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Test Takers Who Are Nonnative English Speakers

Although the GRE® tests are not tests of English-language proficiency (ELP), they measure skills important for graduate and professional education at institutions where the language of instruction is English. Considering GRE and ELP test scores (such as TOEFL® scores) together will enable score users to determine if English proficiency may have affected an applicant's performance on the GRE tests. For example, a test taker's ELP test scores can help score users determine whether a low score on the GRE Analytical Writing measure is due to lack of familiarity with English or lack of ability to produce and analyze logical arguments.

Test takers whose native language is not English often find the Analytical Writing section more challenging than native speakers of English. ETS takes steps to ensure that these performance differences are not due to differences on the cross-cultural accessibility of the prompts.

  • Fairness reviews occur for all prompts to ensure that the content and tasks are clear and accessible for all groups of test takers, including students whose native language is not English.
  • Scorers are trained to focus on the analytical logic of the essays more than on spelling, grammar or syntax.
  • The mechanics of writing are weighed in their ratings only to the extent that these errors impede clarity of meaning.

Since the Analytical Writing measure is tapping into different skills than the Verbal Reasoning measure, it may not be surprising that the strength of performance of individuals whose native language is not English differs between the Analytical Writing measure and the Verbal Reasoning measure. Given that graduate faculty have indicated that analytical writing is an important component of work in most graduate schools, including the Analytical Writing measure should increase the validity of the General Test.

When considering applications from nonnative speakers of English, it is useful to remember that there is a difference between language proficiency and abilities in areas such as critical thinking and analysis. An applicant's level of English proficiency can interfere with the opportunity to demonstrate these abilities. In these cases, it is especially important to look for evidence of critical thinking in other parts of the application, such as the essay or coursework. 

It is also important to consider whether English-language support is available on campus. With language support, it is possible that talented applicants whose English needs development can still succeed in your institution.

Scores from an English proficiency test can help decision makers better understand GRE scores. For example, if an applicant for whom English is not the first language has a low GRE Analytical Writing score, additional information from the TOEFL test will help in the interpretation of that score.

The GRE® General Test and the TOEFL iBT® Test provide different but complementary information about an applicant.

The TOEFL iBT Test measures the academic English-language proficiency of people whose native language is not English. Test takers are required to combine their reading, listening, speaking and writing skills to perform academic tasks similar to those found in the graduate or undergraduate classroom.

The GRE General Test measures the verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills needed for success in a graduate, business or law program.

Comparison of Sections on the TOEFL iBT Test and GRE General Test

TOEFL iBT Test GRE General Test
Reading Verbal Reasoning
Listening *
Speaking *
Writing Analytical Writing
* Quantitative Reasoning

* Not included/measured on test.

Many graduate and professional programs, including business and law, find the ability to speak and listen in English is critical to success in academic courses. These language skills are not evaluated on the GRE test, but they are measured on the TOEFL test.

While both tests have a writing component, there are significant differences in what is being assessed on each. The TOEFL Writing measure emphasizes fundamental writing skills as well as the ability to organize and convey, in writing, information that has been understood from spoken and written text. By contrast, the GRE Analytical Writing section measures critical thinking and analytical writing skills. It assesses the ability to articulate and support complex ideas, construct and evaluate arguments, and sustain a focused and coherent discussion.

This distinction is important. If an applicant for whom English is not the first language has a low GRE Analytical Writing score, additional information from the TOEFL test will help in the interpretation of that score. Is the GRE score low because the individual is unable to think critically and express those thoughts in writing? Or is the score low because the test taker has difficulty expressing herself in writing in English? In the latter case, the applicant may actually have the ability to think critically but the level of English proficiency interferes with the ability to demonstrate it.

If an applicant has a low GRE Verbal Reasoning score, is this the result of an inability to analyze, evaluate and synthesize written material? Or is this due to poor English reading skills?

Using GRE and TOEFL scores in a complementary way will provide critical information about the applicant's skills.

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