There are also a lot of challenges to graduate studies, especially in a second language. The range of English vocabulary you’ll read—and use—can be especially challenging.
The English vocabulary in graduate level reading and writing is rich and varied. Even native speakers sometimes find themselves coming across unfamiliar words in their graduate studies. In some cases, students of English as a Second Language (ELS) can use reading comprehension strategies to get around unfamiliar words by using context clues and other reading strategies. But often, you need to build vocabulary deliberately and intensely as you prepare for graduate study in English. Otherwise, you might find that the meaning of your assigned readings is hidden behind a thick wall of unfamiliar words. Below are a few ways you can build up your grad vocabulary and be successful in your Master’s or Doctoral degree program.
Use word lists
I don’t always recommend that my students simply memorize word lists. And in fact, the idea of “rote memorization” is often frowned upon in language education. But when it comes to graduate-level reading and writing, studying lists of words is an important, necessary activity for many ESL students.
It’s probably a good idea to start with the Academic Word List. This is a list of the most common words found in popular university study areas. It’s designed more for undergraduate students than grad students. This makes it the best thing to look at first. If you don’t yet have all of those basic words down, you need to study those before you move on to other word lists.
Once you’re comfortable with the Academic Word List, you can move on to longer, more ambitious lists of academic vocabulary. Barron’s 1100 Words You Need to Know book and flashcards have helped a lot of the international grad students that I’ve worked with. Looking up various word lists for the GRE is a good idea too; GRE words are very common in actual grad school readings.
Study vocabulary in context
Memorization is valuable, but memorization alone is never enough. To truly master graduate level vocabulary, you need to encounter it in context. Websites like The Atlantic, Art and Letters Daily, and The New York Times have a lot of high-level, graduate-style writing. However, you can find writing that’s full of graduate-level wording in many different publications and websites. Political opinion pieces on news websites usually have much more advanced vocabulary, compared to ordinary news stories. And reviews of movies, television, and books use surprisingly complex, varied words.
Reading these kinds of materials can help you see words from your word lists in context. But reading practice can also help you discover new words. As you read, keep a “word journal”—list the new words you encounter, write down their definitions, and write the words in your own original sentences. Add these words to the lists and flashcard stacks you’ve already reviewed.