GRE sentence equivalence questions are a unique Verbal question type that can be confusing if you aren’t sure what to expect. They do require you to identify synonyms and understand how vocab words are used in context, but they aren’t as complicated as they seem!
In this total guide to GRE sentence equivalence questions, we’ll introduce this question type, give specific tips for approaching sentence equivalence, present sample questions and explanations, and offer guidance on how to prepare.
GRE Sentence Equivalence: Quick Intro
Sentence equivalence GRE questions present you with a sentence with a blanked-out word and six answer choices. The catch is that you have to select two answer choices that both give approximately the same meaning to the sentence. Essentially, you have to create two “equivalent” sentences.
Here’s an example from ETS so you can see what this looks like:
It was her view that the country’s problems had been _______ by foreign technocrats, so that to ask for such assistance again would be counterproductive.
You can expect to see about four sentence equivalence questions on each 20-question subsection of the Verbal section. That adds up to about eight total.
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5 Top Tips for GRE Sentence Equivalence
Here are my top strategies for addressing sentence equivalence GRE questions.
Identify Pairs—But Beware!
You know that the two words you choose have to create two sentences with approximately the same meaning. This means that the two words you choose need to be be synonyms—not necessarily close synonyms, but synonyms.
This means that if you can identify pairs within the answer choices, those are good answer possibilities. However, ETS often includes “dummy pairs” in the answers, or synonym pairs that don’t actually make sense in the context of the sentence. So while identifying pairs is a useful strategy for finding answer possibilities, don’t assume that you’re good to go as soon as you find a pair. Make sure both words actually make sense in the sentence!
Eliminate “Outlier” Words
Similarly, since you know that the two words you choose have to have at least a somewhat similar meaning, if you find any words in the list that don’t have any remote matches, you know that they can’t be the right answer choice. So you can eliminate those.
Fill in the Blank Yourself
When you read the sentence, think about what word(s) you might place in the blank to complete the sentence in a way that makes sense. Then see if you can identify similar words among your choices.
Assess Word Positivity/Negativity
You can often tell from the context of the sentence if a positive or negative word belongs in the blank. This can help you eliminate words that you know don’t have the correct valence, even if you aren’t completely sure of the exact definition.
Use Signal Words
Certain words, especially transitions, can function as “signal words” in sentence equivalence questions. They’ll tell you something about what purpose different parts of the sentence serve. This can help you infer what can best go in the blank. For example, if you see a word like “although,” you know that you’re about to see a caveat or clarification. Words like “furthermore” and “indeed” mean that part of the sentence will offer further support or emphasis. “Instead” and “but” mean you’re about to see a counterpoint or different perspective. If you can notice what transitions (and conjunctions like “and” and “but”) signal in sentences, you’ll have a much easier time telling what words could belong in the blank for sentence completion.
Sentence Equivalence: GRE Examples and Explanations
In this section, we’ll present and explain some sample sentence equivalence questions so you can see these tips and approaches in action. Examples are from the 2012 edition of the ETS practice book for the paper GRE.
The slower-learning monkeys searched __________ but unintelligently: although they worked closely together, they checked only the most obvious hiding places.
There are two pretty clear synonym pairs here: “deviously” and “craftily,” go together, and then “cooperatively” and “harmoniously” also form a pair. Both “competitively” and “impulsively” don’t really go with any of the other words, so they can be eliminated.
If we look at our sentence, we need to describe how the monkeys searched. We can see that they “searched ______, but unintelligently” in the sentence. We know, then, that they searched “unintelligently.” This means that answer choices “devious” and “crafty” contradict what’s already in the sentence. So we can eliminate that word pair. This leaves “cooperatively” and “harmoniously.” But let’s make sure those words make sense in context. The rest of the sentence says that the monkeys “worked closely together,” so it makes to say they searched “cooperatively” or “harmoniously.” (C) and (F), then, are the correct word pair.
In medieval philosophy every physical phenomenon is presumed to have some determinate cause, leaving no place for _________ in the explanation of particular events.
In the first part of this sentence, we learn that in medieval philosophy, everything is thought to have a “determinate cause”—in other words, everything happens for a clearly identifiable reason. Then, for the blank, we have to identify what this “leaves no place for.” In other words, if everything happens for a clearly identifiable reason, what can’t function as an explanation for events? Essentially, medieval philosophy says that nothing is random, which means that there’s no place for coincidence. So we might fill in the blank ourselves with “coincidence.”
When we look at our answer choices, there are two synonym pairs: “happenstance” and “chance,” and then “error” and “miscalculation.” “Error” and “miscalculation” aren’t incompatible with the idea of events having a determinate cause. However, “happenstance” and “chance” are synonyms for coincidence–there’s our answer set! (A) and (B) are the correct choices.
The report’s most significant weakness is its assumption that the phenomenon under study is _______, when in reality it is limited to a specific geographic area.
“When in reality” is functioning as a signal phrase in this sentence—the “reality” that the phenomenon is “limited to a specific geographic area” is being contrasted with the report’s “assumption” about the phenomenon. So what would be the opposite of a phenomenon limited to a specific area? One that is found everywhere! So we’re looking for words that indicate that idea. When we look at our answers, “unusual,” “exceptional,” and “restricted” are all somewhat synonymous with “limited,” so we can eliminate all of those. This leaves us with “ubiquitous,” “absolute,” and “universal.” “Ubiquitous” (which means “appearing everywhere”) and “universal” are much closer synonyms to each other than they are to “absolute.” So (C) “ubiquitous” and (E) “universal” are the correct choices.
How to Prepare for GRE Sentence Equivalence
There are two key components to preparing for GRE sentence equivalence: learning vocab, and doing GRE sentence equivalence practice questions!
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Learning Vocab Words
There are two parts to really learning vocab: memorizing new words and learning vocab in context.
The best way to memorize new words is to drill GRE flash cards with the waterfall method. We offer our own set of 357 essential GRE vocab flash cards plus guidance on other vocabulary resources you might want to use for the GRE.
However, memorizing words and definitions is only the first step. You also need to make sure that you understand vocabulary in context. There are a few strategies that can help with this. First, read articles from publications with a high reading level like the Atlantic, the New York Times, Nature, the Economist, and so on. This will help you see how high-level vocabulary is actually used in sentences.
Another thing you can do is write your own sentences with the words you’ve learned to make sure you really understand how to use them in sentences. If you know how to use the words, then you really understand them! We have a PDF of our 357 essential GRE vocab words with blank definition lines for just this purpose! Knowing the words in context will also help you retain them better, so when you are actually taking the test you won’t feel like you’ve forgotten a bunch of words you studied.
GRE Sentence Equivalence Practice
Of course, the other key component of prepping for sentence equivalence is actually completing GRE sentence equivalence practice questions! The best practice materials come from ETS, since they are the creators of the exam. Some ETS materials are available for free online. Once you’ve exhausted those, Manhattan Prep’s 5-lb. Book of Practice Problems is a good secondary resource. With hundreds of practice sentence equivalence GRE questions, you can drill them until the cows come home!
When you do practice sentence equivalence, try to keep track of your mistakes and note any patterns. Do you have trouble identifying synonym pairs? Do multiple synonym pairs throw you off? Can you not fill in the blank on your own? Keep track of these patterns and work on filling in weak areas as you prep.
Key Takeaways: GRE Sentence Equivalence
You’ll face about eight sentence equivalence questions on the GRE Verbal section. On sentence equivalence questions, you’ll be presented with a sentence with a blanked-out word, and have to choose two words from a list of six that could both complete the sentence—and give it a similar meaning.
Here are my top tips for answering sentence equivalence GRE questions:
- Identify synonym pairs, but don’t assume once you’ve found a pair that you’re good to go—there are often “dummy pairs” in the answers!
- Eliminate “outlier” words that don’t seem like they could possibly match up with any of the other possible answer choices.
- Before looking at your answer choices, consider how you would fill in the blank. Then look for similar words!
- Assess whether the word that belongs in the blank should be broadly positive or negative. Use this as a strategy to eliminate wrong answers.
- Be aware of signal words like transitions and conjunctions, which can give you clues as to where the sentence is going.
There are two major components to GRE sentence equivalence practice:
- Learn vocab, both by memorizing words and encountering them in context.
- Practice, practice, practice! Official ETS materials are best, but if you really need to drill a large number of sentence equivalence questions, consider a prep book or other supplemental resource.
Looking for more GRE Verbal resources? See our 357 critical GRE words you need to know, our best GRE vocabulary PDFs, and our complete set of 357 essential vocab flashcards for the GRE. And see our exhaustive list of the best GRE Verbal practice you can get!
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