How ESL Students Can Meet the Challenges of the GMAT


The GMAT is a struggle for most MBA applicants.  The timing, adaptive format, lack of calculator and generally daunting writing style of math and verbal questions combine to create a stressful experience for undergraduates and working professionals in the United States who are its intended victims target audience.  These features make the GMAT even more of a trial for ESL students.  During my three years teaching GMAT Prep to students in Istanbul, Turkey I learned both the challenges that ESL students face and the strategies that are most effective for helping non-native speakers earn competitive scores.  Here’s a rundown of how ESL students can meet the challenges of the GMAT and best approach each section of the test.

Overall–Don’t take the GMAT unless you’re ready.  If you are scoring less than 90 on the IBT TOEFL, you might want to improve your English before investing your time and money in Preparing for and taking this test.  If you are more confident in your abilities, however, then begin your Preparation by creating a study schedule that includes time to learn about the test, study the fundamentals, practice with real GMAT problems, take practice tests and rest when necessary.  Narrow your focus to improving what you are best at and covering the basics of your weaker areas.  If have little time or hard time imposing this structure yourself, consider hiring a GMAT tutor.

Math–The mathematics curricula of many foreign countries are more rigorous than that of the United States.  For this reason a great many of the ESL students that I have tutored initially scoffed at the GMAT math section and only wanted to work on verbal.  The more gifted may have been justified in this decision but on the whole, not studying for the math section is a mistake.  It’s one thing to know all of the math concepts that appear on the test and quite another to know how they will best tested.  You should at least learn the format and wording of common word problems as well as the unique structure of data sufficiency questions.  Also you should be aware of and practice alternative strategies like plugging in and working backwards that you can use on the GMAT but not college-level math tests.  Finally, have a care with easier problems so that you don’t lose vital points.  Because your GMAT score is determined by both your math and verbal raw scores, you need to earn as many points as possible in your stronger section to make up for the weaker.

Reading Comprehension–First and foremost, improve your reading speed on academic English passages.  To do this, read sophisticated English periodicals as often as possible.  Examples of such material include the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and the New England Journal of Medicine.  Employ a method of reading first and inferring the gist of the passage’s meaning as well as the definitions of words you don’t know as you go.  Then verify your accuracy by having a native speaker read the same passage and also by checking definitions in the dictionary.  You should also learn the wording of the various reading comprehension questions types as they typically appear on the GMAT.  While it isn’t necessary, since nothing on the GMAT directly tests vocabulary, you might also want to invest in vocabulary resources.  flashcards or smartphone apps are convenient ways to do this.

Critical Reasoning–In terms of raw reading skill, the tips I mentioned for reading comprehension also apply here.  However, you should also study the various types of assumptions and logical fallacies that are tested on the GMAT and be able to recognize them.  Here a good GMAT Prep book would be most helpful.  The PowerScore GMAT Critical Reasoning Bible is a great reference and practice book for such in-depth practice.

Sentence Corrections–If you’ve been studying English as a second language all along, you actually might have a bit of an advantage here in that you should already know most of the grammar rules that are tested.  ESL students often have a greater tendency to know not only that a tested version of a sentence is wrong but also why it’s wrong.  Of course the tradeoff is that the process of answering these questions is usually slower for ESL students because they don’t answer as many questions just by hearing the error.  This can be particularly challenging when it comes to diction and idiom questions.  There are few rules behind these toughest of questions, just the precedents of common usage.  The best way for an ESL student to Prepare, therefore, is to study as many GMAT idioms as possible.  A simple Google search of commonly tested GMAT idioms will reveal dozens of lists posted by Prep companies and past test takers for free.  Study as many as you can.

Argument Essay–As you may already realize, the essay prompt on the GMAT is nothing more than an extended critical reasoning stimulus and so your study of that question type will be very helpful here.  The best advice is to learn a good argument essay template early on and practice it.  You should also study and employ certain stock phrases like the argument is weak, the argument is unconvincing, the argument relies on the following assumption.  The more you learn the phrasing that works on the essay, the easier and quicker it will be to write.

Integrated Reasoning–As an ESL student you have a few things going for you on this section: it’s half math, there’s a calculator and charts are pretty much the same in any language.  Just about everyone who takes the GMAT has a very hard time with the time constraints.  That probably goes double for you.  The best advice is to pick your battles.  No matter how difficult a passage may appear, look for detail questions that simply ask you to look up information.  Don’t get bogged down on passages or questions you don’t understand or know how to solve.  Keep moving and pick up easier points where you can find them.


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