GRE Prep: Top 3 Strategies for Sentence Equivalence Questions

GRE Prep: Top 3 Strategies for Sentence Equivalence Questions

In this post, we will analyze a medium-level Sentence Equivalence question and point out 3 key strategies that will help you tackle SE questions in general. Here it goes:


His message was unpopular and _______________, but its bluntness proved to be much vindicated.

  1. unwise
  2. sensational
  3. cryptic
  4. sardonic
  5. impolitic
  6. perfunctory

1. Understand the sentence structure

• Conjunctions are your friends

Unlike Text Completion questions, Sentence Equivalence questions are always one-sentence long. Oftentimes you will be faced with a convoluted sentence consisting of difficult vocabulary, some intervening adverbial phrases, a double negative perhaps, and almost inevitably, conjunctions.

Conjunctions link words, phrases or clauses together. The most common ones are for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so (you might remember them as the FANBOYS coordinating conjunctions). Focus on these conjunctions as they give vital clues to understanding the sentence structure and, thus, limiting the definition of the word needed in the blank.

So, what do I mean by sentence structure? Let’s look at the sample question again:


His message was unpopular and _______________, but its bluntness proved to be much vindicated.


First, figure out what the conjunction “but” is doing in the sentence. Given that “bluntness” and “unpopular” are both not complimentary terms, we can figure out that the general sense of the question is:  the message had negative qualities, but they proved to be much vindicated.

This allows us to group the missing adjective with “unpopular” and “bluntness”:


His message was UNPOPULAR and XXX, but its BLUNTNESS proved to be much vindicated.


• Zero in on keywords

Other than the grouped adjectives, there is another keyword that is very important to the choice of answer: “vindicated”. This word qualifies something proven to be reasonable, right or justified. Coupling this with our understanding of the sentence structure, we know that the missing adjective is not only negative, but contrary to the expectation that it is “vindicated”. In other words, the missing adjective would lead one to think that the way in which the message is delivered is unreasonable or unjustified.

Remember that SE questions are really compact sentences; adjectives, in addition to conjunctions, are very likely to steer the meaning of the missing word significantly.

2. Know the definition criteria

• What kind of meaning do we need?

It is important to realize that the most intuitive answers you might have to a SE question are not always the most correct. Remember that the criteria for correct answers is that they must work logically in the sentence and produce sentences of similar overall meaning. This can sometimes mean eliminating a word that fits perfectly into the blank, but which does not have a word pair in the options given.

For these reasons, do not limit your guess of the missing word to a specific meaning. Simply know the characteristics of the needed word and have a set of definition criteria.

For this question, we know that the word is A) aligned with “unpopular” and “blunt”, B) is not a positive characteristic, and C) contributes to an apparently unjustified or unreasonable manner of delivery.

3. Do not be tricked

• Eliminate options

Now, look at your options. We can immediately eliminate “sensational” (since it cannot be aligned with the other two adjectives) and “cryptic” (which opposes “bluntness”) since they do not fulfil the above definition criteria.

This leaves us with “unwise”, “sardonic”, “impolitic” and “perfunctory”.

• Look for pairs

It should be quite easy by this stage to eliminate words that do not have pairs. The word “sardonic” means grimly mocking or cynical, and cannot be paired up with any of the options.

The choice between the other three options is not difficult. The word “perfunctory” means without interest or somewhat superficially, which differentiates it from the other two options.

This leaves us with A (unwise) and E (impolitic) as the correct options. Note that these two words do not have completely similar meanings; they simply work logically in the sentence context and produces sentences that are the most similar in overall meaning.

Now that you have understood the 3 key strategies to answering Sentence Equivalence questions, how about trying out this hard-level question?


More than being critical, his unorthodox art was _________________ and engendered much controversy.

  1. iconoclastic
  2. polarizing
  3. subversive
  4. alienating
  5. experimental
  6. idiosyncratic

To read the explanation to the above question (and test yourself with more hard-level questions), click here. To find out more about common Sentence Equivalence Question types, click here.

To go back to an overview of the GRE Verbal Reasoning component, click here.