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Focus Guides & Tips

Tips for the Test

Anh Nguyen November 1, 2018

Applying to graduate schools takes time but most of that time, quite ironically, is devoted to acing the many standardized tests designed to weed you out. It’s an uphill battle and to win, you need some tricks up your sleeve.

GRE, LSAT, MCAT… you name it. For most selective graduate and professional programs in the country, you will be required to pass a test that takes months to prepare for. Most merit-based scholarships depend on your test scores and GPA. While grades are a  less straightforward way of measuring academic success (you may have had a bad semester unrelated to your overall academic achievement), scoring in the 80th percentile for your test shows that you are ahead of the curve and worthy of serious consideration for admissions and, in some cases, school and department scholarships.

But like any arbitrary metric set out to measure your ability and readiness, aptitude tests are subjective and lousy in predicting your success in graduate school. They are meant to judge your understanding of a subject but not your future performance or determination to complete the program. As Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania discussed in her TED Talk, “grit—a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal—is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain,” not test scores.

Yet higher education’s fixation on standardized tests continues to be the most significant obstacle in obtaining an advanced degree for many people. Under this logic, many people would rather spend thousands of dollars for prep courses from national test prep brands like Kaplan and Princeton Review, only to realize that no matter how much money they spend, it’s up to them to raise the score. These tips provided below offer insight into how to prepare throughout the test prepping process and can help boost your score significantly.

1. Get your game plan on
Time seems to be the hardest-to-come-by commodity these days. No matter if you are in school or working full time, trying to find time to study for standardized tests is difficult. Dan Phung, a first year Master’s student in Environmental Science at Villanova University, recommends starting at soon as possible with whatever time you have. Phung had a full-time job as a social worker at the time he was preparing for the GRE, but he made time for preparation by setting up a timeline with things to do each day up until the testing week. “It’s pretty obvious, but you need to set up a studying plan and stick to it,” said Phung, who won a full-ride scholarship for his two-year program.

2. Practice, practice, practice
William Fedullo, a third year law student at the University of Pennsylvania, discloses that his secret for a high score lies in the number of practice tests he plowed through before taking the LSAT. The duration of the LSAT is four to five hours but under the pressure for time and intense concentration, it can feel a lot longer. Same goes to the 7.5-hour long MCAT, the lengthiest among the four grad school admissions exams. With the tremendous brain power required to remain focused, the test questions might not wear you out, but the time will. That’s why the advice for test takers is to take the practice test in one sitting to familiarize your mind and body with the strenuous task of sitting and focusing for hours on end.

3. Don’t be swayed and keep fighting
Grad school is going to be rough so passing any test with flying colors is only the first of many hoops you will have to jump through to achieve your goal. Don’t feel like the whole world comes crashing down if your score doesn’t live up to your expectations the first time. Alina Spiegel, a second year M.D./Ph.D. student at John Hopkins University faced the same issue the first time she took the test and got the results back. “I did well enough but not that well and pretty much crammed in the last week,” said Spiegel. Nonetheless, your test score is only part of your application and never a deciding factor as to whether you get in your dream program. You should reinforce your application in other ways and present a holistic image of who you are as a learner and practitioner instead of giving up because of a low test score.

4. Don’t underestimate your enemy
As a Risk Management undergrad, Bach Dang had a math-heavy course load and thought he could cram the math section of his GMAT preparation into one month. “I thought the math section is similar to the SAT but it turned out being harder than I thought,” Dang told me. Now a second year MBA student at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, Dang regards this experience as a lesson for never overestimating his ability to match what standardized tests require. The GMAT Quantitative Section was a lot trickier and more unconventional in its formatting. Excelling in your college math classes is only the prerequisite for acing this part. “My advice is that you should never start preparing one month before the test,” Dang said. “Even if you think you can master the easy section fast, start at least three or four months in advance.”

Amidst the student debt crisis, going back to school might be a daunting and scary task. When self-funding is not a viable option, a high test score to the right program can really open doors to many students who have their eyes on an advanced degree. With plenty of time to prepare, lots of practice and a clear mind to conquer the time constraint and the test’s difficulty, a high score is within reach.  So no more excuses. . .let’s get to work!