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GMAT Prep Tip: Vocabulary In Context

Posted in Test Prep on May 21, 2010 by



Meghan Daniels is the Associate Editor at Knewton, where she helps students with their GMAT preparation.

The GMAT doesn’t have a vocabulary section, so you don’t have to worry at all about vocab strategies before the test. Right?

Wrong. No, you don’t have to drag your flashcards along with you to parties and the mall–but just because the GMAT doesn’t have particular questions that test your vocabulary skills does not mean that you should completely ignore vocabulary in the course of your GMAT prep. Learning strategies to help you understand vocab on Reading Comprehension passages will help you improve your overall understanding of the passage–which will help improve your score.

In particular, using context to figure out what vocabulary words mean is a great RC strategy. The passages on this section often contain difficult vocabulary, or vocab used in an unusual way. By using context–the set of statements surrounding a word or statement in question–you can find clues to the meaning of difficult or technical words.

Let’s look at this passage as an example:

Just past the thicket, as his sheep cropped the good grass which the gods had made to grow for them, Haïta, reclining in the shadow of a tree, or sitting upon a rock, played such sweet music upon his reed pipe that sometimes from the corner of his eye he got accidental glimpses of the minor sylvan deities, leaning forward out of the copse to hear; but if he looked at them directly they vanished.  From this, he drew the solemn inference that happiness may come if not sought, but if looked for will never be seen.

Consider this sentence first:

Just past the thicket, as his sheep cropped the good grass which the gods had made to grow from them…

Even if you’re not sure what cropped means in this sentence, context can help you think of a simpler synonym that could be substituted for a difficult or unusual word. You can tell from context that cropped…

… is something that sheep do to grass.

… has something to do with grass that grows for the sheep.

Sheep might eat grass, or they might walk on grass. Since the grass grows for the sheep, it seems likely that the meaning of cropped is ate. Substituting ate into this excerpt preserves this meaning:

Just past the thicket, as the sheep ate the good grass which the gods had made to grow for them…

Sometimes it’s easier to use context to come up with a definition for a difficult word than to determine a particular synonym.

…sometimes from the corner of his eye he got accidental glimpses of the minor sylvan deities, leaning forward out of the copse to hear…

Don’t know what copse means? Not a problem. The beginning of the passage situates its events just past the wood. The immediate context of copse further suggests that a copse is a good hiding place (Haita got only accidental glimpses of the creatures in the copse). Therefore, context suggests that a copse may be defined as a woodsy area that could serve as a hiding place.

Context can also indicate when an otherwise-familiar word is used in an unusual manner.

From this, he drew the solemn inference that happiness may come if not sought, but if looked for will never be seen.

The standard meaning of solemn is grave, serious, or sacred. This definition does not seem to fit the inference of Haifa, whom context reveals to be a shepherd sitting upon a rock and playing sweet music. This realization—happiness may come if not sought, but if looked for will never be seen—does seem to reveal an understanding of human behavior. Thus, solemn is used in this passage to indicate the surprising depth or wisdom of Haita’s inference.

Practice using context to figure out the meaning of vocab words on Reading Comprehension–and by GMAT test day, it’ll be second nature!