GMAT and GRE for Spanish Speakers

The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) exams are standardized and adaptive tests that represent a core element for the application to a high-quality graduate degree. These exams are based on a principle of comparability, where it is intended to compare all students against the same norm. This principle is not always fulfilled, since there are language, semantic and cultural differences for applicants with a native language other than English. Below we will analyze the main difficulties faced by a Spanish speaker when taking a standardized test such as the GMAT or GRE.

For many Spanish speakers, the GRE or GMAT is the first and probably the only test of its kind that you will take in your academic life. For American students, they are one of several standardized tests throughout their lives. Consider that, at least out of high school, the majority of American students took the SAT, the entrance exam for most of the country’s bachelor’s programs. This test includes reading comprehension, writing, and math sections, skills that are also assessed on the GMAT and GRE. For this test, many students begin preparing early in high school.

GMAT and GRE for Spanish Speakers

For students from some countries, including Latin Americans, being evaluated through these tests represents a disadvantage. According to what Borunda (2018) mentions, standardized tests are based on the principle of comparability, they are intended to be a standard and objective element to compare students regardless of what career and in which university they studied. For the principle of comparability to be valid, test takers who are not native English speakers should have the same level of knowledge of the language and acculturation as a native speaker

Probably the Latin American profile was not considered in the “standard” of the exam, since Spanish-speaking applicants are a minority of those who present it. According to statistics provided by the Graduate Management Admission Test, it is estimated that only 3.3% of applicants are Latin American (GMAC 2016). For its part, in a document published by Educational Testing Service, a company that applies the GRE, it is mentioned that between 1 and 2% of the exams taken between July 2013 and June 2016 were from Latin America (ETS 2017).

The way we learned

In Latin America, the educational system evaluates with knowledge and memorization tests more than with agility tests. Many students tend to be at full power studying the exam week to memorize concepts and mechanize procedures, and they do not focus on understanding them and generating the competencies or skills. Memorizing and mechanizing is sufficient for the type of exams that students in Latin America face throughout their academic lives. They are even given tests that ask the same task exercise or the example on the blackboard. A different problem that will force them to think and be creative is criticized because “it was not seen in class.”Both the GRE and the GMAT evaluate high school curriculum topics, but with a level of depth and abstraction that could only be measured with problems that change the game and force to think “out of the box” in creative solutions, with the In order to demonstrate if the applicant has a deep level of understanding.

The way Spanish-speaking students learn many of the concepts is different from the way they are addressed on the test. The types of exercises or problems found in these tests are probably very different from the way these applicants learned them in school, and the way the official guides address the concepts has to do with the American educational system . For example, problems of mixtures, proportions and ratios can be solved with the rule of three, a concept that is taught directly in Latin America and that is possibly the most used in our daily lives, but that is not mentioned as such in the guides or the examples from official exam preparation literature.

The language barrier

The GRE and GMAT are tests that measure certain quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning and writing skills – they are not English tests. The test is done in the same way by English speakers and, in many cases, they do not obtain the desired scores despite being their native language English. Now, for Spanish-speaking applicants, having to do it in English brings additional complexity. The change in language and having to reason it in a language other than our native language are conditions that will consume more energy and possibly time than if they did it in Spanish.

However, not everything is a disadvantage for Spanish speakers. In the case of GRE, there is a very important vocabulary component, and there are words that are classified as highly difficult that have a Latin root, so they are probably similar to Spanish, something difficult for someone who only speaks English. Some examples are invincible, superfluous, and rejuvenation , words that if they appear on the test are likely to be easy for someone who speaks Spanish and much more difficult for someone who doesn’t speak a language of Latin origin, since they are generally used in formal contexts.

The cultural barrier

Culturally, Spanish-speaking test takers are also at a disadvantage, since many of the topics of the readings, reasoning questions, and in some cases word problems , are based on situations in everyday North American life. Sometimes they will be alien to our reality and an extra effort will have to be made to understand them and not digress into details that will not contribute anything to the solution of an exercise. A clear example is the problems that speak of levels of students in the university . Talking about a senior, a sophomore, or a freshman will come naturally to an American, but we, as Spanish speakers, are probably not familiar that freshmen are freshmen, or seniors are the ones who are about to graduate.

When a standardized test , such as the GMAT or GRE, is administered to international students, it not only measures algebra, arithmetic, or English, but also forces a student to overcome cultural differences that place them, by design, at a disadvantage. (Borunda 2018)


All the difficulties mentioned above can be minimized if the student prepares in the correct way, taking into account strategies that allow him to respond efficiently. The hours that a Spanish speaker has to invest to prepare will generally be more than those of someone whose native language is English. However, if you do it strategically, keeping in mind cultural and semantic differences, you can achieve high scores that put you on a par with any candidate internationally.

Here are some strategies you can take when preparing for the exam:

1.- Relate the topics with what you have learned previously: when addressing certain types of problems, as a student you will have to make an effort to remember how you learned the concept and the details that made you learn it. Thinking that the division of fractions is solved by the “Sandwich Law” for Mexicans, “The ears” for Colombians or the “double C” for Venezuelans, will make you more agile and help you save time and energy.

2.- Study Vocabulary: in addition to having reading comprehension and critical reasoning skills, strategically memorizing words that appear frequently on the exam can make a big difference. For example, learn the words by clusters that have similar meaning and order them according to the level of intensity.

3.- Learn to translate between English and mathematics: having well learned how to mathematically express expressions that commonly appear on the exam, such as greater than, triple or x years ag o, will make you more agile when posing word problems. This is a strategy that applies to any student, and it will give you an advantage if you become an expert in translating the text into the equation.

4.- Study in English, relate it in Spanish: Exam-type exercises must always be in English, but the strategies, shortcuts and tips can be named or allude to something in Spanish that makes us take action. For example, when you see a problem and you automatically think of a Pythagorean triple or of using cross multiplication, you do not need to know the name of these tools in English, you only need to remember them to use them when solving certain types of problems.

These types of strategies can be learned with time and practice, but when prepared with a methodology focused on Spanish speakers and a community of Spanish-speaking students, they will permeate more quickly and be adopted more easily. If your goal is to take the GMAT or GRE , make a plan that includes these strategies and consult with someone who has this approach.