Since the GMAT is typically used for admissions to American universities, it is conducted only in English. Taking the GMAT for non-native English speakers is therefore slightly more challenging than for native English speakers. Non-native speakers have to navigate the same challenges that English speakers encounter, but they need to do them 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 also be weak. So there’s just no “easy” route to scoring well on the GMAT without a strong fluency in English. Further, your end goal is presumably to study in 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 follow your graduate school studies?! It won’t be easy!
But with that said, there are definitely things you can do to improve your English in a measurable way, so don’t get too discouraged just yet!
Immerse in English every single day. As much as possible. List and talk in English. 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-speaking television or radio.
Read in English, too. Try to read complex articles from international magazines, like 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 for non-native English speakers, it is extremely important that you truly 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. As I said above, 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 fully on improving your English before you even start studying for the GMAT. Depending on your means, there are many ESL course options, including:
The most expensive option, which is to go abroad and spend some time in a course in an English-speaking country. These courses are indeed expensive, but they provide a full immersion experience.
Another option is to enroll in a local course. There are many reasonably affordable ESL classes across 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 repertoire of English vocabulary. If you find yourself using only “simple” words, then it’s probably the case that you need to up your vocabulary level.
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 words 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 definition just doesn’t capture the nuance of a word’s meanings, and the cases when it is and isn’t appropriate to use it.
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 have to read and decipher difficult instructions, and it’s easy to miss a small detail if your verbal skills aren’t up to par. This is especially so when reading charts and graphs. Oftentimes, information in the “fine print” will clarify what a graph means. But 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. This has to do with how they learned their language. As in any language, people learn their primary spoken language at home in their childhood. They don’t learn it by studying grammar rules and practicing using those rules.
But for non-native speakers, English IS typically learned by rehearing a series of grammar rules. This means that non-native speakers are actually very well versed in grammar. So, taking the GMAT for non-native English speakers actually allows them to use a skill that they know better than their native English peers. Unlike (surprisingly many!) native speakers, you know grammar rules and can identify and fix problem sentences. Use this to your advantage!
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 takers, for example, come from the United States. So, it’s actually quite possible that you’re in the majority if you’re taking the GMAT as a non-native speaker. While taking the GMAT for non-native speakers requires solid English skills, if you’re English is very strong, you shouldn’t have to study any differently than a native speaker. Further, 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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