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GRE for Non-Native English Speakers

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!


Ask questions

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! 🙂

By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

25 Responses to GRE for Non-Native English Speakers

  1. JoJo October 11, 2016 at 11:51 pm #

    Hi! I had a question regarding studying for the GRE. I am planning on giving the test in December and I have been studying since last month. The quantitative section is fairly easy for me. However, I am having to work pretty hard to build my vocabulary( memorizing doesn’t come easy to me). Even though I’m a non-native English speaker, I have been studying in English since kindergarten. What I wanted to know was that if I start learning a 3rd language(French) while studying for the GRE, will it interfere with building my English vocabulary? Is it better to postpone learning a new language till after I take the GRE?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 14, 2016 at 8:28 am #

      Hi JoJo,

      Honestly, for different students, learning a 3rd language could be completely fine and not interfere with your studies. It would really depend case-by-case. However, if you do have flexibility on when you can start learning French, it may be better to postpone it until after December (which isn’t too far away). It’s always better not to introduce new variables if it’s possible to interfere with your studies and performance. In addition, it may be useful to use that time that you spend learning the new language on further GRE practice (if flexible). That being said, you may personally be completely okay to pick up French now too! 😀

  2. Manuel August 20, 2016 at 2:33 am #

    Hi Margarette,
    I am a Spanish student willing to do a masters in economics in 2017/18 in the US. Therefore, I should take the GRE this fall (November at the latest for many US universities).
    Given that I am a non-native English speaker, my main struggles in order to prepare for the GRE are the verbal reasoning and the writing parts. I am doubting on whether to sign up for Magoosh or try something else. So I have one specific question about Magoosh:
    – do you guys correct or evaluate students’ writing skills? Given that I am not in the US and have no English professors, I have no one to check my answers to the writing tests, and I do not really know how to practice and improve this.
    Any other advice on how to prepare each of these two parts would be appreciated! 🙂

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 20, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

      Hi Manuel,

      First off, I can tell you that Magoosh doesn’t currently offer GRE writing feedback. We’re a small team, so to keep our product affordable, we focus more on providing practice questions as well as some light email tutoring and support for GRE practice questions from both Magoosh and ETS.

      We definitely do provide our premium users with lots of advice and support regarding passing Verbal and AWA— and in fact, many of our video instructors and email support team have a background in assisting non-Native English speaking grad students. As you get started on your GRE prep, here is my advice to you:

      1) Work on building good reading comprehension skills and strategies for GRE Verbal. For non-native English, comprehension skills are much more important than going through wordlists and flashcards. On test day, you’re very likely to encounter words that you don’t know, but if your’e good and understanding context, you can still perform quite well and give correct answers even when you don’t know some of the words you’re looking at.

      2) As you go through GRE word lists and flaschards, look at the structure of the words— learn to recognize prefixes, suffixes and root words, and get good at recognizing parts of speech. In your case, you can use your own language to reach this learning goal– pay attention to English words that are similar to Spanish words, and recognize connected meanings between your native language and English. Knowing the parts and structures of words will also help you guess at the meanings of words and passages, even when you come across new words.

      3) Lean on your testing skills. Learn good answer selection strategies for multiple choice questions and familiarize yourself with the GRE Verbal question types. Strong test skills can help compensate for gaps in knowledge of the English language.

      4) For native English speakers and non-native speakers alike, the biggest challenge in AWA tends to be organizing ideas and writing them down in logical order. Look at sample GRE AWA responses for examples of well-organized essays. And learn to master prewriting activities such as note-taking and outlining. Then make sure that your final essays always have complete, well supported ideas and a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

      • Manuel August 22, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

        Thank you very much for your help! I have been realizing these different aspects in my first approaches to the test, so it’s good to hear this from you too. I still have some doubts about how to really prepare and improve my writing skills for the GRE, but I’ll try to figure them out. Thanks again!

  3. Pragya April 20, 2016 at 11:33 pm #

    Hi Margarette Jung

    I am an Indian, presently completing my M.A in mass communication and journalism. This piece has really helped me overcome my fear of not knowing English so well. I am into the field of media and communication and one would generally expect me to be good at the language. Now I aspire to get through GRE and move to USA to complete Phd in communicaton. I have always scored well in english but always face problems in learning grammar and vocab. So i have given myself a time period of 2 years during which i plan to pursue my M.A and side by side prepare for GRE. Apart from having difficulty in English, I am even a below average student of maths. I don’t have an idea of how to prepare for GRE. How to plan my studies in these 2 years. I wanted to even do my M.A in USA but due to no proper guidance i could never overcome my fear. I really want to plan well for GRE and work hard in these two years. Hope i would get right help from you.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 23, 2016 at 11:37 am #

      Hi Pragya,

      Thanks for contacting us! 🙂

      I would tell you that 2 years is far to long to spend studying specifically for the GRE. If you know you will need to take the exam in a few years, you should work to build a big English vocabulary, master the math basics (especially algebra, geometry, probability/combinatorics, and graphing). Then, maybe 6-7 months before you want to take the exam, you can shift to specifically studying for the GRE.

      In the meantime, you should get engaged with free resources like our vocabulary flashcards and Khan Academy math lessons/questions. I hope that helps! 🙂

  4. Kody June 20, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    Hi my name is Kody and I am a non-native English speaker.
    Would it be helpful to memorize all the incorrect options in the sentence equivalence, not only the correct options? I have noticed that same words sometimes appear in other questions as a trap or a correct answer. Throughout the practice session, should I stop and try to memorize all the words I did not understand at each question and move on?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 23, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

      Hi Kody,

      Sure, it’s a very good idea! The wrong answers are often words that ETS uses as write answers in other questions. Of course, if trying to memorize every single wrong answer becomes time-consuming, just look up those words that you think you’ve seen in other questions. Slowly, once you’ve learned enough words, you won’t have to look up words every couple minutes.

      Good luck!

      • Grant January 1, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

        Chris – I think you meant the “right” answers, not the “write” answers 🙂

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele January 2, 2015 at 10:38 am #


  5. Sachin May 21, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    Hello Chris, I’m non native English speaker and i have taken a GRE date, sep 2014. How much time should I spent on english? I have completed reading 4000 word once. I have noted down all 4000 words on book . I do read words on regular basis and also subscribed for Magoosh English grammar. I have taken up Magoosh GRE last month. I’m pretty much on the track for Math but I’m still worried about verbal as 3 months are left for exam. is it enough for it or not? Please give your suggestion.

    Sachin More

    • Rachel Wisuri
      Rachel May 21, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

      Hi Sachin,

      Chris is on vacation right now, so I’m going to answer this for him. 🙂 It’s hard to say EXACTLY how much time you should spend on improving your verbal — that will depend on how many points you’re hoping to improve your score.

      I’d suggest that you keep reviewing the words you’ve already learned (4000 is plenty!) and definitely keep reading as MUCH as possible–articles from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker are great for both improving your vocabulary and your comprehension.

      If you keep up the combination of learning new words + reading frequently, you should be OK. 🙂 And of course, be sure to gauge your progress along the way by taking practice tests.

      Best of luck!

      • Sachin May 22, 2014 at 3:21 am #

        Rachel,Thanks a lot for reply. Could you please give some ideas or plan to improve on writing skills?

  6. Enas May 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    I have just took the GRE yesterday and failed, according to my standards, the Verbal section. I don’t know how to improve my reading comprehension before retaking the test. Everyone is telling me to read more but I am not sure how long this will take before improving my abilities, and eventually, my score.

  7. Rubaet January 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    Thanks, I think it’s gonna help me a lot.

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette January 30, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      No problem, let me know if you have any questions.

  8. saranya January 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    good post for the people who hesitate to start preparing for GRE .

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

      Thanks, Saranya!

  9. Vaisnavi January 26, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    Excellent post indeed. Thanks a lot for putting those valuable inputs.

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette January 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

      Thanks, Vaisnavi!

  10. Vanan January 25, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    It was an excellent article. Helped a lot. Thanks for the inputs!!

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette January 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

      Thanks, Vanan!

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