Higher Education > Advanced Advice

What You Need to Know About Entrance Exams

If you're planning to continue your studies beyond the bachelor's degree, you're going to encounter an old nemesis you haven't seen since high school—the entrance exam.

By Katherine T. Faber

If you're planning to continue your studies beyond the bachelor's degree, you're going to encounter an old nemesis you haven't seen since high school—the entrance exam. Of course, Mom's advice still holds: Get a good night's sleep and eat a good breakfast. But what else do you need to know about these tests?

If you're applying to medical school, law school or business school, you have no choice in taking the MCAT, LSAT or GMAT, respectively. If you're looking to pursue a higher degree in engineering, however, you might have to face the GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations—composed of a general test and variably required subject tests.

Beginning in October, the GRE will also offer a Writing Assessment that some schools will require of their applicants. This supplemental test is being offered to address the widespread concern among graduate schools that many prospective students are unprepared for academic writing—and that the essays on their applications may have been commissioned.

Obviously, the first question you need to answer is, which tests must you take? This will depend on the institutions to which you are applying. Some engineering programs do not require even the general test. Most Ph.D. programs require the general test but not a subject test. Chemical engineering departments may require the chemistry subject test; other departments order either the physics or the engineering test. But surveys conducted by the Educational Testing Service (which administers the GRE) indicate that fewer than a quarter of all programs require any subject test.

Deciding which optional tests to take may be easier if you understand how graduate schools weigh test scores. In general, there probably is some truth to the notion that good test scores can help you more than poor scores can hurt you. Why is this? Grad schools now realize that there are people who don't perform well when taking tests under time constraints, so at Northwestern University, for example, we generally review test scores in light of other considerations. If someone has a stellar academic record but does poorly on a test, we'll look at the kind of institution that student comes from. If such a student comes from a second-tier institution or one that was known for grade inflation, low test scores could influence our decision. But if the student is coming from a very strong school where he or she had a decent academic record, mediocre test scores probably won't dramatically influence his or her chances of getting accepted.

Although this may sound like the student gets the benefit of the doubt with regard to tests, I still generally advise my undergraduate students to avoid taking tests that aren't required. However, subject tests are used for more than admissions. If you'll be applying for a fellowship, the funding agency or organization may require the subject test if it exists in your discipline. Therefore, you may need to think of the subject test beyond the terms of the graduate admissions committee.

How should you prepare for the test? Well, the general test really is an aptitude test. It's given in three sections: verbal, quantitative and analytical. What you do need to prepare for is the format of the test. Most of your upper-level classes probably were graded heavily on design projects and assignments; you may have gotten rusty at taking multiple-choice exams. Several relatively inexpensive test prep books are available, and any of them will give you a feel for the type of questions that will be asked. The books will also cover strategy, such as when you should or should not guess at an answer. And most importantly, they will let you practice taking the tests. When you do so, use a stopwatch. This method should serve you just as well as the heavily advertised courses, which will set you back hundreds of dollars.

Another cheap—in fact, free—resource that you should investigate is your school's counseling center. Most have seminars on everything from test-taking to relaxation techniques. These are especially valuable if you know you don't perform particularly well on standardized tests.

The GRE general test will be offered in its traditional paper-and-pencil format for the last time in April. After that, it will be offered only on computer, while the 14 subject tests will still be available only on paper. The format of the computer-generated and computer-graded exam is different from the old one taken with a good old No. 2 pencil, so test-taking strategies in older test prep materials may not be relevant. You can get all the latest information and even download a demo at www.gre.org.

Katherine T. Faber is professor and chair of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science in Evanston, Ill.

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