Making The Cut

Graduate and professional school present testing hurdles even higher than those the SAT presented high school students. Curricula vary among colleges and universities, so admission officers look at graduate examination scores as another way of choosing possible candidates for their schools.

Kenrick Leung
Guardian

This creates a great need for tutoring and test preparation to boost test scores. The test preparation market is growing and diversifying, reflecting the demand of college students with different levels of tutoring.

Though tests are crucial to the admissions process, other qualifications, such as undergraduate GPA, course load and extracurricular activities are taken into account. Nevertheless, what makes testing so valuable is the level playing field and common measure it creates for all applicants.

Rather than having one exam that is taken by all students, graduate schools require different tests depending on what potential students wish to study. Each test is separate from the others and has different time lengths and questions.

Some tests require using computers, while others still require a No. 2 pencil. With all the tests around, here is a look into the major tests available and how to best prepare for a graduate admissions test.

Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

Three sections: verbal (30 minutes, 30 questions), qualitative (45 minutes, 28 questions), analytical (60 minutes, 35 questions).

Scoring: Each section is scored from 200 to 800.

Average: 470 (verbal), 570 (quantitative), 540 (analytical).

Almost all masters and doctoral programs require the GRE, therefore it is not necessarily related to any particular field of study. Financial aid and grants are also determined using GRE scores.

The verbal section measures ability to comprehend and analyze written materials. The qualitative section determines elementary mathematical concepts, and the analytical section looks at relationships among sets of information and it tests logical thinking.

The GRE is a computer adaptive test, which means that instead of filling in the bubbles, a computer scores questions. This is important as computer adaptive tests force the test taker to answer questions according to what he has already answered. If a question is answered correctly, the next question gets more difficult. The opposite occurs when an answer is incorrect.

In addition to the GRE, subject tests and a writing assessment are also available. Each school has different requirements for which tests its applicants must take.

Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)

Two sections and two essays: analytical writing assessment (60 minutes, two essays), verbal (75 minutes, 41 questions), quantitative (75 minutes, 37 questions).

Sections have subscore ranges of 0 to 60. Writing assessment ranges from 0 to 6.

Average: 500

Business school candidates must take the GMAT, which tests general academic ability, but not business knowledge. A great score won’t necessarily get you into the school of your choice, but a low score could keep you out.

Note that the GMAT is a computer adaptive test, making it easy to take the test anytime and anywhere.

Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

Five sections and one essay: two logical reasoning (35 minutes, 24-26 questions each), logic games (35 minutes, 23-24 questions), reading comprehension (35 minutes, 26-28 questions), experimental (35 minutes, 24-28 questions), writing sample (30 minutes).

Scoring: Overall scores range from 120 to 180.

Average: 150

The LSAT is different than other tests because it does not test verbal and mathematical ability, instead testing logical and analytical thinking. LSAT questions emphasize quick, complex reasoning.

Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

Three sections and two essays: verbal reasoning (85 minutes, 65 questions), physical sciences (100 minutes, 77 questions), writing sample (60 minutes, two essays), biological sciences (100 minutes, 77 questions).

Scoring: Scores from each section range from 1 to 15 and writing sample scores range from “”J”” to “”T,”” with “”T”” being the highest.

Average: 8 for each section; writing sample average is “”N.””

Medical schools require this rigorous and intensive test that often lasts longer than six hours with breaks. The MCAT tests critical and verbal skills as well as numerous scientific concepts.

While the LSAT does not generally follow formulas, the MCAT is heavy in memorization, requiring a basic knowledge of general and organic chemistry, physics and biology.

Test preparation courses

One of the most common and effective ways students prepare for their admission examinations is to take a test preparation course such as those offered by Princeton Review and Kaplan.

These companies’ classes cover the basics of each test and proctor mock exams. Many students find the courses helpful because they organize key concepts and provide review sessions for all materials covered.

Most courses consist of several classes that go over the various sections and essay portions of the test.

Students learn how to approach individual questions as well as overall test-taking techniques. To reinforce these ideas, mock exams are given under regular test-taking conditions.

For applicants who need more structured test preparation, well-scheduled courses offer a systematic timeline. Many students consider these classes essential to boosting their scores.

These classes are also convenient and flexible, as many companies provide a multitude of possible time slots. Course lengths vary by the type of test taken, but most last about 10 weeks.

Courses cost from $500 for quick reviews to more than $4,000 for personalized, private sessions. The average fee for a regular course hovers around $1,000.

Critics of admissions tests often argue that these tests allow only those who can afford prep classes to achieve high scores, leaving those who cannot afford expensive tutoring behind. The Career Services Center recommends doing research to find the best course offered and warns against choosing the first course available.

Reading your way to the top

If the idea of spending 10 weeks or at least $1,000 for preparation sounds too intense or extreme, another option is to self-learn through the numerous graduate test preparation books that are available. Many of the companies that provide courses also sell books that closely represent what is taught by instructors.

Besides Kaplan and the Princeton Review, other companies such as Peterson, Arco, and Barron’s offer guides for virtually every test out there. Although an instructor is not there to discuss problems, the convenience and flexibility of reading a book help in preparation for the admissions tests.

However, be wary of using books to study for computer adapted tests. Reading a book can never recreate the feeling of taking a test by computer.

There are many books and many ways of approaching the tests, but the best one is the one you are most comfortable using.

When looking for books to use, make sure sample exams are included. These sample exams replace the mock exams used in preparation courses.

On-campus help

The Career Services Center offers help for students needing more information for graduate tests. Students can pick up informational bulletins, which have details on price, location and times of exams. Besides having flyers, the center also offers test-taking tips and techniques.

Addresses and locations of test preparation services are also available. Although the Career Services Center does not say which courses are most effective, an applicant should look for several things in a test preparation course: What are the costs? What are the qualifications of the instructors? How long does the course last? If you aren’t satisfied with your scores, can you take the class again for free?

For more information, contact the Career Services Center’s Professional and Graduate School Opportunities Program at (858) 534-4939. The center’s Web site, http://career.ucsd.edu is also helpful for learning more about graduate admissions tests.

For those who decide to attend graduate or professional school, admissions tests conjure up old memories of the SAT or ACT.

However, with preparation and knowledge of what may appear on the test, graduate school examinations can be much easier.

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