The GRE has some unusual question styles, but they’re often less complicated than they seem. GRE text completion questions may look intimidating, but they’re really just overgrown fill-in-the-blank questions.
In this comprehensive guide to GRE text completion, we’ll give a quick intro to the question format, tips for answering text completion questions, and some examples and explanations, so you know exactly what to expect from (and how to prepare for) this unique variety of GRE question.
GRE Text Completion: A Quick Intro
On GRE text completion questions—also sometimes called GRE sentence completion questions—you’ll be given a sentence or short passage with 1-3 blanks. Then, you’ll need to pick the right word for each blank. For sentences with one blank, you’ll pick from five words; for passages with two-three blanks, you’ll have three word choices for each blank.
You can expect to encounter about six GRE text completion questions on each 20-question subsection of Verbal. This will add up to around 12 total. Expect around four one-blank questions, four to five two-blank questions, and three to four three-blank questions.
Here’s a sample question from ETS so you can see what this looks like in action:
It is refreshing to read a book about our planet by an author who does not allow facts to be (i)__________ by politics: well aware of the political disputes about the effects of human activities on climate and biodiversity, this author does not permit them to (ii)__________ his comprehensive description of what we know about our biosphere. He emphasizes the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations, and the (iii)__________, calling attention to the many aspects of planetary evolution that must be better understood before we can accurately diagnose the condition of our planet.
|(G) plausibility of our hypotheses
|(H) certainty of our entitlement
|(I) superficiality of our theories
For each blank, you’d select the correct word from the appropriate column. Note that even though there are three blanks, this only counts as one question! In terms of raw points, a one-blank question is worth as much as a two- or three-blank question!
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7 Tips for Answering GRE Sentence Completion Questions
Here are seven key tips for approaching GRE text completion:
Read the Entire Sentence
Before trying to figure out any of the answers, read the entire sentence. If you try to guess what words could go in the blanks before you try to understand the questions as a whole, you’ll be acting on incomplete information and you could easily get confused. Try to get a handle on the sentence’s overall structure and meaning before you start diving into the particulars.
Come Up With Your Own Answer
Before you read the answers, it can be a good idea to consider what word(s) you would put in the blank(s). This can help you eliminate answer choices that are obviously incompatible and point you towards answer choices that are similar to what you would put in the blanks.
Identify Signal Words and Phrases
There are certain words/phrases in the short passages for text completion that function as “signal words.” Signal words, commonly transitions, indicate the overall structure of ideas in a sentence and thus can help point you towards the correct answer. For example, “however” or “although” means you are about to hear a caveat or mitigation, while “furthermore” and “indeed” mean you’re about to see further support or elaboration on a point. This information is very helpful in filling in the blanks.
Consider Word Positivity/Negativity
Context will often indicate if a generally positive or negative word belongs in a particular blank. If you can figure out if a positive or negative word belongs in a given blank, you’ll be able to narrow down possible answers as you can eliminate incompatible choices. So if you know you need a positive word, and your answer choices are “dutifully” “deviously,” and “dedicatedly,” you can strike “deviously” out.
Use Process of Elimination
If you need to guess, always use process of elimination first. You can combine this with the strategies above (like word positivity/negativity and considering what you would put in the blank) to help you eliminate wrong answers. Even if you can’t confidently pinpoint the correct answer, the more wrong choices you can strike out, the better your chances of guessing correctly!
Read Through the Passage Once You’ve Chosen the Answer
Once you’ve selected words for all of the blanks, make a quick pass through the sentence/passage again to make sure everything makes sense. It can be easy to get bogged down in the particulars of the individual sentences and phrases and forget that the whole passage needs to make sense! This is particularly salient for two and three blank questions.
Remember All Questions Are Worth the Same Point Amount!
Remember that all questions—whether they have one, two, or three blanks—are worth the same amount of points. So in terms of test strategy, it’s not worth it to spend tons of time agonizing over a three-blank question when you still have simpler questions left.
GRE Text Completion Questions: Examples and Explanations
Now that we’ve covered the key strategies, let’s jump into some GRE text completion practice to try them out on real questions. We’ll discuss a one-blank, a two-blank, and a three-blank question, all of which come from the 2012 ETS GRE paper practice exam.
Example 1: One Blank
Most spacecraft are still at little risk of collision with space debris during their operational lifetimes, but given the numbers of new satellites launched each year, the orbital environment in the future is likely to be less ________.
Since the blank is at the end of the passage, it’s not hard to parse the available information in this sentence. We know from the sentence that most spacecraft currently face a low risk of collision with space debris, but that new satellites are being launched each year.
Now we need to figure out what the blank is looking for. The last clause of the sentence is “the orbital environment in the future is likely to be less _____.” So we need to describe the future orbital environment based on the new satellites being launched each year.
Synthesizing what we know and what we need to know leads to the question: how will the launch of new satellites affect the future orbital environment? Well, more satellites means more debris, which could mean greater risk of collision.
Be careful here, though—the blank asks what the increased number of satellites will make the orbital environment less like, not what it will become more like. More satellites definitely won’t make the orbital environment less “crowded” or “polluted,” so (a) and (d) can be eliminated on a first pass. Then we have (b) “invulnerable” and (c) “protected.” Both of these choices may be tempting—if there are more satellites in the air, they will be less safe because of greater risk of collision. But the adjective in question is modifying the orbital environment, not the satellites. Saying the orbital environment itself is “invulnerable” or “protected” doesn’t really make sense here. This leaves us with choice (E) “benign,” which means “harmless.” The orbital environmental will be less benign when there are more satellites, because there will be increased risk of collision. This makes sense; (E) is the correct answer.
Example 2: Two Blanks
A newly published, laudatory biography of George Bernard Shaw fails, like others before it, to capture the essence of his personality: the more he is (i)_________, the more his true self seems to (ii)_________.
Two key ideas are presented in the first part of this sentence: first, that the biography is “laudatory”—it praises George Bernard Shaw—and secondly, that it “fails” to adequately describe his personality. Because the biography praises Shaw, as we turn to blank (i), we can surmise that the biography does not “disparage” (belittle or ridicule) him, and a biography about him obviously doesn’t “disregard” (ignore) him. This means he is “discussed” in the biography.
Given that the biography “fails” to capture Shaw’s personality, what would his true self seem to do in the biography? It certainly might “disappear.” It’s not likely to “emerge” or “coalesce,” which are both synonyms for “appear.” Thus, the correct choices for this sentence are “discussed” and “disappear.”
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Example 3: Three Blanks
If one could don magic spectacles—with lenses that make the murky depths of the ocean become transparent—and look back several centuries to an age before widespread abuse of the oceans began, even the most (i) __________ observer would quickly discover that fish were formerly much more abundant. Likewise, many now-depleted species of marine mammals would appear (ii) __________. But without such special glasses, the differences between past and present oceans are indeed hard to (iii) __________.
Like most three-blank text completions, this one’s a doozy with a lot of parsing to do. Thankfully, the first couple clauses of the first sentence pretty explicitly set up the scenario: “magic spectacles” that let you not only see the deep ocean depths clearly, but also see back in time, before the “widespread abuse of the oceans.” We can expect that the overall theme of this passage, then, will reflect the way that the ocean has been damaged over time.
When we approach the first blank, we see “even the most ________ observer” would see that fish used to be “much more abundant.” “Even” is an emphasis word here. Looking at our choices for blank (i), we wouldn’t really need to emphasize that a “prescient” (prophetic or visionary) or a “clearheaded” observer would discover that fish used to be more abundant, because a prescient or clearheaded observer would definitely notice something like that. However, we would need to emphasize that a “casual” observer would nonetheless notice the abundance of fish—the implication then being that the abundance of fish is that obvious.
The next sentence begins with “likewise.” This is a signal that this sentence will present similar ideas as the preceding one. The preceding sentence emphasized that there were large quantities of fish in the past ocean, so we can expect that this sentence will emphasize a similar abundance of “marine mammals.” Let’s look at our choices for blank (ii). Since we’re expecting this sentence to be about the previous abundance of marine mammals, “plentiful” sticks out as a good choice, while “threatened” seems nonsensical. And don’t be tempted by “unfamiliar”—while it’s true that you would probably see unfamiliar marine mammals in the ocean in the past, that’s not really relevant to the passage overall. So the best answer is “plentiful.”
Let’s check out the third blank. The presence of “but” in this sentence signals that we are about to get a counterpoint or caveat to the previous ideas about the dramatic differences between the past ocean and the present ocean. Since noticing the differences was all about using the special glasses, we can expect that without those glasses, the differences would be much less obvious. What answer choices line up with that idea? Are the differences hard to “ignore” or “dismiss” without the glasses? Neither of these answer choices is compatible with the idea that the differences are less obvious. What about the differences being hard to “discern”? That would make sense, since “discern” means notice. Without the glasses, it would be hard to notice the differences between the past and present ocean! This is the best answer choice.
Our answer choices, then, are “casual,” “plentiful,” and “discern.”
How to Prepare for GRE Sentence Completion
There are two main parts to preparing for text completion questions: learning vocab and practicing!
Learning vocabulary has two essential parts: memorizing vocab and learning words in context.
Drilling new words for simple memorization will help you expand your vocabulary in a preliminary way, increase your comfort with new words, and help you learn word patterns. The best way to memorize new words is to quiz yourself with flashcards. We recommend using the waterfall method, and we have our own set of 357 critical GRE vocab flash cards.
As critical as it is to expand your preliminary vocabulary through simple memorization, if you really want to retain and understand new words, you need to learn and understand vocabulary in context. This means you need to know how it’s actually deployed in sentences and passages. Not only will this help you cement your memorization, it will also help you when you actually encounter the words in the wild (and by that I mean on the GRE!). That way, you’ll have a better understanding of what contexts it’s appropriate to use particular words in.
To learn vocab in context, read advanced publications like the Atlantic, the New York Times, Nature, the Economist, and so on. If you have access to academic journals (like through your undergraduate institution), reading articles in academic journals is also a great way to learn new words in context.
Another way to cement your understanding of words in context is to write your own sentences with the vocabulary words you’ve been learning. After all, if you know how to correctly use the words in your own writing, then you really understand them! We’ve created a PDF of our 357 essential GRE vocab words with blank definition lines for this exercise!
GRE Text Completion Practice
The second essential part of preparing for text completion questions is actually doing practice questions! Because ETS makes the exam, the best official GRE practice materials come from them; their GRE text completion practice is the most like what you’ll see on the real GRE.
Once you’ve exhausted those, if you’re looking to drill GRE sentence completion practice questions, I recommend Manhattan Prep’s 5-lb. Book of Practice Problems. They have practice questions divided into specific types and formats, making it easy to get in a lot of practice on GRE text completion questions.
An essential component of any GRE practice is analyzing your mistakes. Keep track of what questions you get wrong and if there are any patterns, then work on addressing those weaknesses.
Key Takeaways: GRE Text Completion
On GRE text completion questions, you’ll be presented with a sentence or short passage with one, two, or three blanks, and you’ll need to select the best word to go in each blank. You can expect to see about 12 text completion questions on the entire GRE Verbal section.
Here are my seven critical tips for approaching GRE text completion questions:
- Read the entire sentence before trying to pick any answers!
- Before reading the answer choices, consider what word(s) you would put in the blank(s) and use that as a guide to assess answer choices.
- Consider word valence—whether a positive or negative word belongs in a given blank.
- Identify signal words and phrases—primarily transitions—that help indicate the overall structure of ideas in the sentence/mini-passage.
- Whenever you guess, eliminate as many wrong answers as you can first.
- Once you’ve chosen words for multi-blank questions, read through the entire passage with your word choices to make sure the entire thing makes sense all together.
- Remember that every text completion question is worth the same amount of points! So don’t get overly bogged down on 3-blank questions when there are still simpler ones to complete.
Here are the most important things you can do to prepare for GRE sentence completions:
- Learn vocabulary: You should drill vocab with flashcards for simple memorization and also make sure that you understand vocab in context by reading complex texts and writing practice questions.
- Do practice questions: Practice makes perfect! The best practice questions come from ETS, but you can also find good text completion questions elsewhere, like from Manhattan GRE.
Happy text completing!
Need more help with Verbal question types? See our guide to the best GRE Verbal practice out there, the 357 critical GRE words you need to know, our 357 GRE flash cards, and the best GRE vocabulary PDFs for your vocab practice. Also see our guides to sentence equivalence questions and reading comprehension passage strategy!