearly not quite the right kind of negative to fit the “hateful” part. Eliminate them. Clemency is something positive, so eliminate. Now we’re left with myopia, virulence, and acrimony — three difficult words, two of which must be the right answers. You’re ready to take a guess and move on! Virulence and acrimony, both meaning bitterness are the right answers.

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