GMAT™ Prep for Non-Native English Speakers

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Diana Sloan, University of Iowa

With the right resources and preparation, English as a second language doesn’t have to be an issue.

Diana Sloan is director of Graduate Marketing & Alumni Relations, Iowa State University

The GMAT exam can be one of the most challenging experiences when applying to b-school. This is especially true for applicants whose primary language is not English, as the test will require you not only to work through the questions like everyone else, but also to simultaneously translate information as you process it. However, with the right resources and preparation, English as a second language doesn’t have to be an issue. You can take specific actions to enhance your GMAT performance.

  1. Expand your vocabulary. There will be no Internet, smart phones, or dictionary to bail you out if there is a word you don’t know in a GMAT question. Guessing the meaning of an unknown term and then picking an answer based on an assumption is less than ideal. Save yourself the stress of blind guesses by expanding your English vocabulary. This can be as simple and enjoyable as reading, watching movies or TV, and listening to music in English. Better yet, take a look at the questions included in the Free GMAT Official Starter Kit + Practice Exams 1 & 2. Of course, make sure to look up the meaning of any new words that you come across.
  2. Learn to think in English. Whenever possible, immerse yourself in an environment that is exclusively in English. This can be a conversation group, an online community, or even a trip. In any case, be aware of your own thought process and whenever you catch yourself thinking or speaking in your native language, switch gears to continue in English. A good sign that you are making progress in this area will be that your thoughts – and even your dreams! – will naturally occur in English.
  3. Practice makes perfect. Once you are comfortable operating in English, get as many GMAT practice tests as you can get your hands on. A strict study schedule is important for anyone preparing for the GMAT exam, and especially so for non-native English speakers. The more practice tests you take, the more familiar you will become with each section and with the vocabulary that you can expect to find when you go in for the test.
  4. Know what to expect. You know that the GMAT exam is all brain power; no calculators and no translation aids allowed. But there is one aspect of the GMAT that not everyone is prepared for: the environment at the testing center. Be aware of the rules and procedures so you are not taken off-guard by security measures such as taking off your watch, emptying your pockets, or being watched by a room monitor and cameras. If any of these situations may cause you anxiety, it is important that you find a way to manage it and avoid a negative impact on your performance.
  5. Stay focused. There will likely be other test-takers in the room when you take the GMAT exam, and the countdown clock on the screen can be distracting if you are worried about completing a section on time. However, stopping to do the math and calculate how many seconds per question you can spend will not help you finish faster. Be smart about your time allocation and just focus on the question in front of you.

There is no magic formula to do well on the GMAT; different approaches work for different people. For non-native English speakers, these recommendations may be one way to supplement the GMAT preparation process and level the playing field.

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