How much English do you need to know for the GMAT verbal section?

As someone who has been mocked by Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese people (in that order) for tragic attempts at speaking their respective languages, I know the anxiety foreign language students feel. Today’s post is meant to help out my fellow language-learners by answering a simple question:

How much English do you need to know to take the GMAT?

For some international students who are new to the language, ESL classes might be a necessary step before they even start thinking about business school. For others, whose foundation in English grammar is stronger, study time may be better spent reading books in English, writing essays, taking practice tests, or doing focused grammar drills. So how can you know whether your English is at the right level for the GMAT?

Simply put, to do well on the GMAT you should know enough English to function in a university environment. First, check your proficiency by listening to sample lectures on Youtube. This is a practical recommendation that pertains to spoken as well as written English. In business school you will be expected to make arguments, back up opinions, and discuss case studies in depth. You should be comfortable stating your opinions and answering questions. Though you want to have better grammar than Borat or Jackie Chan, don’t worry if you have an accent or make a few mistakes when speaking.

Here’s an easy test: Watch a movie in English without subtitles; try something business related, like Glengarry GlenRossWall Street, or Working Girl if you can. When you’re done, read a detailed summary of its plot online. If you find that you missed out on important plot points, you should consider whether your listening ability is strong enough for a business school lecture, which will likely be less entertaining and more complex than a film.

You can test your reading level with The Wall Street Journal or The Economistmagazine. Both are challenging even to native speakers thanks to their mature writing style and technical language. If you can comfortably get through such material without a dictionary, you should be more than ready for GMAT RC and CR.

If you want a precise assessment of your profiency, the TOEFL and TOEIC are both good official tests of English language ability. Many MBA programs, though not all, require these scores from foreign applicants. Either way, these tests are helpful for diagnostic purposes. Many graduate schools want to see at least an 80+ or 800+ score on the TOEFL and TOEIC respectively. If you’re planning to the take the GMAT, a TOEFL score in the 90’s or higher is even safer, as someone in the 80 range is likely to still get questions wrong from misreading.

Remember, the GMAT is not a language test. While it does test grammar and reading comprehension, its main function is to examine your reasoning and quantitative abilities. You may be great with logic and rhetoric in your native language, and if the GMAT could be translated into Chinese or Bengali, you’d score 800. Unfortunately, very few American MBA programs are taught in Bengali. A low score that is the result of poor English skills will not be representative of what you really know. In other words, you will appear less qualified than you actually are.

Think long and hard before you sign up for the GMAT. If you feel like you are always running out of time on the verbal section, or if you consistently get more than half of the Sentence Correction questions wrong, then you should spend some more time honing your grammatical foundation before you sit for the exam.

Basically, if you couldn’t understand this post, then you aren’t ready.

Jonathan Bethune is a content developer for Knewton.

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