Studying for the GMAT as a Non-Native English Speaker: A Verbal Focus Plan
Business schools love to boast about student diversity in their programs. One way that MBA programs have built “diversity” is by attracting a highly international student body. Over the years this climate of internationalism has stirred many non-US students to seek admissions at top US business schools. And more recently, a movement has begun for non-US MBA programs to require the GMAT for admission. These phenomena coupled together have led to an increase in the number of foreign prospective MBAs that take the GMAT test. Applicants who are non-native English speakers face significant hurdles when preparing for the GMAT, since their lack of English fluency is something that must be overcome to succeed on the test.
Before I go into details with the following GMAT verbal focus study plan, there is an important observation I must make: for non-native English speakers, one of the best ways to improve your English is by being constantly exposed to well-written English material. While grammar books are certainly important, it’s only by seeing the language “in action” that you can truly get a firm grasp of its use. As such, try to make a habit out of reading in English for a few minutes every day.
Days 1 to 3 – Research the test and determine your starting point
Before you start your GMAT prep, it is important to get an overview of the test. Start by going to the official site for the GMAT, www.MBA.com. Once you’re at this website, download the free GMATprep software, which contains the most relevant information about the test as well as two mock exams.
It’s best to take one of the GMATPrep practice tests in your first three days of prep in order to evaluate where your skills currently stand. As a non-native speaker of English, it’s very likely that you will struggle with the verbal part of the test, and as such, you will need to devote more time to improving upon this section. Try to also note the question types that give you the most trouble—there are three types in the verbal section: Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension. This will help you customize your study plan, since you will need to allot more time to weaknesses and less time to strengths.
Days 4 to 14 – Quantitative study
Even if you think you have strong math skills, do not neglect this section of the GMAT. The reason for this is that this test features a unique type of math question that will require some practice: Data Sufficiency. The Data Sufficiency format is as follows: for a math problem you will be provided with two pieces of information. Your task is to evaluate whether you have enough data to answer a given question (Yes or No). It takes time for students to get used to this format and, besides this, a good math refresher is always useful.
My advice for these ten days is to prepare primarily from the Kaplan GMAT Math Workbook. This book features a generous amount practice problems (around 600) and covers most of the topics you’ll see on the GMAT. Each chapter contains both targeted drills and GMAT-style questions for the concepts you’ve just learned. The Official Guide for GMAT Review (OG) should be used only after you’ve gone through these concepts in the Kaplan book. OG practice questions closely resemble the actual GMAT questions you’ll see on test day (the book featured real retired GMAT questions), and you should drill with the best practice questions after you’ve mastered some concepts.
While practicing for quant, there are two study habits that you might want to adopt. The first is keeping an error log. Error logs help you keep track of your progress and are useful tools when you need to review your weak spots in the last few days of your prep. The second habit you should integrate into your routine is making flashcards out of concepts or problems you’ve struggled with. These organized notes are also extremely effective when studying for the GMAT, and will help you drill down on your weak areas.
Days 15 to 45 – Verbal study
- Manhattan GMAT Sentence Correction Guide, 4th Edition
- PowerScore Critical Reasoning Bible
- Kaplan GMAT Verbal Workbook
- Official Guide for GMAT Review, 12th Edition
- Official Guide for GMAT Verbal Review, 1st Edition
- LSAT sets
After your first two weeks of studying math, it’s now time to take the bull by the horns and start studying for the verbal portion of the GMAT. The following verbal study plan is based broadly on what I’ve observed non-native English speakers typically struggle with on the GMAT verbal section. Be sure to tailor this plan according to your weaknesses and strengths (spending more time honing your weaknesses).
Start with Sentence Correction (SC). I recommend using the Manhattan GMAT Sentence Correction Guide, one of the best books out there for the grammar tested on the GMAT. This book is full of dense, tip-heavy material. You need to review it carefully. It references the Official Guide for GMAT Review, 12th Edition and the Official Guide for GMAT Verbal Review, 1st Edition, so be sure to plan your shopping list accordingly. You can also complement your practice with questions from the Kaplan GMAT Verbal Workbook (around 90 or so GMAT-style questions).
One of the best ways to improve your SC skills is using flashcards. When writing SC-related flashcards, be sure to write the concept or idiom on the front of a flashcard, and one or two examples of this concept/idiom in action on the back of the flashcard. Try to write phrases that refer to things you like or enjoy, it will help you learn better. As mentioned before, simply memorizing rules will probably not do the trick for English grammar: it has to be “put to work” in a realistic and relatable context.
As a non-native speaker, the second section you should probably consider working on after SC is Reading Comprehension (RC). Unfortunately this is the section that’s hardest to improve upon because of one simple reason: there is no such thing as a quick fix to improve your English reading skills. This is why it is important to try reading English material every day. Use the tips provided by the Kaplan GMAT Verbal Workbook to help you train this muscle. The RC chapter in the Kaplan book presents a good, condensed version of what I believe is an excellent strategy for tackling Reading Comprehension passages. Integrate this strategy both in your handling of GMAT-style questions and when you’re reading in English as indicated in the introduction to this study plan.
The final section to tackle is Critical Reasoning (CR), a special type of question that tests your understanding of arguments. The definitive answer to your Critical Reasoning woes is the PowerScore Critical Reasoning Bible, which clearly analyzes each of the ten types of CR questions you’ll see on test day. In my opinion, it also features some of the best practice GMAT questions available. Use this in conjunction with OG practice questions to boost your Critical Reasoning skills.
A special note for those students who wish to take their prep a step further: LSAT sets are some of the best resources for tough Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning questions. These questions come appealingly close to official GMAT material when it comes to structure, but, admittedly, they are considerably harder than what you should expect on the real test. If you manage to master LSAT CR questions, then you’re on your way to a solid GMAT verbal score!
Days 46 to 60 – Computer-adaptive tests and finishing touches
Use the final two weeks of your prep to take full-length computer-adaptive practice tests (CATs) to help you with your timing and stamina. Avoid taking practice tests less than three days apart; taking a practice test is mentally demanding and you need rest.
Use the Manhattan GMAT code that comes with the SC guide to access five free Manhattan GMAT online tests, which are considered to be some of the best GMAT tests available. Keep the second GMATprep test you still have for the very last days before your exam.
In between tests, it’s advisable to use the information from your error log to target specific problem areas. Pay special attention to the issues you’ve had with questions from the OG books, because it’s likely you’ll see similarly structured questions on your big day!
In the last day or two before your exam, try to read some templates for the Analytical Writing Assessment, the essay portion of the GMAT. While the score you get for this section does not count towards your final 200 to 800 score, it’s important to start the test with confidence. However, do not forget to relax in the days leading up to your GMAT. You’ll need a lot of physical and mental energy to get through the exam.
After about two months of intensive GMAT prep, you will have now overcome the difficulties associated with being a non-native English speaker! Good luck and be sure to share your success story with us!