Update 8/30/12: based on the suggestions of many of our non-native GRE students, we’ve released Magoosh English! Enjoy! 🙂
Update 5/10/14: We also recommend checking out our Magoosh TOEFL blog for more tips!
First, I’m going to say that I have great admiration for anyone who is willing to take a standardized exam in a language that isn’t their own. Even native speakers of English have trouble with the vocabulary and grammar rules on the GRE, and we’ve been speaking, hearing, and learning English our entire lives. There are very few good resources out there for GRE students who aren’t typical American students who attended American universities! Many of the “GRE Tips for Non-Native English Speakers” out there are created by one of the following types of people:
- A native speaker of English who doesn’t know what it’s like to be unfamiliar with English or any other language. This type of teacher generally does well on standardized tests because for them, idioms and sentence structure can be tested by ear (“it just SOUNDS better this way, right?”), but they’re unable to transfer this knowledge, because it’s not something that can be acquired in a short period of time.
- A non-native speaker of English who isn’t very good at English themselves, who will teach you the wrong way to learn and give you the wrong information.
I’d like to think that I’m going to present you with strategies that draw from the good qualities of both of these (expertise in English as well as understanding of what it’s like to learn a second (or third!) language) with none of the bad.
Do not (just) memorize vocabulary words and their definitions
This is a trap many students (both English-speaking and otherwise) fall into. Put that word list down, step away, and think about it. If vocabulary was as easy as memorizing any number of definitions and regurgitating them, then everyone would ace the GRE. A robot could ace the GRE. Anyone would be able to pick up a new language in a matter of days. Unfortunately, that’s not how language and language-learning works, and the GRE does a pretty good job of measuring how well you know the language in question—English. English vocabulary, grammar, and syntax are notoriously riddled with exceptions, loopholes, and illogical rules—so don’t let it frustrate you too much.
The best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the rules, but mimic the “native English speaker” base of knowledge by consuming as much of the written and spoken English word as you possibly can. Listen to podcasts, watch movies, and read, read, read. Even if you have a podcast or movie running in the background while you do something else (like wash the dishes or go for a run) and aren’t giving it your full attention, it’s better than nothing! Additionally, this is a great way to familiarize yourself with American English tonality and general speech patterns, which will help you “fix” your accent if you so choose, which is something many international students in the US struggle with.
Study “Math” English vocabulary
I’m just going to come right out and say it — the average American student is not nearly as good at math as an average international student who is applying to study in the states. The curriculum is more basic and moves much more slowly from grade to grade in the American school system, so for many of you, GRE Math is a piece of cake. However, don’t let yourself ignore it completely. If you’re confident about it, great, but don’t let yourself lose a few easy points because you haven’t familiarized yourself with word problems or terms for math concepts that may be different in your country!
A roadblock for many of the non-native English speakers I’ve tutored is the fact that they are unwilling to accept that they need to ask a lot of questions to catch up to native English speakers taking the same test. The GRE will be tougher for you if you haven’t grown up speaking, reading, and writing English. This is just a fact. You will have to ask many more questions about things that seem confusing or difficult that others will not, but if it will help you do better on the exam, then it is worth asking every single one of those questions and making sure you get a good answer.
Magoosh has a Help tab on the left of every screen, and many students send us a lot of great questions—everything from “I don’t understand Step 3 in the explanation video, help!” to “I tried this question in a prep book and I don’t understand why I got it wrong.” We answer every single one, and I think this is such a crucial part of why Magoosh students do so well on their exams. The worst thing you can do is ignore a concept or strategy when you don’t understand it, because this will make it more difficult for you to learn more advanced techniques and make you frustrated when your scores aren’t improving. Don’t be afraid that you’re asking a “dumb question”, or think that we won’t send you a response. Ask away!
This tip holds especially true for AWA: unless you ask a qualified reader (a friend, a tutor, anyone!) to go over your essays, there is no way of knowing what you’re doing wrong. Unlike practice tests, there’s no answer sheet to check your essays against and no way to track your progress unless you ask a lot of questions about what you’re doing wrong and how you can improve your approach.
Read, read, read, write, write, write, write, and then read some more. And ask questions! 🙂