GMAT for Non-Native English Speakers

GMAT for Non-Native English Speakers

Since the GMAT is typically used for admissions to American universities, it is conducted only in English. It is therefore more challenging for non-native English speakers to take the GMAT than it is for native English speakers. Non-native speakers must navigate the same challenges that English speakers encounter, but in a second language.

GMAT for Non-Native English Speakers Still Requires Strong English

There’s no getting around this: if your English is weak, everything you do in English will suffer. So there’s just no “easy” route to scoring well on the GMAT without a certain level of English fluency. Furthermore, your end goal is, presumably, to study at a graduate school in an English-speaking country, most likely the United States. If your English isn’t strong enough for the GMAT, how are you going to succeed in your graduate studies?! It won’t be easy!

That said, there are things you can do to improve your English in a measurable way, so don’t get discouraged!

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  • Immerse yourself in English every single day. Listen and speak as much as possible. Do this as much as you possibly can. It’s the only way to truly improve your English. Seek out a friend with whom you can speak in English. Listen or watch English-language television or radio.
  • Read in English, too. Try to read complex articles from international magazines such as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. You can see a full list of some good recommendations for articles here.
  • Think in English! I know that might be asking a lot. But to succeed on the GMAT as a non-native English speaker, it is extremely important that you literally get into the mindset of someone who is 100% comfortable in the English language.

    Consider an ESL Course

    If immersing yourself in English on a daily basis isn’t a viable option, then you might want to take ESL courses. Again, it just isn’t possible to perform well on the GMAT if your English isn’t up to the task.

    If you’re having trouble improving your English, you might consider first focusing solely on improving your English before you even start studying for the GMAT. Depending on your financial means, there are many ESL course options, including:

  • The most expensive option: go abroad and take a course in an English-speaking country. These courses are indeed expensive, but they provide a full immersion experience.
  • Next best: enroll in a local course. There are many reasonably priced ESL classes around the world. If you’re in the United States, there are many free options we suggest here, and some of them probably apply even if you’re outside the United States!
  • Online resources are another great option for ESL courses and tutoring. A quick Google search will turn up hundreds of options! These vary in terms of price and quality, so be sure to do some research before deciding.

Work on Your Vocabulary

Always carry a dictionary! One of the key components of fluency that students often lack is a rich English vocabulary. If you find yourself using only “simple” words, then you probably need to enrich your vocabulary.

You can do this in a variety of ways. When you see a word you don’t understand, no matter where you see it, look it up in a dictionary right away. Make a flashcard with the definition. Memorize it. But also use it. Use the new word in speech and writing. Look for examples of how it’s used. Using these new words “in context” is a much better way of truly understanding the definition of a word. It’s better than just memorizing a definition on a flashcard. Sometimes, a single definition just doesn’t capture the nuance of a word’s meaning or when the word should be employed.

English is Important for Quant, Too

If you’re applying to a quant-heavy program and are thinking about lightly studying or skipping the verbal section entirely, then think again. Even if you’re applying to quant-heavy programs (engineering, math, etc.), the verbal section of the GMAT is almost always still important to admissions.

But good verbal skills are also important for the quant section. You’ll have to decipher complex sets of instructions, and it’s easy to miss a small detail if your verbal skills aren’t up to par. This is especially true when reading charts and graphs. Oftentimes, information in the “fine print” will clarify what a graph means. If you don’t fully understand that fine print, you’ll miss important info.

In short, even if you’re applying to engineering or math or other STEM programs, you’re still going to need strong verbal skills to succeed on the quant portions of the GMAT.

As a Non-Native Speaker, You Have Some Advantages!

In some ways, people for whom English is a second language actually have an advantage on the GMAT. Many native English speakers have not thoroughly memorized grammar rules because they learned English by ear, in childhood. Native speakers of a language usually don’t learn that language by studying and practicing grammar rules.

Non-native speakers, by contrast, typically do learn English by rehearsing grammar rules, and thus tend to be very well versed in grammar. The GMAT thus provides ample opportunities for non-native English speakers to use a skill they have honed more sharply than many lifelong Anglophones. Unlike (surprisingly many!) native speakers, you know grammar rules and can identify and fix erroneous sentences. Use this to your advantage!

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You’re not alone: plenty of students for whom English is a second language take the GMAT. Only about one third of all GMAT test contenders come from the United States, so it’s quite possible that you’re in the majority if you’re taking the GMAT as a non-native speaker. While taking the GMAT as a non-native speakers requires solid English skills, if your English is already strong, you shouldn’t have to study any differently than a native speaker. Remember to keep your advantages over native speakers in mind. On grammar issues, for example, you might know more than a native speaker!

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  • Kevin Wandrei

    Kevin majored in history at Williams College (where he was President of the Cheese Club -- he can answer any of your cheese-related questions!), and later earned a Master of Public Administration from Cornell University. When he isn't helping plan a major city in his urban planning job in Boston, Kevin enjoys doing genealogical research.

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