4 Ways That ESL Students Can Fully Prepare for the GRE

Are you dreaming of getting your master’s or doctorate degree?

If you’re a non-native English speaker who’s considering graduate school, you may already know about English proficiency exams you need to take for school, such as the TOEFL and the IELTS.

Another important test you may need to take is the GRE (Graduate Record Examination).

The GRE tests your ability in graduate-level math and English. It’s required for many different English-language graduate programs in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

While you don’t need to speak in English on the GRE (as you would on the TOEFL or IELTS), this exam is still a challenging test of your English language abilities. This is because the exam is made for native English speakers to take!

The Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE focuses on reading comprehension, and it involves complex, advanced English vocabulary. The GRE’s Analytical Writing Assessment (or AWA) requires test-takers to write in English on a very sophisticated level.

This exam can be especially tough if English isn’t your first language. But this test can be mastered.

With proper focus on your English reading and writing skills, you can get a top score.

In this article, we’ll look at several things you can do to prep for the GRE if you’re an ESL student.

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How to Prepare for the GRE When English Isn’t Your First Language

1. Read texts that are similar to GRE texts

First, we’re going to talk about input, which is the language that you see and hear.

ESL researcher Stephen Krashen talks about two important kinds of input that non-native English speakers need in order to improve their English.

One of these types of input is comprehensible input—pieces of language you can understand.

The other kind of input is compelling input—language you find interesting.

Interesting English reading and understandable English reading can go hand-in-hand. If you read stuff on subjects you’re interested in, you’ll understand the readings better. Moreover, you’ll be motivated to learn the new words you see, because you’re reading about topics you find enjoyable.

The trick here is to find reading material that’s both fun and cool, yet also has the GRE’s complex sentence structure and large range of vocabulary. This may sound hard at first. If you’ve taken a peek (look) at some of the trickier passages from the GRE Verbal Reasoning section, you may wonder how anything written at that challenging, complicated level can be fun to read!

In fact, finding fun materials that are similar to GRE texts is a lot easier than you might think.

If you like mystery and intrigue, for instance, you can read thriller novels by authors like Dan Brown, Agatha Christie and Robert Ludlum. These authors and many other English-speaking authors use a graduate-level writing style to tell fast-paced adventure stories. And quite a few of these stories even inspire popular movies and TV shows, such as “The Da Vinci Code” (Dan Brown), “Hercule Poirot” (Agatha Christie) and “The Bourne Identity” (Robert Ludlum) series of books and action movies.

Speaking of movies and TV shows, you can also get GRE reading practice through English-language movie reviews (as seen on websites such as Rotten Tomatoes) or English-language plot recaps of TV shows (from sites like Entertainment Weekly‘s In fact, movie and TV journalism in general is very similar to what you’ll read on the GRE. Most people who write about film and television have advanced degrees in English, and it shows.

On that note, there are many non-fiction journalistic websites that are interesting too. English-language news sites are full of info that’s relevant to your life. Needless to say, news sites with a GRE-like writing style can be an interesting resource for GRE Verbal Reasoning preparation. They offer complex sentence structure and advanced vocabulary.

Some especially good websites for non-fiction GRE reading include The Wall Street Journal, BBC, The Economist, The MIT Technology Review and Art & Letters Daily. Some of these may require a subscription. The New York Times, which has a wide range of high-quality content, gives you a limited number of free articles per month. You may want to consider getting a subscription to gain full access to their site.

2. Learn how to notice and remember new vocabulary during your GRE reading practice

Once you’ve put together a nice set of interesting GRE practice reading materials, you need to use these study materials in a way that’s both fun and educational.

How to do both? Enjoy reading your favorite materials casually, but make a conscious effort to notice new words.

When you see a word you don’t know, try to guess its meaning based on the context—the meaning of the whole sentence, paragraph or story. Then check your guesses in a dictionary.

You could use a common online dictionary such as “Merriam-Webster” or However, for ESL students, I’d recommend using a dictionary specifically designed for aggressive vocabulary building. Wordnik and are two websites that really explore English vocabulary in depth, with simple language, detailed definitions and great example sentences.

Visual Thesaurus is a fun and useful interactive tool for looking at connections between words in English. You get to explore words arranged in “maps,” which helps you understand exactly how the words are related and remember their meanings more easily.

As you learn new GRE vocabulary, start to keep a vocabulary journal—a list of the new words you’re learning. This kind of journal will allow you to revisit the useful GRE vocabulary you discover during reading practice. Reviewing the words from your reading is important, because you need to study a word repeatedly in order to really learn it. Be sure to pick up your vocabulary journal and read all your old entries frequently.

And of course, make sure to be on the lookout for vocabulary words that are especially common on the GRE. Cross-reference your reading practice with GRE vocabulary lists, such as this list from

3. Study and master complex sentence structures

Now that we’ve gone through some GRE vocabulary, what about grammar?

To understand GRE grammar, you need to understand the structure found in the exam’s complex sentences. You must be able to mentally take a complicated sentence apart and put it back together.

There are a lot of ways to do this, but it can be hard to picture exactly how to learn and practice GRE grammar.

To help you understand how you can study the grammar of GRE-style writing, I’ll show you a sample GRE grammar activity for ESL students, using this sentence:

  • Although no one expected it, seemingly capricious tragedy struck the Kennedy family once again in 1999, when John Kennedy Jr. died before his time, perishing in an aviation accident while he piloted his personal airplane above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

At first, a GRE sentence like this can be kind of confusing for a non-native English speaker. However, you can master these kinds of complex sentences by learning to understand the building blocks of written English: phrases (verb phrases, noun phrases, prepositional phrases, etc…), subjects, predicates and clauses. So here’s an activity that can help you deeply understand this sentence about JFK Junior:

Step 1: Identify all the prepositional phrases (underlined below):

  • Although no one expected it, seemingly capricious tragedy struck the Kennedy family once again in 1999, when John Kennedy Jr. died before his time, perishing in an aviation accident while he piloted his personal airplane above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Step 2: Get rid of all of the prepositional phrases, so that you can get a better look at the basic information in the sentence.

  • Although no one expected it, seemingly capricious tragedy struck the Kennedy family once again, when John Kennedy Jr. died, perishing while he piloted his personal airplane.

Step 3: Identify the different clauses in the sentence. A clause is a piece of language that has a subject and a predicate. A predicate is the verb that modifies a subject, combined with the words that follow the verb. Put each clause in [[brackets]], put each subject in bold, and put the predicates in italics:

  • [[Although no one expected it,]] [[seemingly capricious tragedy struck the Kennedy family once again,]] [[when John Kennedy Jr. died,]] [[perishing while he piloted his personal airplane.]]

Step 4: Put the prepositional phrases back into the sentence, and once again mark every clause, subject, and predicate:

  • [[Although no one expected it,]] [[seemingly capricious tragedy struck the Kennedy family once again in 1999,]] [[when John Kennedy Jr. died before his time,]] [[perishing in an aviation accident while he piloted his personal airplane above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.]]

And now you see what it means to take a sentence apart and put it back together. By removing some parts of the sentence, you can understand the main ideas better. After adding those parts back to the sentence, you’ll understand them better as well.

There are other ways to take apart and rebuild GRE sentences, of course. You could identify all the adjectives first instead of identifying all the prepositional phrases. Or you could go straight to looking at the clauses right away, without “cutting out” other phrases. The idea here is to play with the different grammatical parts of GRE sentences.

Find a method of looking at these parts that works for you, and helps you get to the true meaning within a complex sentence.

With practice, you’ll be able to understand long GRE sentences more and more easily. The goal is to train yourself to understand English sentences quickly and automatically, just as you’d understand sentences in your own language.

4. Apply your GRE reading skills to your AWA writing

The AWA lives up to its name (Analytical Writing Assessment, remember?).

It involves highly analytical writing. You’ll be expected to deeply analyze an argument or an important social issue. You’ll write about all relevant aspects of your GRE AWA topic. And you’ll be expected to support all of your claims and ideas clearly and completely.

Getting a good score on the GRE AWA involves something that can be challenging for both native English speakers and ESL students: Writing well in academic English.

Don’t worry—you won’t need to write at the complex, professional level you see in GRE passages, but you’ll need to show a good range of grammar, vocabulary and organization.

Your first step toward finding your personal English writing style is to imitate what you’ve seen in your own reading practice. Take the vocabulary and grammar you’ve learned, and use it in your own writing. Recognize how ideas connect to each other in English novels and news articles. Use the kinds of transitions and structure that you saw in your practice reading, but give that structure your own personal twist.

Above all, give yourself time when you first start preparing for GRE writing.

Writing well in a second language is slow work at the beginning. Beating the GRE’s 30-minute AWA time limit is important—but the first thing you should focus on is writing a good essay. Learning to write more quickly is something you should do in the later stages of your GRE prep.


The GRE is your ticket to countless educational opportunities in the English-speaking world.

For ESL students, this test can seem scary at a glance.

But if you’ve already learned English well enough to pass a test like the TOEFL—or well enough to read this article—you can beat the GRE.

You have a strong foundation of English skills. Keep building on that foundation to beat the GRE and get ready for graduate school.

David Recine has a Master’s in TESOL from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He works as a GRE, TOEFL, and IELTS expert at Magoosh Test Prep, where you can find GRE word lists and more great materials.

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

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