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Georgi’s GRE Experience: Advice to International Students

Here’s a student story submitted by one of our readers, Georgi. The Magoosh team is constantly harping on about “vocabulary in context“, and Georgi validates us– he warns against memorizing thousands of obscure words, since they won’t help you on exam day! If you’re also a non-native speaker of English, you may sympathize with his struggles with Text Completion.

For more write-ups like this one, check out our GRE Experiences page!


“Hello to all prospective GRE test takers and those interested in GRE experiences.

I had my GRE general test exactly a week ago and I am willing to sharing my experience in that matter.

First of all, I need to say that I am not a native English speaker as my language is quite different from that of either the Roman or Germanic family groups, to which the English is both a member, with some Greek traces too. I am from Estonia, but I am an ethnic Russian. One year ago I completed my Bachelor’s degree in the UK so the time spent there should have offset the fact that the language of instruction in my Primary and Secondary schools was in Russian only. These are the overall facts about me that I can provide.

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As for the prep, I prepared for the New GRE around 3 months, with some gaps in between, so I cannot claim that I have been thoroughly systematic in my approach. Anyway, I used a diverse range of materials – the Barrons New Gre, Kaplan’ s New GRE, Grubber’s and ETS official guide. My advice to all prospective student is: take the Official Guide for sure if you are serious about your scores. Currently it is the best one there and no one comes close to it, though I have not checked Manhattan’s.

I studied and revised around 4000 GRE / SAT words, which was a mistake in my opinion because the New GRE is context centered and not that much vocabulary orientated. If you have a decent English background and have studied well in college or uni, then the worlds are in your ken (another GRE word). It is good that now my English vocabulary is quite impressive without boasting or being vainglorious, but it did take up a lare part of my time which I should have devoted more reasonably to practice instead. My advice – study not more than 1000 high frequency words if you are not stable in your vocab.

The reading part and text completion, however, are a different story. Even though I have studied for three years in an academic British setting, I was not prepared for the lingusitic charge that I was confronted with. Even my most bookish and pedantic professors did not expound in such labyrinthine, or should I say byzantine types of expression, as you can find in the test. You are expected to be a somewhat staunch Encyclopedia Britannica devotee, though even there the twist and turns in these texts are less serpentine than those on the GRE.

Text completion – you have to be a native speaker in order to score all of these questions correct, especially the diffucult level ones. Or perhaps you need to have studied English for the past 10 years of your life because otherwise your mind is not accustomed to the structural and linguistic subtleties found in the test. I suppose that if these questions were given to me in my language I would have found them medium in difficulty, but the English format is a challenge which I cannot claim to have conquered. The only way to do well in text completion is to practice and practice. Do at least a couple of hundred in the month prior to your exam and you should be fine . Know the tactics and think well, discern, look for patterns, this is the only key.

The sentence equivalence type is also very nice (the GRE secondary meaning of that word 🙂 ) However, they are not as long as the text completions and are more doable since you are looking for equivalent senetences in meaning. You need to be careful with key words, direction words etc. For me, they were not that complex, though some of them are mind-boggling indeed.

And now the final and most challenging of the Verbal – Reading passages. In order to score well you have to be quick, perceptive, careful, methodical and cool – all definitions pertaining to a machine or automation rather than a human. I wonder if some of these texts were give to the test makers, whether their score would come to perfect. Native students are undoubtedly advantaged in that regard. Sorry internationals, but if you have not studied abroad, or if you have not had your education in English most of the time, then you have a low chance to score a top in the Verbal. Otherwise you have to be either really good or your preparation should have started long before.

In order to prepare for the verbal – allocate at least two months for good preparation. The ETS guide is a MUST, GRE Big book is also a good choice; Kaplan and GMAT books also serve well for that purpose.

The Math that ETS tests is elementary. This latin word has two basic meaning – primary or fundamental on the one hand and rudimentary, with some connotations of being or denoting an ‘easy’ approach, on the other. With respect to the GRE the former meaning is the more accurate, though the latter is also valid. If you have not studied math in the past 4 years of your life, then go and see your High school teacher if possible and take private lessons for a month or two depending on your math abilities and former knowledge. The questions are diverse ranging from algebra and arithmetic mostly to geometry occasionally and, of course Data interpretation and stats. Study all of them, you never know what will turn up on your test.


Finally, my exam: it was like all other exams. Nothing speacial or new that I was not aware of. The AW was easy for me since my academic background is a combination of Arts and Social Sciences, so rhetoric, logic and cogent essay writing are not Greek to me. The math part was decent, not that hard as expected, though I did not have time to finish all of the questions in time. The experimental section was in math and was not difficult too, at least I though so before seeing my preliminary scores.  The Verbal was harder than the math sections and partially I messed up the first vebal section. For the second one I did fairly better. The text completion were the hardest part, some of them were as obscure and imponderable as the Nazi secret code in WWII, though the British broke it in the end. The Reading was as expected – some of it was quite challenging and some quite easy. All in all – I should and could have done more than Q: 156 and V:157. I am not sure whether this score will be sufficient, and it is still preliminary so it may change. I guess that if I retake it, I would score in the mid 160s for the two of them, but so far these are only guesses.

This is all that I can say and share. Be brave, do not flinch, it is only an exam, though important for most of us. If I have to paraphrase a wise short saying, if not aphorism, of some boxers say — more sweat in training results in less blood in fight. In other words prepare well in order to be coming with flying colours (my British backgound does not allow me to ”Americanize’ this word to ‘color’ :))

Good luck all, and be sanguine, you do not lose anyithing. Well, except one three digit number and a dollar sign attached to it ($190) from your bank account [for the testing fee and prep books].




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11 Responses to Georgi’s GRE Experience: Advice to International Students

  1. Pemdas@BTG July 22, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    @Armadilla, any theories are rest upon certain assumptions. If you were to read some more scientific literature not only about English linguistics but also some physics you would understand that even certain mathematical axioms would LIMIT scientific arguments and solutions proposed. The issue is that with math we allow for certain assumptions and then build model or instruct solution methods. Whereas real life issues require us not to qualify strictly premises. That is allowed in your example, when you qualify a non-native speaker and place one’s general language comprehension below that of the native speaker. See a man without hands can still draw a masterpiece which is not being possible to be produced by a highly trained artist with both his/her hands healthy and yet applied to the drawing art skills. The key here is that some of us would obtain better comprehension of the nature and simply develop their cerebral abilities. Some will neglect their brainy potential and will stay as they come. Honestly, I am the non-native and this doesn’t hurt my comprehension of the hard academic passages in GMAT or GRE. I am just adjusting my other skills for the better comprehension, and I agree that my fluent reading and data retaining capacities are inferior or those of native-speakers. What I do for better comprehension is I will decompensate my language abilities with the newly developed ability to navigate the whole comprehension process via reading and analyzing the critical passage fragments – you know the stuff called outlining passage. This is actually not an enjoyable and/or pleasant job for the most of native speakers. As in my earlier example of the hand-handicapped artist – why one would need to draw an object with his/her legs when the arms are here. So if we need to create a masterpiece named GRE decent verbal score we will draw even with our legs 🙂 and feel sure we won’t lose verbal percentiles to the native speakers!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 25, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

      Thanks Pemdas for your candid advice. I think many non-native speakers will be able to benefit from it :).

  2. Armadilla June 20, 2012 at 12:05 pm #


    I completely disagree with Sarah and as a non-native speaker of English who got her 2 degrees in the US, I would agree with Georgi. I think a lot of people who make that sort of a judgement are not very acquainted with L1-L2 language acquisition research and, as an English major, I think you have had some Chomsky books and articles to read and analyze, so I am very surprised you are not familiar with this fundamental research in linguistics (and all the other theories after Chomsky that agree or refute his theory but the understanding on the subject is still the same–at some point of your life you will NEVER be able to master a foreign language like a native speaker, much less get a decent score on the verbal part of the GRE with a substantial and absolutely exhausting preparation process) I love Magoosh and I have been a loyal customer of this company for almost a year so I was wondering, why don’t you guys hire someone with a solid 2nd language acquisition background (or comparative linguistics) who could work with non-native speakers?I would read every single article of this person on Magoosh!

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette June 20, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

      Hi, Armadilla

      I completely agree– “building vocabulary” as a native speaker and a non-native speaker are two entirely different battles. I’m certainly not a language expert, but I do have some experience in adult second language acquisition, as does Chris, so we will make more of an effort to write some posts with tips directed toward non-native speakers (similar to this post, but with more specific strategies:

      Let us know if you have any other suggestions or questions, and we’d be happy to help!


  3. Sarah February 13, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    Well I believe scoring in verbal is not about being a native speaker. It’s all about how good you are able to comprehend and take meaning out of the passages. Building vocabulary does help and there is no second thought to it. I have been preparing for GRE and hope to do well in verbal section but when it comes to quant I just dont know how to go about it. I am a graduate in English but I completely dread math. I am hoping that I can pull up myself and do well in the quant section as well. I’ve relied on a friend who suggested this online resource to prepare for quant Has anyone tried or heard of Nick who gives online quant classes?

  4. Pemdas@BTG February 11, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    this won’t be my *breakdown* – rather, the GRE breakdown section-wise.
    🙂 your use of b/d has wrong antecedent here

  5. H.Ahmad February 5, 2012 at 1:39 am #

    Very well put. Georgi” what you’ve experienced and learned is as precious, if not more, as the final score itself; sharing all of that combined, simply raises the bar!


  6. Pemdas@BTG February 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    @Chris, by following your tips for TC I am able to dissect wrong answers even without knowing all words. Besides, there was a conversation over the RC part of GRE not all verbal part. I guess you would not consider GMAT and GRE RC to be too different. I think they are the same, with GRE RC being easier and less tricky. Of course I disagree with you that GMAT is easier to master for non-natives than GRE. GRE is brutal knowledge test even in its revised format, while GMAT is very much a thinking test. By prepping for average score in GMAT math, one can score in the high 700-s in GRE and by prepping for RC and CR in GMAT one may kill all or 90% of RC passages in GRE. It’s not true that GRE is hard to beat by non-natives and I will prove it someday with my post not tied to the nuances of academic side but the prep strategy mainly wrapped around Magoosh GRE prep utilities.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm #


      Interesting! Ultimately, I am just surmising and, as a native speaker, I am probably not the best person to opine. You are definitely right on the math side – the GMAT Quant, whether every word you’ve uttered has been English or you are part of a band of eskimos from Greenland, is harder. Period.

      For GMAT verbal, I was thinking the formulaic aspect of the verbal side made things easier to master. Questions of difficulty aside, the GMAT RC passages are far more formulaic, then those on the GRE. True, the GMAT passages may be denser, but the multiple question format of the GRE RC, together with a wider range of reading content, make for more formidable reading. Or maybe not.

      Can’t wait to hear your breakdown and, for that matter, receive some feedback from other non-native speakers. Once I get a decent sample size, this topic would make a great blog post: GMAT vs. GRE for non-speakers.

      Hope to hear from you soon!

  7. Zaur February 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    I don’t think you have to spend years abroad or study in English medium to score 77%. Reading for standardized tests like GMAT and GRE is mush different from that accustomed in school. I wouldn’t be discouraged by this advice at all, as I happened to know people speaking English not more than three years in their life, yet they scored above 80% for GMAT’s verbal part. The latter has denser content than the RC part..

    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      I think what Georgi is saying is that not being a native speaker makes sections such as the text completion very difficult. Also, the GRE Verbal is a different best than the GMAT Verbal. Specifically, the GMAT is far more formulaic and thus easier for non-native speakers to master.

      The GRE Verbal focuses more on holistic verbal skills, which are more difficult to prep for and more difficult in general for non-native speakers, especially those who have not developed an ear for academic language.

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