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GAMSAT For English as a Second Language (ESL)

Published on
March 29, 2024

Perspectives of a Student: ESL & ELL in Section Two of the GAMSAT

Writing is something I enjoy, but only if there are no boundaries, no restrictions, and I am not being evaluated by someone else. But with the GAMSAT Section 2, you are writing to be judged for your ability to think logically, reason clearly, and control the language into a thoughtful response; all of which place an immense amount of pressure that ultimately makes Section 2 as demanding for candidates as it is.

So how did I Tackle Section 2 of the GAMSAT?

I believe everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing. As an ESL student, my strength lies in my ability to inject flavour into bland ideas due to my culturally different upbringing; allowing me to add taste to my writing and bring it to life. I also know that I do not ‘beat around the bush’ when I write as that only disengages the readers from my message. However, as an ESL student, grammar is a major weakness when I write under time pressure.

I often think and write too fast when I am under time pressure, leading to what appears like a  heap of grammatical errors on the page. Moreover, I tend to write long-winded sentences that run on for a few lines without a break, making it difficult for the readers to catch a breath when reading. And the list goes on. Luckily, I was assigned to a tutor who understood my writing style and focused on cultivating my strengths while improving my weaknesses. This gave me confidence and a competitive advantage in tackling Section 2 of the GAMSAT.

Here are some of the most important things I took away as an ESL student:

1. Pretentious words do not make me a great writer.

In fact, they can easily form a barrier between me and the readers, alienating them further. I was always afraid to write because I am not a wordsmith, that my lack of big words would make my writing lack complexity and make me sound simple-minded. However, I realised that having a simplistic approach that conveys a complex idea goes further than writing pretentiously. I learnt that I should instead write accessibly to form a connection with the reader, because if I lose the reader’s interest, I fail.

2. Purpose, audience and tone

These are important factors to have in mind when writing; they dictate the contents of my paragraphs. Knowing my purpose and audience helps me determine a strategy to convey my ideas. The tone then allows me to execute my ideas onto paper that communicates the desired message and achieves the desired result.

3. Just start writing.

Writing can be quite daunting as an ESL student, so instead of setting the timer on and start writing, I would instead pull out a pen and paper and proceed to ponder upon the prompts for quite some time in order to conjure up a captivating first sentence that is intriguing and tantalising. This went on for quite some time before realising that I can only become better at writing in GAMSAT if I practice under timed conditions. Since then, I started practicing the habit of just writing down whatever comes to mind first and polish it after, if time permits. This gives me a starting point that gets my creative juices flowing and allows me to overcome writer’s block.

4. Have a plan of attack.

A very intimidating component of the GAMSAT essay to me is the time pressure. Therefore, as an ESL student, it is important that I have a safety net to fall back on no matter what the prompts are. The safety net can be in the form of having a macrostructure, being able to mould an idea packet into any topic, or scheduling a set time for each paragraph. This will ease the feeling of being overwhelmed during the exam. But most importantly, consistently writing under time pressure will help overcome exam anxieties and allow me to perform well.

5. Improvement does not happen overnight.

It is quite frustrating when I make the same mistakes over and over, even after being told countless of times. But I learnt that patience is key and therefore, I shall not succumb to a few setbacks. Instead, I need to keep my head above water and continue to paddle, because making mistakes while practice writing allows me to grow and soar from them. Section 2 of the GAMSAT can be conquered. I did that by having fun exploring the topics I want to read and write about, actively learn new things about myself and writing, and lastly, meeting other ESL students to form a community of support and friendship with whom I feel comfortable chipping in my two cents occasionally. Section 2 of the GAMSAT is a platform for ESL students to shine with their own unique experiences, so don’t dread it, but embrace it.

Perspectives of a Tutor: ESL & ELL in Section Two of the GAMSAT

Australia is fast becoming the in-vogue destination for studying medicine. Each year, thousands of International students enrol in medical degrees across the country. In 2018, approximately one in seven of the national cohort was an international student. That figure is set to grow. With these increasing enrolments, it means that thousands more international students will be sitting the medicine entrance exam – GAMSAT – each year. With the shifts in English proficiency of hopefuls looking to study medicine in Australia, so too, is the way we teach the writing and essay heavy components of the GAMSAT medical entrance exam.

The GAMSAT exam is notoriously competitive. Section 2 of the exam, in which candidates must compose two well-written, nuanced, and insightful essays in a single hour, is difficult enough for most native English speakers. This infamously challenging task is compounded for the growing number of folk who attempt to tackle it from an ESL (English as a Second Language) or ELL (English Language Learner) background. Help with this particular challenge is one of the fastest-growing areas in the way we teach GAMSAT preparation.

If you are reading this, then there is a good chance that you already know just how challenging this can be. ACER states that ‘every effort is made to minimise factors which might disadvantage candidates from non-English-speaking backgrounds’. However, we all intuitively know that success in this area is drastically helped by an authentic sense of confidence and understanding, despite the sincere self-doubt that can come from our perceived sense of language proficiency. The use of a bilingual dictionary will not give us that. It must come from the way in which we prepare for the exam. Like all difficulties in the GAMSAT space, confidence and proficiency in English can be overcome through strategy, focus, and sticking to a robust roadmap.

In saying so, there are many myths about the best way to prepare for Section 2 with an ESL background. These add to the many rumours and hearsays that swirl around an already particularly myth-laden section. We’d like to explore a couple of strategies that will guide you through your GAMSAT prep and perhaps demystify some of the common concerns we hear about from folk who are anxious about how their English proficiency will affect their Section 2 score.

1. Don’t Do It Alone

One of the most effective strategies for supporting your growth and development in Section 2 is by surrounding yourself with native English speakers who are going through the same thing as you. Seeking out and establishing a network of colleagues will give you access to people who can clarify, interpret, decipher, and decode information with which you are struggling. No question is spurious. No idiom or colloquialism cannot be explained. The old adage, ‘if you can speak, you can write’, is relevant here. By surrounding yourself with fellow exam-sitters who, by the fact of birth and circumstance, are more familiar with the quirks of Australian English than you are, you are positioning yourself to organically improve the ways in which you speak and write the language. Moreover, this network is an invaluable resource for asking questions about the use and misuse of particular phrases and wordings.

For many, preparing for the exam while studying makes for a busy enough time. Working in social life, regardless of whether it helps with your Australian language skills, can be tough. Another effective way of surrounding yourself in the language is by consuming Australian television programming, news, and cinema. It may seem like a waste of precious exam time, but aside from engaging directly with a native speaker, picking up turns of phrase from the television has proved to be a helpful strategy for ESL students around the world. At Fraser’s, we adore the ways in which our cohort begin to form friendships and study groups over the course of our GAMSAT program. One of the best resources for GAMSAT preparation is each other, particularly if you are a student with an ESL or ELL background. With regularity comes confidence.

2. Keep a Record

Have you ever listened to a professional speaker or read a piece of writing from a professional writer and found yourself contentedly nodding along in agreement? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve probably just encountered some effective communication skills. These skills are not something with which folk are born. They are painstakingly developed over the course of a professional life. There is an old maxim in writing – ‘good authors borrow, great ones steal’. In the GAMSAT, every ‘effective’ turn-of-phrase, argument, or interesting communication skill you’ve ever encountered on the page is up for grabs. The best way to steal all of the wonderful stuff you’ve encountered is to keep a diary of pilfered prose. Every time you read something elegant or insightful, write it up in a ‘phrase diary’. Inspect these sentences. Ask yourself if there is any way in which you could bend it, swap out words, or simply re-contextualise it in order to suit your purposes.

As your list grows, so should your vocabulary. Beautiful and effective sentences will fast solidify in your mind and become readily available in even the tensest exam-type situation. The same goes with new, powerful, and conceptual words. 

Recording your discoveries is the best way to make sure they don’t slip through your fingers and disappear into the ether when you are under pressure or against the clock. At Fraser’s, we encourage all of our students to engage in this strategy. We even implore our non-ESL and ELL students to get disciplined and develop their own diaries. We believe in this strategy that much. Moreover, we have produced reams of effective sentence frames that can handle the new analytical and critical language students are starting to drop into their Section 2 responses. It is painstaking. But, it is also incremental. By writing down the phrases and languages that work to persuade you, you are on the right track of affecting your ACER marker in a similar way.

3. Seek Out Visual Materials

If you’ve ever visited Fraser’s GAMSAT Headquarters in North Melbourne, you may have seen our academic stuff beavering away on an endless string of slide decks for the various classes we run. This is not an accident. It is a labour of love. Visual materials are one of the best resources for ESL and ELL students. Breaking down long-winded, written instruction and description into easily digestible, visual materials can open doors that were once made impenetrable by thick and dreary prose. Luckily, visual mediums are quickly taking over the world of education. YouTube is full of explanatory videos explaining difficult to grasp critical concepts that will give you the edge in Section 2.

If you intend to explore the world of conceptual analysis, seek out introductory material first. Don’t dive straight into the heavy stuff as you may find yourself lost in deep waters. Being lost can sometimes lead to despair and frustration and cause us to abandon the venture entirely. Instead, seek out the basics. Even when they can sometimes appear too basic. Grounding our learning visually can open up more complex and ultimately more useful material as we move along our GAMSAT journeys.

What We Do

There are a few things that we do at Fraser’s GAMSAT to alleviate the burden of navigating Section 2 preparation for our students who enter the course from ESL and ELL backgrounds. At Fraser’s, we structure our Section 2 syllabus on what is sometimes called a ‘flipped-classroom’ model. That is, lessons are planned around a set of pre-class readings. We do this to maximise the time ESL and ELL students have with the materials. Moreover, we have introduced an exciting new feature to the ways in which we teach Section 2 skills. Every week, we have dozens of markers working diligently on marking essays and identifying issues that emerge from folk who are writing from an ESL or ELL background. In concert with our team of specialist markers and our private tutorial program, we are able to help explain and iron-out any fundamental misunderstandings or re-occurring errors that pop up in your writing. This is designed to maximise your study time and allow you to focus on developing your analytical skills and argumentation. As we mentioned above, overcoming problems that arise when writing from an ESL or ELL background is as much about confidence as it is about knowledge. If you implement one or more of the strategies we have laid out here, both these aspects of your GAMSAT preparation will undoubtedly become more robust. While ACER has done the best it can to minimise any disadvantage that arises for ESL or ELL sitters, the anxiety and frustration can be overcome and, we believe, you are capable of demonstrating your best effort in the exam. Good luck and remember that success is a matter of strategy, not brilliance.

Where to next?

Now that you’ve read all about Section 2, you might like to use our quote generator and essay style guide to get some practice writing essays.

You may also like to read our other articles on Section 1 and Section 3. If you’re still wrapping your head around the GAMSAT exam, a good place to start is reading our ‘What is the GAMSAT’ article!

Some of our other articles in the series:

GAMSAT preparation


Don’t forget to check out Fraser’s GAMSAT Free Resources too!